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First Sip: Harold Black, Capitol Hill’s Top-Secret Speakeasy
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First Sip: Harold Black, Capitol Hill’s Top-Secret Speakeasy

December 27th, 2012 by Jon Penndorf · 5 Comments · Capitol Hill, DC, Eastern Market

Photo courtesy Instagram user interiordecline

The shelf display inside Capitol Hill’s top-secret speakeasy, Harold Black. Photo courtesy Instagram user interiordecline.

Has Capitol Hill been thrust into the land of the hip?

Not only do we have trendy restaurants opening practically every month on 8th Street, SE and H Street, NE, but the craft cocktail movement –brought to the neighborhood by Erik Holzherr at Wisdom– has gained fans and followers.

Mixology on the Hill used to be relegated to margaritas (discounting the copious beer consumed at longstanding watering holes) but now it has been kicked up a notch with the arrival of one Harold Black.

Who is Harold Black? HB isn’t a person, but a place and an experience.  Yes folks, Capitol Hill is now home to a full-fledged speakeasy.

The owners of HB like the secrecy game that accompanies many a speakeasy these days (and of old of course – Robert Pohl I smell a post in your future).  There is no published website or sign on the door.  There is no door really.  Guests enter through a door from a second floor restaurant across 7th Street from Eastern Market.

With a little effort you can acquire the phone number to which guests text requests for a reservation.  Seating is limited and standing isn’t an option, so if this place is deemed hip by the masses, you’ll be planning your nights at HB in-advance.

The interior is dark, lit with candles and filament light bulbs.  Shelves of books and statuary divide the plush booths that ring two sides of the room.  A bar takes up about a third of the space, with a smattering of stools surrounding the main floor show — cocktail making.  While the books and aged wood interior make the space feel like it has been there for years, the modern lounge and trip-hop music remind you of the time period you actually drink in.

Cocktails are creative and use ingredients this writer doesn’t often see on bar menus. My Bon Chrétien made with pear eau de vie, ginger, and maple was carefully created and delicious (note that these drinks take time to make, so don’t arrive in a rush).  The drink was well-balanced with sweetness and spice, and without an overpowering note of either.  Other creative takes on traditional fare like gin and tonic or champagne cocktails get new twists with unique ingredients.

There is a healthy selection of beer and wine available as well on the menu, though the creativity of the cocktails doesn’t completely extend through these offerings (Singha isn’t that unique these days).  A small food menu rounds out the sheet of offerings.  A tub of mixed nuts comes ringed by butter and spices.  The “chiccarones” were disappointing though –served cold and a bit greasy, and not the crunchy pork treats I was hoping for.

The only other negative comment I had about the experience was the noise that trespasses into the space from the neighboring tasting room and restaurant.  If you find yourself in the cozy corner booth, expect to overhear some conversations from another room –though maybe that’s part of the fun.

Harold Black is open Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m.-1:30 a.m. and Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m.-2:30 a.m. Reservations are required. Located at 212 7th Street, SE.

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  • Rukasu

    While the cocktail list sounds indeed enticing, can DC cool it with the whole ‘speakeasy’ trend? A speakeasy has a specific historical connotation that has no significance in 2013, this is just marketing for the sake of creating artificial demand and exclusivity. I’m fine with making a reservation for a small space long in advance, but the whole clandestine nature of it all is played out.

    • http://twitter.com/JPFreire J.P. Freire

      Rukasu: Speakeasy is actually a perfect name for the experience they’re trying to create: A bar where you don’t have to yell to be heard, but serves quality cocktails you don’t have to push your way through to get. In other words, the premium you’re paying is to make up for the sales volume they forgo in order to make your bar experience pleasant. I’m fine with that. I’m also fine with knowing that when I show up at a bar, I’ll know exactly how loud and obnoxious it’s going to be. So yeah, while it’s no longer steeped in the counter-prohibitionist tradition, there’s certainly a real market demand.

      • http://www.dclikealocal.com Tim Krepp

        Be that as it may, it certainly has no connection with the historical concept of the “speakeasy”. Not arguing with the concept, I hope it fills the market demand you speak of. But speakeasies were generally not quiet, refined places nor were they known for quality cocktails. They were loud, crowded places that you very much had to push your way through to drink whatever rotgut bathroom “gin” the proprietor served. The “speaking easy” came from not telling people you didn’t know or trust about an illegal operation, certainly not from the behavior inside the establishment.

        That said, if McFadden’s can claim to be a “saloon”, no reason this place can’t claim to be a speakeasy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=3701131 Ilana Kaplan

    How do you find the number? I’ve been looking and can’t find it

    • http://twitter.com/TheMadameMeow María Helena Carey

      Psst…. Ilana… interested parties would do well to ring up Acqua al 2 or Suna and inquire further ;)