The casual downstairs bar will be complemented with a transformed upstairs cocktail lounge when it opens sometime next month. Shannon Whitney, the bar’s general manager, said the refurbished Sign of the Whale will serve a tapas menu of Japanese and Southern-comfort cuisine to pivot from its former reputation as a sports bar.
“We’re doing our best to preserve it but also reinvent it,” she said. “They wanted to bring it back as an updated, grown-up Sign of the Whale.”
Customers will not need to worry about sticky floors from spilled beer and an outdated design, Whitney said. The new owners, who also own the local bar and lounge Nero in Dupont Circle, have attempted to modernize the 200-year-old building by exposing its brick walls and preserving some old relics, like a glass panel etched with the bar’s logo from the bar’s first rendition, Whitney said.
She added that many people told Sign of the Whale’s new management to change the bar’s name because it carries a “bad connotation” of the old, outdated sports bar it once was. But Whitney said she and the owners wanted to keep the name because Sign of the Whale is a D.C. staple familiar to residents and students.
The bar was briefly renamed “D.C. Tap House” in 2017 after it shut down for renovations.
“It’s an iconic brand, it has a big following,” she said. “If you’ve seen some of the articles people are like ‘why can’t you just die?’ but to be fair you can’t kill the whale.”
Whitney said the upstairs was gutted and completely remodeled with a new bar. She said upstairs, customers can expect a similar vibe to Sign of the Whale’s sister lounge, Nero, with a sophisticated and relaxed atmosphere.
Downstairs, Whitney said the decor will stay similar to the old Sign of the Whale, but the back dining room has been polished, all the chairs have been replaced and the bar’s signature bench has been reupholstered. Whitney said they also added antique lights from an old ship to keep with the theme.
Whitney said the menu is still being developed, but customers can expect a mixture of both southern comfort food and Japanese dishes like sushi, miso soup and fried okra. She said the owners want to keep the prices reasonable and charge all tapas for $9 or less.
Whitney added that the food menu will be paired with an expansive bar selection, including a large collection of sake and other Japanese spirits.
“The cocktails themselves are modeled around the food as well, so they’re Japanese-inspired cocktails,” Whitney said. “We’re going to be taking old 80’s or old Sign of the Whale cocktails, kind of revamping them, putting a new spin on them.”
In order to compete with the nearby restaurants that serve sake, Whitney said the lounge is hoping to fill the bar with Japanese sake and whiskey experts who can lead tastings, answer any questions and make recommendations once the restaurant opens.
Whitney said she also wants to honor the history of Sign of the Whale by featuring past favorites from the old drink menu which will be randomly selected and posted on social media a day prior to their limited release.
“We want to go through the years of Sign of the Whale and every so often throw out one of the old dishes, one of the old cocktails, something to give a little bit of nostalgia back,” she said.
Whitney said she anticipates hosting many college nights and a happy hour menu featuring cocktails and food to ensure Sign of the Whale stays inclusive to its original customers: college students.
“GW, American University, all of you guys were one of the main reasons Sign of the Whale existed and why it was so fun,” Whitney said. “So I want to make sure that you guys have your night.”