Through a Bar in a Bookcase, and What I Found There
My adventures to a bar in a library, in a hotel, inside of a story.
I’ve never been a big fan of art museums. People tell me to check out this or that museum to be more cultured, and all I see is a room full of paintings made by a dead guy many decades ago somewhere far away. It’s not that I hate the art, it’s just that it doesn't often connect me to what’s happening today. I like to talk to people when I travel, real people who haunt the local dives and cocktail joints. Their stories are connected to the city; visceral, raw, and unfiltered, tying together what was to what is. I’ve seen more creativity in a cocktail shaker than I’ve seen in paintings and felt more connected to history in a Revolutionary Boston tavern than I have in tourist hotspots. I haven’t met a painting that’s made me feel the same way.
All of that being said, I recently tried to expand my horizons. I decided to revisit some of the Smithsonians that I remember as a child. I’ve lived in DC for a while now but never made it back to a lot of the museums. In 100-degree weather, I forged onward only to be met by ridiculously long lines that kept me outside. Thank you, every middle school in America. Defeated, and in need of AC, it’s no surprise that I found myself in a local cocktail bar.
A few blocks northeast of the White House at the corner of K and 12th sits the Eaton Hotel. It’s a new, progressive establishment that celebrates the city’s diverse and sometimes contentious history. The Eaton tries to tell its patrons a story and, strangely enough, that story is told from behind a bookcase, not from its shelves.
Past the front desk, guests will find a quaint, unassuming reading room. If you are observant enough, you will notice a conspicuous door between the bookshelves leading to a speakeasy-style bar. Dim lights, a “secret” entrance, and more bottles than you can count, but that isn’t what stands out.
Immediately, the murals on the wall catch your eye. Given the propensity for eccentric design in today’s cocktail bars, perhaps a 360° painting of Alice in Wonderland isn’t entirely out of the ordinary. But in a bar called Allegory, you know there’s a deeper meaning.
“The Eaton wanted something different, so they hired local artist Erik Thor-Sandberg to paint the murals.” says Allegory bar manager Deke Dunne. “The mural is called Allegory, it’s Alice in Wonderland/ Through the Looking Glass, but through the eyes of Ruby Bridges.” Ruby Bridges, if that name doesn’t quite ring a bell, was the first African-American child to enter an all-white school in 1960, after the end of segregation.
Thor-Sandberg thought of a young Ruby Bridges, staring down angry crowds, guards on either side and entering a strange place she had never been. It turns out; he thought she must have felt very much like Alice waking up in Wonderland.
This allegory isn’t just the namesake of the bar; it highlights in a surrealist way Allegory’s core philosophy. “We want to help the whole hotel tell a story.” Says Deke. “We want to build a new concept of how you view a bar. Making and serving drinks is wonderful, it’s what we all like to do, but we’re trying to use our position to create this inclusive space. We want to use art and music to advocate and educate people and bring them together in a space that they haven’t seen before.”
By the nature of being a cocktail bar in a hotel in DC, people come from all over the world. While they search for local haunts to drink and enjoy, they bring with them different viewpoints than the locals. Allegory focuses on fostering an environment that encourages an exchange of ideas in an intimate and comfortable setting.
“Everyone has a story, and the more you can listen to it, and meet new people with new ideas, the more you can come together. That’s the beauty of DC.” Says Paully Gonzalez, another one of Allegory's managers. Allegory wants to tell a story and wants you to help write it.
This focus on storytelling is made apparent on the cocktail menu. Where most cocktail bars will offer a long list of specialty drinks with a lot of unrecognizable ingredients, Allegory takes a different approach. Almost a full six pages are dedicated to classic cocktails, some that have been around for well over a century. By contrast, their specialty list contains about five drinks.
Why would a fine cocktail bar focus so much on the classics? “It’s good for everyone of different comfort levels.” Explains Paully. “Maybe you like an Old Fashioned, but we can push you to the second or third tier of an Old Fashioned and introduce you to a new drink you might like without confining you to a defined list.”
This tactic gives comfort to cocktail novices who may only know a few drinks that they like and encourages them to try something new. For the cocktail veteran, this provides a template, ask for a few specific flavors or spirits, and the creative geniuses behind the bar can whip up something unexpected and delicious.
Classic doesn’t mean boring, however. Even a self-professed cocktail aficionado such as myself found over a dozen “classics” I have never seen. It also doesn’t mean a lack of creativity. Watching a bartender at Allegory craft a drink is like watching an artist applying the final details to a masterpiece. The goal is to make an impression and meet you in a place of comfort so that they can nudge you a little outside.
“The big thing we do is try to tell you a unique narrative, but from something, you’re already comfortable with. We will give you a cocktail, and although it sounds like its three ingredients, it’s much more complex than the sum of its parts and creates a memory.”
I still remember how I felt sipping one of their specialty entries called The New Pangea. When I ordered a drink with rum, Amontillado sherry, Lime, and Pandan cream soda, I didn’t expect a mysterious green drink, and I didn’t expect how it would taste.
The first sip transported me back to when I was a child watching fireworks on the Fourth of July, drinking cream soda and sitting on the grass awestruck at the spectacle above. It was strange that a drink could make me feel that way and even stranger that I could recall a specific memory. “I always ask people how they feel after that drink, and it’s always nostalgic.” Says Deke.
The ability to conjure a memory in a drink is powerful. Allegory helps bring the memory to light, but it’s your story and a story that you can share with those at the bar. World travelers and DC locals, people who have nothing in common, can establish common ground and share in a memory.
“Our focus on creative cocktails, advocacy of art and music, and using that to tell one large story is what makes us unique.” Says Deke. “We have a lot of elements not common in cocktail culture, and we embrace that.”
Allegory uses its unique platform for advocacy as it seeks to bring together people from different groups that wouldn’t otherwise associate with one another. It forces people to ask hard questions. Why is Ruby Bridges slaying the Jabberwocky instead of Alice? Is the Jabberwocky a symbol of racial intolerance, or is it just a cool motif? These are conversations Allegory wants to spark in its patrons. Art and music bring people together, and good drinks make them stay and talk.
Allegory juxtaposes what was, and what it is, even if it’s divisive and provides a space where people can share stories and ideas. Today’s world can be just as confusing as Wonderland to Alice or William Frantz Elementary to little Ruby Bridges, but places like Allegory ensure you aren’t alone in the journey.
Art museums and galleries have never been a desired destination for me. I admire the skill and the craft, but I always feel detached from the art in front of me. I think that’s because art venues are a place to visit and leave, the ideas they inspire happen elsewhere.
The bar has always been a place where things happen. Friends are made, revolutions are planned, and people of different backgrounds can come together. What Allegory taught me is that art and the bar can work in tandem to create a forum for change. While we try to navigate the tumultuous political landscape today, why can’t the bar be a gathering place for those ideas to grow?