Jack Caminos, one of the partners at Old Hat Bar, opening May 21 at 112 N. St. Asaph St., in Old Town Alexandria, stumbled upon “The Man With A Fish on His Back”, a cod liver oil company advertisement, in 1994.
Caminos, at first, tried to convince me that Old Hat’s logo, inspired by the image, was used in a WWII Army Special Ops mission, but quickly realized my superb fact-checking skills were no match against this fake news. He loved the image so much, he began screen printing it on T-shirts, bags, anything with a surface. He liked how the gastropub’s logo, a baby chick with a fish tied to its back, “was irreverent, with no real meaning and just a fun memorable image,” reminiscing on how “many of us have left a bar like that” — draped over a friend’s back.
Naming the bar “Old Hat” was accidental and made at the drop of a hat. After 30 years in the hospitality industry, “it feels like old hat,” Caminos said. “No one is reinventing what this industry is…no matter how much you think it changes.”
“It’s only about three things, nothing more — food, drink and people.”
Born on the Lower East Side of New York, Caminos has been “lost in the age of decrepity” since he started tending bar at 15. He came to the D.C. metro area 10 years ago and helped open multiple bars and restaurants in the DMV like Black Jack, Pearl Dive, The Brixton, Thip Khaoa and countless others where he built the reputation “he may or may not have.”
Caminos and his business partner, Tim Prosser, loved the idea of opening their gastropub in Old Town Alexandria because it felt like a community. Even with the difficulties of opening during a pandemic, “there wasn’t one day that I wasn’t happy the minute I got into Old Town.” They loved how Old Town combined architectural and historic beauty with the city feel of D.C.
Old Hat will focus equally on food and drink, not allowing one to dominate the other and they hope to create “a public house that takes food as seriously as the drinks.”
“As we gear up to officially open on May 21st, we’ve had to adapt once again…we’ve reimagined an interim menu that’s workable with a skeleton crew. We’re sticking with our philosophy of carefully sourcing ingredients and celebrating their natural flavors. It’s different from the original plan, but it excites us just the same.”
The dining menu leaves breathing room for evolution, creating a patchwork quilt of all the cultures the partners and their families came from — “food that we grew up with” with some Asian, Midwestern, Spanish, New York and Eastern European influences. The food is cheeky, playing to the subtly and loudness of food that people love to eat while hammered — perogies (dumplings), crab rangoon with “a wonton shell that shatters like glass,” misjudged pub fare like steak frites and a riff on a Scotch egg that is wrapped in a crab cake instead of sausage.
The drink menu is equally as shameless, Caminos noted, saying “we don’t need maximalist, what-is-that-word? ‘Cocktails.’” Instead, expect a spinning twist to some forgotten classics like the palette-cleansing Paper Plane and the Last Word. The bar menu leans to Tiki influences, with Caminos’ love for working with seasonal fruits — creating apple and pineapple brandies, infusing gin with Szechuan pepper and pureeing fresh fruits as opposed to fruit syrups. “It’s a balance between approachable cocktails that allude to the craft movement.”
Beyond fresh herb garnishes, crystal snifters, mood lighting and $15 appetizers, there are the patrons. “People can make food at home,” he said. “What makes any place special is not the food or location, but how you are treated when you go.” Caminos is enamored with the guest service industry and believes it has moved too far away from what the guest experience means, not to be taken in a corporate “Kumbaya” way.
People are spending too much time “defining themselves by the industry when they are missing out on what it is at its core — a service,” he said.
Caminos’ core value in the restaurant business is kindness, and he said he hopes that the events of the past year will force people to step back and see what their purpose is. “That we are serving the community.”
Nurturing an environment that “gives value to the people we pay and the guests who pay us,” is important, he said. It’s a juxtaposition in an industry that has notoriously put an omnipotent institution above the people inside it — guests and workers.
He recalls the characters he grew up around in New York, the parriarches of the community. They owned the same spot for decades, knew everyone’s last name (and not their Instagram handles), because they were rooted within the concrete and breathed the same air.
Caminos brought this fond memory with him in hopes of seeing it sprout.