Travel to any major American city and ask your hotel concierge to recommend a craft cocktail bar, and chances are you’ll wind up at a candlelit speakeasy with a hidden entrance.
David Strauss wanted to turn that stereotype on its head. “It’s a fun trend, but it’s everywhere now, and once you’ve figured out the secret, you’re left with just the drinks.” His latest concept, the 64-seat Morris American Bar inside the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., is an antithesis of the subterranean speakeasy. Brightly lit with a monochromatic baby-blue color scheme that extends from walls and bar stools to tile flooring and wicker furniture, the place exudes a cheery, whimsical vibe. (The design was inspired in part by Wes Anderson’s film “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”) Besides, Strauss has already “been there, done that” with The Sheppard in Dupont Circle, a lounge reminiscent of a bordello, with pressed-tin ceilings and barkeeps attired in vests and bow ties.
But the clean, minimalist lines and feminine sensibility at Morris is not merely a dichotomy to The Sheppard’s more masculine focus. It also speaks to Strauss’ philosophy behind the bar. The 10-drink menu changes monthly, with all cocktails clocking in at $12. A recent list was peppered with classics like the Automobile and Scofflaw, as well as original creations like the Walt Whitman, made with bison grass vodka, vermouth, Bénédictine and orange bitters, and the Corleone, which shakes rum, lime, grapefruit and Campari.
Strauss believes the proper temperature and dilution of a cocktail are more important than making sure a drink is socially mediagenic, which is why Morris’ ice program is so intense. Rocks and cracked ice are hand-cut from crystal-clear blocks that are produced for sculptures, while Collins ice is molded in-house. It’s all stored in the freezer until the moment it’s needed, meaning it’s drier, colder and denser than ice left in an open bin. “The end result is a drink that’s as cold as possible with the appropriate ABV, and free from contamination of ice that has metals, odors or taste,” says Strauss.
He wants guests at the bar to view the evening as a choose-your-own-adventure experience, whether it’s a group that arrives dressed up for dinner or the theater, friends unwinding after a long day at work, or a canoodling-seeking couple who want to be interrupted as little as possible. No matter, staff is amenable. “If a guest wants to sit at the bar and geek out with the bar staff, we are more than happy to engage,” he says. “My personal goal is to offer a more formal cocktail free of pretense, but I won’t tell people how they should spend their time.”
Strauss boasts quite the pedigree. Most recently, he served as beverage manager for Stephen Starr’s French bistro Le Diplomate. Before that, he was behind the stick at the first location of Founding Farmers and served as head bartender at José Andrés’ minibar/barmini, where he gleaned how to incorporate molecular culinary techniques into drinks. Each one has been a learning experience, he says, teaching him everything from how to handle large volume to honing his personality.
But it was Strauss’ first stint in Philadelphia at The Ranstead Room where he was trained by the late Sasha Petraske that most profoundly influenced him. Strauss came to the humbling realization at that time that his own decade of experience lacked any formal training. He came to understand that the drinks, techniques, ingredients and trends that he thought were new and original in the current cocktail renaissance were all recycled from the turn of the 20th century.
“[Sasha] taught me about ingredients and balance, ice, how to make everything needed from scratch, efficiency and how to manage tasks in a bar space in the most productive way possible,” says Strauss. “Most of all, he taught me that you can never turn back time in service and every opportunity at work is your chance to do your personal best.”
His latest project is Fix Bar, Morris’ outdoor patio named for the 19th-century drink that’s basically a boozy snow cone. The casual standing-room space doles out crushed ice and Tiki cocktails to counter D.C.’s oppressive summer heat. Eventually, Strauss would like to open a proper jazz club and an outdoor garden with frozen drinks made from scratch.
Some bartenders say they don’t pay attention to trends. Not Strauss, who’s always curious about, and inspired by, those in the industry he views as game changers. But it’s not because he wants to incorporate their ideas or find “the next big thing.” “Mostly, I watch what others are doing and try to do the opposite,” he says.