EATER DC

Inside Casta’s Rum Bar, West End’s Winding Portal To Cuba

 

by Tierney Plumb  Aug 2, 

All photos by Rey Lopez/Eater DC

Casta’s takes note of Cuban street art, depicting Havana’s domed equivalent of the U.S. Capitol. 

 Rey Lopez/Eater DC

When patrons first enter Casta’s, West End’s new zigzag-shaped snapshot of Cuban culture and cuisine, they’ll be left wondering what’s in store.

A long brick walkway guides guests past a Cuban flag-framed door, where they’re led into a dimly-lit cave. There a vintage metal safe doubles as the hostess stand, surrounded by chipped and textured nude walls that emulate the worn-in bars that have deteriorated over time in Cuba.

The curious plant-filled getaway tucked off of New Hampshire Avenue NW is scheduled to serve its first muddled mojitos and Cubano sandwiches to the public on Friday, August 2, at 4 p.m. (1121 New Hampshire Avenue NW).

A subsequent labyrinth of sharp twists and turns unlocks a lively scene straight out of Havana, complete with two bars, murals of Cuban quotes, monuments, and icons, twinkling lights, and outdoor lounge area reserved for pairing Castañeda’s blended puffers with some 45 rums on-site.

“You feel like you’re on a street in Cuba. I love the flow,” says partner Arian Castañeda, the Cuban-born owner of his family’s fourth-generation cigar company, Castañeda Cigars.

The seemingly endless maze is co-run by Vinoda Basnayake, the nightlife guru behind Shaw cocktail spot Morris American Bar and underground lounge Heist in Dupont Circle.

Instead of tasking an outside design firm with the look, the team relied on Castañeda’s Cuban lens to make every inch as authentic as possible. The name Casta’s stems from an old family nickname, “Casta” — an abbreviation of Castañeda.

“I don’t want to create a spot people want Cuba to be. I am bringing them a piece of Cuba. They can have a real experience — not the fake one,” he says, of the Americanized pastel-hued perception of the country.

Spanish mosaic tiles, an ode to the country’s colonization of Cuba, break up the walls and floor. Stained glass, a prevalent design element across Cuba, was used to manufacture opalescent orbs glowing above the outdoor bar.

Casta’s doubles as a sprawling greenhouse of sorts, lush with leafy potted and dangling palms and plants at every turn. The team rented a tractor trailer and went nursery hopping around the area, handpicking each green element to live across the space.

The piecemeal design process also entailed lots of antiquing to source furniture, chandeliers, and heavy iron bases that support its custom wood tables.

“Everything is all handpicked and handmade,” says Basnayake.

There are few signs of the space’s original life as a Best Western conference area that used to serve continental breakfast. The Georgetown Collection recently took over and flipped the property into a Swatchroom-designed boutique hotel, leaving its basement space ripe for a snazzy new bar to come in. The hidden layout was exactly what Basnayake and his partner had been looking for.

“We wanted [Casta’s] to be a transformative experience, not a storefront with big glass windows,” says Basnayake. “You walk in feeling removed from the rest of the world.”

The partners commissioned local artist Nicolette Capuano to splash detailed touches across the converted space. Elevators accessible to its hotel guests are camouflaged with an intricate paint job that looks like wood. The bathroom area near the bar is also masked with murals.

Outside, a conversation blurb spelling “Alamar” out of a car symbolizes the popular coastal town taxis are hailed to go in Cuba.

“We wanted you to be stuck in time. You walk on the street and a 1955 Chevy is rolling down. Every day you see like 100 of those,” says Castañeda.

License plates that used to be bolted on roaming Cuban cars now live on as wall art near the outdoor bar. A mural starring Celia Cruz, one of the biggest Cuban singers of all time, is splashed across a cinder block wall. Another image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, a rebellious figure of the Cuban Revolution, is also depicted outside.

“People are asking us, ‘do you want to make a political statement?’ I say, no, we literally just want to look exactly like Cuba,” he says.

Custom wood arcs — another common bar aesthetic in Havana — frame its rum-heavy assortment of spirits that help fill the daiquiris, frozen pina coladas, and other Cuban cocktails designed by beverage director Doug Fisher (Morris).

 

“We wanted this to be very uniquely Cuban — we don’t want this to be a Cuban-themed bar. We wanted to be a Cuban bar,” says Basnayake. He met Castañeda soon after he moved to the U.S. in 2011, bonding over their shared love for cigars.

A humidor planted near the bar houses his family’s star product, which can be smoked on a rectangular-shaped patio area flanked with large black fans, a Cuban flag, and couches covered in tropical palm prints. There the graffiti takes on a smoke-like look, depicting his family’s original cigar factory — the oldest in Cuba.

Inside, copper-colored booths line the brick walls, stopping in time to reserve space for dancing. Cuban-born musicians who moved to D.C. two years ago will perform frequently next to a huge window peeking into the outdoor bar. When they’re not playing, the club-quality speakers will air a curated Cuban playlist.

“We are trying to keep everything as authentic as possible — even the music,” says Basnayake.

He sampled a firsthand taste of his partner’s native turf last year, returning home hungry to bring the country’s energetic vibes to D.C.

“The minute you walk into the bar everyone is dancing and it’s super lively — a totally different hospitality experience [than D.C.],” he says.

For now, Casta’s opens daily at 4 p.m. until last call, pending demand. Adding weekend brunch later is a possibility.

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