The Eaton is one of the hippest hotels in the nation’s capital. When the property opened in 2018, it was billed as an “activist hotel,” which means it is a hub for creative sorts who seek a more equitable world. This manifests itself in many ways: in the lobby there is a working radio station broadcasting programs committed to social justice. In the non-gendered bathroom area is wallpaper covered from floor to ceiling with definitions of identities within the LGBTQ+ community. And, thanks to Deke Dunne, equity even extends into the realm of cocktails.
The innovative bar man operates a speakeasy here called Allegory. In the three and half years since it opened, it has set a new standard for D.C. mixology—helping attract international attention to the scene. But as Dunne make’s clear, this success is about much more than what is going on in the glass. In an exclusive interview with Forbes he reveals the recipe for how he and his team are changing the game.
What did you set out to achieve when opening Allegory?
Deke Dunne: “Our mission was simple: to create a bar for the D.C. community and represent them via our staff and cocktails while intersecting with local art, advocacy, and activism. D.C. has been known as ‘Chocolate City’ for decades. As a team, we needed to create a space representing the Black community in Washington. D.C. was predominantly Black until rapid gentrification started over a decade ago.”
How else has the scene changed over the past decade?
DD: “D.C. has seen unprecedented growth in the restaurant and bar scene. Unfortunately, all the fine dining and bar spaces in D.C. cater to the new, primarily white, wealthy guests, ignoring the Black culture and overlooking Chocolate City. We set out to create an elevated cocktail and dining experience that recognized and elevated Black people and culture. We also think it is essential that Black faces are represented in the D.C. fine dining scene.”
What makes Allegory different, specifically?
DD: “Allegory has become the first bar that blends art, literature, social justice, craft cocktails and hospitality to create a unique, warm, and delicious imbibing experience that is inclusive and embracing. Our cocktail menu includes creative takes on classic cocktails using advanced culinary and molecular techniques, like spherification, clarification, and forced carbonation. It was inspired by Erik Thor Sandberg's breathtaking mural, a one-of-a-kind work of art that spans most of the bar's walls. It depicts Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland & Through the Looking Glass in the medium of Magic Realism. Still, the deeper, underlying meaning is that the classic tale is told through the eyes of Ruby Bridges—the first Black child to desegregate the William Frantz Elementary School in Louisiana in 1960. Bridges had to overcome racial bias throughout her life, leading her to become one of the most influential civil rights figures in American history. The mural tells the story of both Alice and Ruby as they go down the rabbit hole into a new, weird, and terrifying world.”
How exactly are the drinks connected to the artwork?
DD: “The goal of Allegory's new menu is to spotlight Erik Thor Sandberg's mural and create a conversation surrounding the issue of systemic racial bias through the story of Ruby Bridges. Each cocktail's name references, in a coded way, aspects of the mural. Guests will read the menu and order drinks, but we encourage them to find the meaning behind their libations' names. This creates a unique 4-D experience; excited by our high-energy playlist, live D.J.s, and inclusive hospitality. With our diverse and highly talented bar team, we are committed to having guests from all backgrounds and walks of life feel welcomed and appreciated.”
Tell us about the team behind the bar.
DD: “I am blessed with the best team a bar director could ever ask for. My new bar team brings creativity and passion to the bar, with each member contributing to our menu. They include Kapri Robinson, an accomplished D.C. bartender and founder of Chocolate City's Best, the world's first and most prominent Black bartender competition, and a contestant on the new hit Netflix series "Drink Masters!"
Princess "P.J." Johnson, formerly of The Hamilton and Urbana, is D.C.'s ultimate bartender's bartender. She is also the first Black woman to become D.C. Bartender's Guild Vice President and was selected to be a CAPS member at Tales of the Cocktail.
Joining Kapri and Princess is Julio Zavala, a veteran of Allegory from its opening day who earned the distinction of being the city's best barback in 2018. He is now emerging as one of the city's best bartenders. His first menu cocktail, the Jabberwocky, is our best seller. He will take all of our jobs one day.
Recently, we added Greg Long to our team. Greg is a Chocolate City native who moved to NYC to work at Dante, where he worked for 1.5 years. While there, Dante would win every possible award imaginable. Greg returned to D.C., back to his roots, to work at Allegory.”
How is the bar integrated into the Eaton—both physically and conceptually?
DD: “Allegory is hidden behind the Radical Library at the Eaton DC, a hotel dedicated to progressive causes. The Radical Library is an homage to the D.C. music scene. It provides a free library for the D.C. community so everyone can access literature on every subject, from food justice to activism to fiction! Eaton is blazing the path for progressive, socially conscious hotels. They currently have a hotel in both Hong Kong and Washington, DC. I have never worked in a space where the team and the bar inspire me in such an authentic way. The space is so much more than a cocktail bar. Our work there is more significant than just putting booze in a cup; we always remember the bar experience. If someone is looking for a good cocktail experience or just a place to hang their hat, we can provide that for them, but if they are looking to dig a bit deeper, Allegory can genuinely inspire. It's a magical space."
What accomplishments are you particularly proud of thus far at Allegory?
DD: “Allegory has been shaping the conversation surrounding cocktail bars and their role in the D.C. community since our opening in August 2018. And now we’re starting to attract attention from further afield. We just had the good fortune of being recognized by both Tales of the Cocktail and 50 Best Bars Discovery list as one of the top bars in the country.”