Theater setting presents new challenge for 20-year beverage specialist

Adam Bernbach working with TheatreSquared's The Commons on future plans
Adam Bernbach (left) works alongside The Commons’ cafe manager Sarah Snyder (Lara Jo Hightower)

Beverage specialist/consultant/educator Adam Bernbach was just a teenager with a summer job when he realized the hospitality industry had burrowed deep into his heart. Only a few years later — and before the age of 21! — he discovered a fascination and facility for working with wine and spirits. He spent 25 years in Washington, D.C., becoming the toast of the mixologist scene and a staple of nearly every Washington Post “Best of” list, as well as national and industry publications. But now he’s ours, Northwest Arkansas: Bernbach and his wife moved to Fayetteville last year to raise their toddler son. Luckily for us, Bernbach brought his passion and skills with him; he currently teaches at Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food and acts as a consultant for both local and national companies. The Commons Bar/Cafe, located on the ground floor of TheatreSquared, is one of the establishments with whom he’s sharing his 20-plus years of experience as a bar director and general manager of some of D.C.’s hottest nightlife destinations. The innovative concept of a cafe/bar within a theater space is a new challenge for him.

“I enjoy this environment—sitting here, having a cup of coffee or a glass of wine or a delicious breakfast sandwich,” he said over a lunch interview at The Commons. He is, indeed, eating a breakfast sandwich with goat cheese, which is, despite it being 1 p.m., the first food he’s had all day. It’s obvious the move from D.C. hasn’t slowed him down.

“It’s just such a cool space,” he said. “It feels great. It gets such good light. The design of it gives you warmth and invigoration. So providing an experience that rises to [those qualities] is our task.”

Theater, food and drink have always gone together, said Martin Miller, executive director of T2.

“There’s a reason Dionysus was the god of all three. It’s such a pleasure to work with Adam. Along with his deep bench—backbar?—of experience, he’s taken inspiration from the talented Commons team. Together, they’re creating something really special.”

Maybe it’s not such a mystery as to why Bernbach was able to nail down his career destiny so early in life. As a pre-teen, his family settled in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, a village in the premier American tourist destination Cape Cod, where they already had deep roots. Summer jobs for teens were plentiful, and many were in the hospitality industry.

“You would just meet so many people, from all over the world,” he remembers. “That was really exciting.”

Growing up in Cape Cod sounds pretty dreamy, the way Bernbach describes it. He had both a bookstore and the home of noted author/artist Edward Gorey in his neighborhood. The close-knit community were such regulars at the town’s main restaurant, Jack’s Outback, that folks had their own labeled mug hanging on a pegboard at the front of the dining room. Due to the gorgeous scenery and proximity to the ocean, the population explodes during the spring and summer, making for an exciting environment four or five months out of the year — pre-COVID, the best estimate of tourist visits was somewhere in the neighborhood of 27 million.

Adam Bernbach (Lara Jo Hightower)

“There’s a bit of relief when it’s over, especially because there’s a month of real, remarkable beauty between Labor Day and when that switch to the grey and overcast hits,” Bernbach said. ‘A lot of cool personality aspects of Cape Cod come out during that kind of [low tourist] period. It’s a stunningly beautiful place.”

Bernbach describes schooling that was exceptional, as well. The village of Woods Hole — a national science hub that boasts an eye-popping number of respected science institutions, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — was nearby, and his school’s science department benefited as a result. He had extensive exposure to the arts, as well, starting at home: his mother was a successful painter, and Bernbach inherited her artistic talent.

“She would bring us to museums a lot, to galleries a lot, there were art books always around,” he said. “That was a big thing. I was aware of a lot of art and got into a lot of art as a young child.”

In fact, art was alluring to Bernbach as a possible career path, and one he considered carefully. As a young adult, he found himself working simultaneously as a video artist and in the hospitality industry, and made the same money doing both jobs. The path was diverging, and he had to make a choice, had to commit all of his time to one passion, and the hospitality industry won out. It wasn’t just a job to Bernbach — it was a state of being.

“My parents went to the same restaurant every Friday night,” he said of his early inspiration. “After I would get home from school and do all the other activities I needed to do, I would meet them there. They would always sit at the bar — not drinkers, by the way. It was an extremely busy restaurant and an extremely busy bar, and [it had] the same bartenders every Friday, who knew everybody. The bartenders were constantly moving, they would make drinks, serve food, but they were also talking to people. They knew what was going on in your life, and you knew what was going on in their lives. They could balance everything with everyone. Just the energy that was in that room, the energy displayed — they were the coolest people you’ve ever seen. And they were genuinely good people. They cared about what they were doing, and they cared about who they were doing it for.

“There is a very transformative quality to this industry that’s not unlike theater,” he said. “When it’s done right, when it’s done successfully, like at [TheatreSquared], it is remarkable. It’s truly transformative.”

One of Bernbach’s hand-drawn menus from 2 Birds 1 Stone (Courtesy)

When Bernbach was 16, his life took a major shift: He moved to Washington, D.C. to finish high school, and he took a job at a coffee roasting company that was near his school. Hired to be a barista, he became instantly fascinated with the roasting process and immersed himself in learning as much as possible about it. Employees from a liquor store across the street that specialized in wine were frequent customers, and they noticed him “cupping”, or smelling and tasting the roasted beans, and started bringing in wine for him to taste.

“I was like, 17, 18, 19 years old,” he says with a laugh. “So I really got into wine, and then I could start talking about it to bar managers. And they would say, ‘Oh, try single malt scotches.’ So I got into spirits and wines.”

By gaining expertise in this corner of the hospitality world at such a young age, Bernbach found himself ahead of the curve in more than one way. The early-aughts would mark the beginnings of a cocktail revival; spirits, says Bernbach, had been in a moribund period but were revving back up to be exciting and revolutionary in the industry once more.

“If you wanted to be a beverage professional in restaurants in the United States, you had to be a sommelier,” he explained. “But there were a handful of us who were really into spirits and cocktails. There were around 10 of us in D.C., and I can actually point to the number 10, because we started a nonprofit guild to promote our interests.”

At this point in his career, Bernbach had started garnering notice as a mixologist, but it was when he took a position as general manager at Bar Pilar that the press started calling. While there, Bernbach started something called “Tuesday Cocktail Sessions”, during which he challenged himself to create five new drinks every week. He then publicized those drinks on hand-drawn menus that he created himself. His cocktails (and the menus) started getting media write-ups, and his recipes were included in recipe compilations. The work was complex, and it’s only when Bernbach describes, in his own words, the particular alchemy that goes into creating a new drink that you get a glimmer of the inspiration, culinary talent, and creativity required.

“I wanted ‘Our Lady of the Harbor’ to be like a linen suit,” he writes on his website about one of his creations. “For whatever reason, I’ve always been really into the idea of a linen suit (like since I was a teenager; I think it was inspired by a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel). The linen suit is business-like (I mean, it’s a suit) but relaxed at the same time. I thought the drink version of that would be to have dark bar qualities and tiki bar qualities simultaneously. I figured whiskey but also pineapple seemed like the most obvious place to start. Whiskey being the stereotypical serious spirit and there’s not much more fun than pineapple. Pineapple seems like every kid’s favorite fruit, but its pins-and-needles, riesling-esque acid is a good backbone for a drink that’s gonna have a lot going on in it. Chartreuse is the pinnacle of the a-lot-going-on-but-not-muddied-flavor and it goes historically well with pineapple (chartreuse swizzle, swamp water). Lime to up the acid and Angostura to pull it all together— it became one of 2 Birds’ most popular drinks, especially, of course, in D.C.’s hotter months.”

One of Bernbach’s hand-drawn menus from 2 Birds 1 Stone (Courtesy)

“2 Birds” refers to 2 Birds 1 Stone, the bar Bernbach created in 2013 in a space beneath the restaurant Doi Moi. It was his first chance to put his personal imprimatur on a place, to help create it from the ground up. Judging by its enormous success, his choices were solid. Though underground, the space was bright, with exposed brick walls and mismatched vintage barware scavenged from flea markets and antique stores—a “Cape Cod vibe, informal and welcoming,” as he described it in an interview at the time. Unmarked doors and old-school rap completed the image of a fun hangout that all the cool kids knew about. Bernbach brought with him what were now his trademarks: a frequently rotating bar menu and quirky, hand-drawn menus. The space routinely showed up in Washington Post reporter Fritz Hahn’s columns and lists about D.C.’s best nightlife, ascending to #2 on his “Best of” list in 2018, the year it closed. In March of this year, in fact, Hahn tweeted, “I maintain that the [Bernbach-created cocktail the] Darkside is the best D.C.-born cocktail of the modern era,” demonstrating Bernbach’s lasting impact on the D.C. cocktail scene.

By this time, Bernbach had gotten married, and his priorities were slowly shifting. The pandemic decimated the hospitality industry and left him with a lot of time on his hands to consider the future — a future that now included a baby boy, born in October 2020. Like so many of us, Bernbach came to the realization that he wanted to do things differently going forward. His wife could work remotely, and Bernbach could run his consulting business, Coconut Pineapple and Rum, from anywhere. The couple decided to relocate to Fayetteville; his wife had grown up in Northwest Arkansas and had gone to college at the University of Arkansas, and a family support system already existed. The decision seemed like the right one when Bernbach landed a teaching job at Brightwater, as well as consultancy jobs locally and in farther flung locales with whom he conducted business via Zoom.

T2’s executive director Martin Miller said Bernbach was a natural choice when the organization started looking for ways to shake things up at The Commons.

“We want the food and drink that patrons enjoy in the Commons to match the quality of what they see in the theater,” said Miller. “Adam’s inventive creations — from his twists on classic cocktails already on offer at the Commons to the signature drinks that won him acclaim in the Post, Times, and other national outlets—fits the bill. But the real bonus is that he’s just a great guy to work with. Our whole team is feeling energized because of it.”

Bernbach says he was intrigued at once by the prospect of working with The Commons, which he calls an “obviously unique space.”

“For me, there’s an immediate hook,” he said. “I’m very excited about creativity in every form. It’s amazing to be able to work with a group of people putting on stage productions and the wide variety of creativity that’s required to do that.”

Bernbach is busy working with The Commons staff to devise exciting future plans that will soon be rolling out at TheatreSquared.

“There are so many great aspects of this space that can be utilized in so many different ways that speak to the experience in the theater, but aren’t necessarily in the theater,” he noted.

He’s busy creating new concoctions, as well — non-alcoholic beverages and clever twists on old, favorite cocktails. By immersing his life in the bars with whom he’s consulting, he’s holding on to a little bit of his old D.C. life. One thing that he’s left behind is bartending, and there are aspects of that, he says, that he misses dearly.

“The conversations that you would go into, the people that you would talk to, the jobs that they had—all of that was so interesting,” he said. “Everyone has really cool, unique experiences, and it becomes more difficult to not have this sort of built-in way to access those. There’s that cliché about the bartender being your therapist, and maybe that’s true in some respects. But for me, being in that space, those conversations would be like magazine stories, and sometimes novels, where you would get a glimpse of something that was really cool and different.

“But—” he says, then pauses to think before continuing, “The truth is, just talking to my neighbor can be fascinating. Everyone has stories — it’s just a little harder without that space.”

Lara Jo Hightower is a contributor to the Fayetteville Flyer. She is a veteran features and profiles writer, and a marketing associate for TheatreSquared.