Inside Look: Dauphine's, Washington DC - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

Bar proprietor Neal Bodenheimer has always called New Orleans home. It’s where he was born and raised, and where his roots strengthened when he opened cocktail bars like Cure, Cane & Table, Peychaud’s, and Vals, an agave bar that debuted last summer. Most recently, he partnered with the East Coast group Long Shot Hospitality to share his hometown’s cocktail culture and cuisine with a new market: Washington, D.C. “I feel a lot of pride about our food and drink culture, and that’s how Dauphine’s started,” he says. “I feel really fortunate to get to see what people embrace there and what they don’t embrace, to see what will translate and the things that might not. It’s been a fun process.”

Located in D.C.’s city center in a new development called Midtown Center (in the building that previously housed The Washington Post), Dauphine’s channels the spirit of what makes New Orleans’ finest bars and restaurants special in a way that feels impactful and subtle at the same time. It’s not a “New Orleans-themed bar,” but rather a melding of Mid-Atlantic and French Quarter sentiments that channels the essence of the most storied bars in both cities, without kitschy fanfare.

Bodenheimer says that in addition to overseeing the beverage development, he also helped ensure the program hit the right marks aesthetically. “Sometimes you go into the oldest places in New Orleans and they feel like a period piece, and we just didn’t think that would work here,” he says. “We didn’t want it to be buttoned up with tuxedos and bowties, and other accoutrements of the really old, traditional spots. It had to feel like a modern and relevant restaurant.”

Designed by Grizform Design Architects, one of the most notable features of the space is how the large 145-seat restaurant sits sunken into the center of the room in a way that highlights the raw bar and wooden charcuterie case. The magnificent backbar feels warm and inviting with its mix of cool marble, rich wood, and soft greenery, and the sprawling 4,000-square-foot outdoor space is anchored by an impressive NOLA-inspired tile fountain. Bodenheimer says the designers made multiple trips to New Orleans to pick out architectural elements for the space, bringing in antiques, walnut millwork, and wrought iron to help make it feel welcoming and lived in. “I think New Orleans has this decayed elegance, and what the designers did really well was distill the elegant parts of what makes New Orleans magical without so much decay, if that makes sense,” Bodenheimer says.

 “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re looking to history to guide us, but looking for the spirit of the history and not the letter of history.”

For the cocktail program, Bodenheimer aimed for the same balance of old and new. He began by looking through Stanley Clisby Arthur’s quintessential guide, Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Mix ‘Em, to identify classic recipes like the Hurricane, Planter’s Punch, and Sazerac. From there, he says he applied small technique adjustments and twists on recipes to make many of the otherwise classic drinks speak specifically to this time and place. The Dauphine’s Martini, for example, has a spray of absinthe, navy-strength gin, and an ample measure of vermouth to make it a New Orleans-style wet martini. And in the Absinthe Rickey, a combination of influences merge as it pairs NOLA’s favorite spirit with DC’s beloved Rickey framework. “We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re looking to history to guide us, but looking for the spirit of the history and not the letter of history,” he says.

Also featured is the Saint Charles Punch, which was first published in 1862. “It’s a mother cocktail, one of those that is so simple it can be done a thousand different ways,” Bodenheimer says. “We’re talking about brandy, port, a little lemon, ice, and sugar. There are a lot of different ways to approach that. It’s one we play with the format and how we approach it, without altering the DNA.” In Dauphine’s version of the drink, a citrus oleo syrup and Angostura bitters are added to amplify the citrus and spice notes.

Bodenheimer notes that there is one cocktail guests might notice is glaringly absent from the menu at the moment: the Vieux Carré. “We’re going to do it as a reserve cocktail and source some good vintage spirits for it,” he says, in the same way they decided to approach the Ramos Gin Fizz, a delicious but notoriously labor-intensive drink that can slow down bartenders during service. “The philosophy behind the expensive Ramos is that we know in a New Orleans place people will order it and we couldn’t let our operations get sunk because of people ordering so many gin fizzes, so we thought, what would happen if we source the best ingredients you can find? We use really nice expensive gin, farm cream, farm eggs. It’s a traditional recipe but we found different ingredients to make sure it would serve the purpose we needed it to serve at the bar.”

Since opening earlier this year, the Dauphine’s has received a warm reception. “It’s been amazing,” says Bodenheimer. “We’re getting better guest feedback than I could have anticipated. I’m very grateful because we don’t want to hit people over the head with how we’re a New Orleans restaurant. We want to be a great restaurant that just happens to be a New Orleans–inspired restaurant.”

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