Young and Hungry

Bar Sprawl

Todd Thrasher pulls a lighter out of his pocket and holdsthe flame to a slice of grapefruit rind. There’s a tiny poof of black smoke as he rubs aromatic oils around the rim of a glass, using the rind to stir the orange drink with Aperol, gin, Macchu Pisco, and five drops of salt water.

The $13 cocktail, called “Love Makes You Feel Ten Feet Tall,” is one of 15 creations at Thrasher’s new 20-seat bar TNT. The cocktail menu, with its array of housemade bitters, tonics, and syrups, looks like something out of a Manhattan speakeasy. More than half the drinks came from Thrasher’s bartending pals in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

But this bar is situated inside the second location of Eamonn’s, a family-friendly, Dublin-style “chipper” joint, on Arlington’s Columbia Pike. Less than 15 feet away, a baby in a high chair sucks on a pacifier while her mom sips a cocktail. Across the packed dining room, two kids drink from sippy cups and color with crayons supplied by the restaurant.

The coexistence of these two seemingly mismatched concepts in the same room in the suburbs demonstrates how mainstream once-niche cocktail culture has become. Perhaps it’s only appropriate that the man behind the bar helped pioneer the local cocktail scene at Alexandria speakeasy PX. Thrasher, his wife Maria Chicas, chef Cathal Armstrong, and Armstrong’s wife Meshelle also own some of Alexandria’s best-regarded restaurants: Restaurant Eve, The Majestic, Society Fair, and Virtue Feed & Grain.

When PX opened in 2006, nothing like it existed in the region—it was all about cocktails, not food. Only later did cocktail bars like The Passenger and The Gibson pop up. Now, mixologists tout “artisan” drinks all over town.

While PX is quiet and refined, TNT is amped up. PX has a dress code, but at TNT, patrons can come in jeans and T-shirts. (The family vibe makes sense: TNT is named after Thrasher’s 19-month-old son, Trystan Noah Thrasher.)

Last Friday, I meet Thrasher at TNT around noon as he prepares for its grand opening. He pulls a pot of brown liquid from the stove. “Pine cone syrup,” he says. The cones came from his yard. He was mowing the lawn one day and thought it was a waste to throw them out. He uses the syrup in a bourbon-based drink called “Metal Surrenders When Oak Trees Meet Fenders.”

In the bar’s first four days, Thrasher went through four bottles of the cocktail’s Smooth Ambler Old Scout Bourbon. “If you’re going to open a cocktail bar, you have good cocktails, and people will come, even if you’re in the suburbs or downtown D.C. Trust me—they’re coming here.”

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Thrasher got into bartending at age 20, while a student at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Six months into Thrasher’s job as a bar back, the bartender stopped showing up. Armed with a Mr. Boston bar guide, Thrasher took his place.

But it wasn’t until 1996, when Thrasher went to work for José Andrés at Café Atlántico, that the cocktails became something of an art. Seeing someone his age (Thrasher is now 42, Andrés 43) become so successful inspired Thrasher. “If he can do it, why can’t I?” Thrasher recalls thinking. In six years with Think Food Group, he experimented with ingredient-driven Caribbean cocktails and put together Café Atlántico’s wine list.

In early 2003, he went to work at Signatures, disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s ill-fated Penn Quarter spot, where Thrasher says he learned how not to run a business. At the same time, plans to open a restaurant with a chef friend fell through. “I grew my hair really long, because I was completely and unequivocally fed up with the restaurant business,” Thrasher says. He’s been a certified scuba diver since age 12, so he and his wife decided to sell their condo in Falls Church and move to the Caribbean island of Bonaire.

After Thrasher returned from a two-week scuba training class, a friend called to say Cathal Armstrong was looking for someone to help open Restaurant Eve. Thrasher agreed to assemble the wine list before moving.

Six weeks later, Thrasher was helping train staff when Meshelle introduced him as the general manager and partner. “I’m like, ‘What is this? No, we’re leaving.’ And then we never left,” says Thrasher, who became a 50/50 partner in the restaurant group two years later when Eamonn’s and PX opened.

Shortly after Restaurant Eve opened, Armstrong remembers, Thrasher was making a strawberry cocktail with fruit from the grocery store. Armstrong asked why he didn’t use the restaurant’s strawberries from the farmers market. “What’s quite common in the restaurant business is beverage is a second-class citizen below food,” Armstrong says. He wanted Thrasher to understand that was not the case. “A cocktail is as important to the experience as the appetizer, the entree, or the dessert.”

At Restaurant Eve, people noticed the cocktails. When the space for the original Eamonn’s in Old Town Alexandria became available, they had to figure out what to do with the oddly shaped upstairs space. “It became a natural progression to give him somewhere to show off what he does other than a cocktail before dinner,” Armstrong says. PX was born.

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Most days, Thrasher visits all the restaurants in the  group. From TNT, we head in his black Audi to Society Fair, where Thrasher is in search of a case of ginger beer.

Next, we walk to PX, joined by sommelier John Wabeck. One of Thrasher’s bartenders has created a new cocktail, which Thrasher wants to taste. He scribbles the recipe down: tequila, maple syrup, agave bitters, sours, fresno chili soda. Wabeck suggests a name: “Thousands of Degrees Hot and Not a Drop of Water.” Thrasher loves long cocktail names. (Sometimes, they’re entire sentences.)

Then we’re back in the Audi, heading to Restaurant Eve, where guests greet Thrasher by name. We go to the offices upstairs. By his desk is a dry-erase board where Thrasher scribbles cocktail ideas. We’re there less than 20 minutes before it’s off to Virtue Feed & Grain, where he gives Maria a kiss in her kitchen office. He describes her job in the group as the “fire extinguisher,” dealing with any crises that come up.

Two hours before the 5 p.m. opening, we return to TNT. “I like being able to go everywhere every day and see people and talk to them,” Thrasher says. The group has purposely kept the restaurants close together for that reason. The Eamonn’s/TNT combo is the farthest out, but Thrasher says he thinks of Columbia Pike as a relatively urban area. A lot of young families live nearby, and there’s a decent amount of foot traffic. “Younger people that started out six or seven years ago going to cocktail bars in New York or D.C., maybe they’re having kids now, maybe they live in the suburbs, and they don’t want to get in the car and drive back down to those bars downtown.” At the same time, he’s not so sure he’d bet on a cocktail bar in more distant suburbs like Gaithersburg or Manassas.

Either way, Thrasher doesn’t expect the group to keep expanding at such a rapid pace. If they do anything more, it will likely be another Eamonn’s and TNT. “It’s definitely going to slow down,” Thrasher says. “Unless someone offers me a cocktail bar in Bora Bora on a dock.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery

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