5 Rules for Designing a Functional, Handsome Home Bar

The guy behind DC’s best new watering hole wants to help you drink like Don Draper

home bar
The Eastern is Barrel owner Matt Weiss's new wine bar
Michelle Bove
By Austa Somvichian-Clausen / September 10, 2019 9:34 am

What’s the first thing guests look for upon entering a room in which they’ll be drinking and mingling all night long? If you guessed the charcuterie plate, you’re wrong.

Every gentleman needs a great home bar setup not only for his personal enjoyment, but also to be ready to entertain and impress at the drop of a hat. That’s why we consulted Matt Weiss, the owner of DC mainstay Barrel (with its 300-plus whiskey selection) as well as a new spot called The Eastern, which he just added to his ever-expanding roster with the help of partner Mike Schuster.

Named after its home neighborhood of Eastern Market, The Eastern is an unpretentious wine bar that makes ordering a glass of vino ridiculously approachable. Their wine list includes 40 options that are all available by the bottle or by the glass, arranged in straightforward categories that include both “If you like Sauvignon Blanc” and “If you like Adventure.” 

Defining elements of the space include hunter green walls, brass fixtures, and a long shelf full of wine bottles that line the perimeter of the space. The back bar glows copper, playing host to 30 bottles of whiskey and counting. Those not inclined to order wine will be happy to know that classic cocktails like martinis and old-fashioneds are on the menu too, adding to Weiss and Schuster’s Mad Men-esque vision for the bar, as well as pours of anything from Angel’s Envy to Pappy Van Winkle and a cheeky “Champagne Service” that’s actually a 750-milliliter bottle of Miller High Life. 

When it came to design, Weiss and Schuster wanted The Eastern to evoke the midcentury modern vibes that Don Draper himself would feel at home drinking in, and worked with architect and designer Michelle Buve from Design Case to make that vision a reality. “Once we decided we were going to do a wine bar we took a look at the space, with its high ceilings and its floor to ceiling windows, and realized most of the bars and restaurants that we have are a little more dimly lit and dark, which we knew wouldn’t work here,” Weiss tells InsideHook. “We wanted it to be bright and modern to fit the space and wine bar concept. I really don’t like places that feel super cold, white, or sterile. I like a place to feel warm and inviting, and am personally a huge fan of mid-century architecture and design. So we settled on bringing Mad Men design into the modern world.”

Whether you seek having Don Draper’s swagger in your own space or you’re more of an art deco guy, here are Weiss’s tips on how to get your own home bar or entertaining space ready for any guest.

home bar
(Michelle Bove)

On where to start…

“Besides collaborating on the design elements of my bars and restaurants, I do a lot of my own home projects too. My first step is always to surf through pictures. I’ll look at a shit ton of images and keep a folder going of anywhere from 20-50 images that I like — anything from the smallest elements like fixtures, to how big things like how a whole bar looks when it comes together. Then I’ll print all of the pictures out and see how all of those elements can be put together to suit my own style and personal space.”

How to keep your bar from looking drab (or crazy)…

“Try to mix materials — if your space has a lot of one kind of wood, try to bring in a contrasting material like gold or brass to modernize it. The wood grain is very important too, and here [at the Eastern] we try not to bring in too many elements. Start with one thing that you really love. Let’s say you’re designing your den and you already have a favorite couch, or a bar cart. Start with those elements and save the splashes of color for later. Don’t go crazy with a bunch of colors first, just start with neutrals and then build more color in later.”

home bar
(Michelle Bove)

On finding the perfect paint color…

“Paint color is everything. It can make a big difference in making a room look larger or brighter, if you’ve got a smaller room don’t paint it super dark. I love grey on walls because you can go from a super light grey to dark charcoal and still get something neutral on the wall without it just being white or black. I personally use a light grey color called Paperwhite [by Benjamin Moore]. If you go with a neutral color on the walls, you can get more creative with colors of your furniture. It’s all about balance.”

On setting up a legit home bar…

“If you want to have a good home bar, like a real manly bar, you need the essentials. Definitely whiskey, bourbon, a good sipping scotch — some solid stuff you can pour directly into a glass is always nice. I have over 40 bourbons at my home bar, but for a versatile, affordable bourbon I’d recommend something like Old Forester because it makes a great cocktail but you can also drink it straight. My choice for vodka is Ketel One and my favorite gin is Hendricks

Also, I always tell people who ask me: if you want to be able to easily make cocktails or entertain guests you should have simple syrup, angostura bitters and orange bitters, vermouth or amaro, and maybe Aperol. Those are great to always have on hand and you can make tons of different drinks using those ingredients, anything from a light and refreshing cocktail to a really bourbon-y winter cocktail. I also recommend an ice mold for large square ice, which is nice for adding to anything in a double old-fashioned glass. Your drink feels really chunky and classic in the hand with a large rock and is a nice and easy presentation. Oh also, make sure you keep your vermouth and amaro in the fridge, or they’ll go bad.”

home bar
(Michelle Bove)

On being the host with the most…

“When guests first arrive, put out a bottle of white white or rosé and a bottle of red to get everybody started off right while you’re preparing food. I usually batch cocktails before people come over too, something simple like a margarita. When I set up a self-serve bar for hosting, I have that wine, some beer out, and a big display of ice, glassware and the pre-batched cocktail. Another option is to put out a few options of spirits like vodka and gin or whatever you have on hand, some mixers, a selection of fruit and an ice bucket. Later on in the night when everyone is sufficiently buzzed and some people have left is when we’ll pull out the good stuff and I’ll start making Manhattans.”