We spoke with Ryan Chetiyawardana about Silver Lyan, a new bar set to open in Washington D.C. next year.
Silver Lyan Ryan Chetiyawardana
Credit: Courtesy of Lore Group

It's not every day your bar is named "World's Best." For Ryan Chetiyawardana, that day was October 3, 2018. After a decade of racking up awards, and five years of running his own establishments, the "cocktail bartender"—as his website humbly calls him—took the coveted top spot on the "World's Best Bar" list with London's Dandelyan. Ironically enough, he'd already announced the bar was closing.

Chetiyawardana—who goes by Mr Lyan—already had his eyes on other projects. Last November, Dandelyan hopped across the pond for a two-day pop-up in Washington, D.C. It turns out that limited engagement ended up being a trial run as well: Ten months after Dandelyan's closure, Lyan has revealed his latest project, Silver Lyan, his first permanent cocktail bar in America.

Set to open in D.C. early next year, Silver Lyan will be located on the lower level of the forthcoming Riggs D.C. hotel on the corner of 9th and F Street. The choice is no coincidence: The Riggs is from international hospitality brand the Lore Group where Lyan serves as Global Bar Innovator—a partnership that began with Dandelyan, which was located in a Lore property. And when Lyan launched his first bar outside of London earlier this year—Amsterdam's Super Lyan—he also worked with the Lore Group, opening in the Kimpton De Witt Amsterdam.

Silver Lyan Rendering
Credit: Courtesy of Lore Group

Silver Lyan is billed as Lyan's attempt to "reimagine the traditional hotel bar" by blending "classical and kitsch styles." The bar will focus "on the history of cultural exchange in America, bringing an elevated irreverence to the grand space to pay tribute to the past, present, and future of the storied building," which used to be the Riggs National Bank, featuring "a mixed palette of rich oak wood flooring, striking marquetry work on the walls, an illuminated Japanese-style Nori curtain entrance and pops of color throughout."

Silver Lyan Rendering
Credit: Courtesy of Lore Group

And though Chetiyawardana was reluctant to reveal the menu, we were privy to two drinks that will be available. The Japanese Saddle will be made with Sakura-infused Cognac, Roku Japanese Gin, leather bitters, and cereal orgeat. Meanwhile, the Jello Fruit Basket appears to be four cocktails in one, described as an Apple Martini (vodka, apple vermouth, lemon), an Orange Sunrise (orange, tequila, pomegranate), a Pineapple Colada (rums, coconut, pineapple, vanilla salt), and a Passionfruit Daiquiri (rum, compare, lime, passionfruit sugar) all served together.

I hopped on the phone with Mr Lyan for a rousing discussion of cocktails, America, and even a touch of politics. Here's our conversation (edited for length and clarity):

Mike Pomranz: You're opening a bar in Washington, D.C. I'm assuming the pop-up went well.

Ryan Chetiyawardana: It did. I always find it fun when you work with a different team, and you get a bit of a different insight. But it was also amazing to connect with D.C.'s scene and get to see things from a different perspective than you do when you're just visiting. That's the beauty of being able to try to host people when you're doing a takeover. And it was so nice to spend some time with the folks in the city. We got some lovely feedback. So, yeah, it was a real joy.

I'm also assuming you could have opened anywhere you wanted in the United States. Was D.C. the plan all along? Or did the pop-up show you something about the city you really loved?

It's kind of a bit of both. Even when you have plans in place, you're always trying to reassess things. And that's really important to us, constantly assessing what's going on. I'd been super excited by the scene having visited. I initially went across for a talk, and it felt like it was really growing, being led by young chefs and young bartenders. And there was a camaraderie around it. I've always been attracted to capital cities because I think there's something about them that lifts things for everybody. They have this outlook where you're trying to assess things as a bigger whole.

And with that comes a certain mentality, and I always find that really inspiring to be a part of. We're always trying to find something where we can actually complement. And not to compare Amsterdam and D.C., but those are some of our first forays outside London and D.C. felt really welcoming, and it felt very homely, yet it still felt like something new for us to learn. We spent time with locals and tried to find a way of marrying what we do and what we were excited by with what was going on in that scene. And then when you're with a team that feels as inspired and as hungry to go explore some of the city, it just reinforces things.

Do you see advantages to D.C. compared to more obvious choices like New York or L.A.?

It's not like there isn't an established or historic amazing food and drink scene in D.C. That's, of course, part of the story. But take somewhere like New York: You don't get a huge amount of longevity in stuff. It's a very fast-moving city in the same way that London is. And that has its amazing advantages: You've got a very established scene that is excited by something new. But you don't also then get to dig into something. If we were to do a bigger city, it builds a barrier to really engaging as a first step. So as an outsider, it made much more sense to us to be able to work with a local scene that we could have more of that closer connection to, and we could build on some of the things that we'd like to bring to the market and things that we also want to be inspired by. That's not to say that I don't love what's going on in New York or L.A. or Chicago, but I don't know if it would have afforded the same kind of connection.

What's different about opening a cocktail bar in the United States versus what you faced in Europe?

When I was first traveling to the U.S. as a young bartender, the thing that surprised me the most was how established the idea of a cocktail was within the general populace. It's kind of amazing. Cocktails are an American invention. People have home bars. People's parents talk about making martinis and Old Fashioneds at home and having their own favorite recipes. Drinking culture in Europe was very different. In the U.S., the idea of a cocktail is much more established. And with that base level of understanding, you can explore things in a slightly different way. But at the same time, you've also got people who have a very fixed idea of what a cocktail is. And then on top of that, you've got customs that we always try to look at: not necessarily just a cocktail, but the way in which people gather. And each place has its own customs. So it's about looking at all of those different social nuances that lead into the way that people get together with their friends and family.

Is there any fear that you just closed the so-called "World's Best Bar" and now you're going to open up in America and no one's going get what you're doing?

Yes and no. We've been doing a lot of research. We're not going into this blindly. We've been spending a lot of time chatting with locals, trying to understand what would resonate. And so we're not doing it with any sort of arrogance that what we do will translate across. But I think it's kind of healthy to be shit scared of that. We're not trying to presume that people will understand it or love it or find it relevant to what they usually do. So we haven't just tried to bring something that we previously have done and shoehorn it. It's a to-and-fro: We need to understand more and learn about the local customs, and we want to present things that we think will marry into that and act as a complement to what is already in the city. So, yeah, we're certainly still scared of that. But we love what we do, and we say it's building on something that's quite universal. Because we don't just focus on going, "This is a cocktail and you've got to like these flavors." We're actually creating a space that we think will be really comfortable for people, and we think can help you have a better night out, whatever you're coming in for—even if you've had a really crappy day. These things are very human feelings. And so if we can be sensitive to the way that D.C. operates, then we can hopefully find something that does feel exciting for the local market.

You are known for having these big concepts, not just serving drinks but having a broader theme. What's the plan with Silver Lyan?

D.C. is where so much came into the country and so much was exported from it as well. And it was that exchange, that growth, that receptiveness that felt really exciting to me. It felt very different. And as an outsider coming into the U.S., this idea of being able to learn from it and be inspired, but also try and bring something into it, felt very core to what America has always been as a country. And so that was the real inspiration for it: This idea of this cultural exchange. If you look at the food of the U.S., it's borrowed from all of the different people who have made a mark on the country. And it's the same thing with the culture: It's one of the biggest exports of the U.S. It travels to every part of the world. We always try to have a point of discussion within each of the venues. We're trying to challenge, we're trying to evolve. And so it's being able to weave those different stories into the concept of this cultural import and export.

Can you discuss the drinks specifically?

We'll look at the way that certain products were gifted to the U.S. and then took on their own life as soon as it became part of the U.S. So the cocktails will be things that are familiar, but they'll have these other stories woven into them—unusual takes as a result of looking into history or some of these different cultural exchanges.

You're in D.C., so let's talk politics: Do you feel any significance being in D.C. now, beyond just the cocktail scene?

We've always been very clear that we believe in openness and equality. That's been a pillar of the brand since the beginning, and we're very passionate about that. And what you see in D.C. is what you see in so many places: You meet real people, and I was so amazed by how it felt very young, vibrant, and liberal. I expected it to be very classical and old school. And the truth of the matter is, like with any setting, there's a mix of people. And we're not saying that food and drink will change the world, but if you can make people's daily lives a bit better, it's something nice to be part of. And so if we can have things that demonstrate some of the great stories that were part of the history of the U.S. and part of the present, then as part of its future as well, then hopefully all of us can play our part in making this a very welcoming place that feels optimistic rather than being dragged down into some of the more scary stories that surround at the moment.

Is this the beginning of a larger foray into the U.S.?

The U.S. is so fascinating as a market. It's almost hard as an outsider to think of it as one country. There are so many different customs and cultures and different approaches. And then there are all these different layers of ingredients. It became this hugely rich area to learn from. And that's the thing that I'm always keen to do is always learn and feel like we can add to the conversation. I don't ever want to just be a kind of participant in it. And I don't want to ever feel like we're trying to impose what we think is the appropriate approach. So I would love to explore more, but it's not that we have a trajectory of places that we're going to be opening.

Silver Lyan is expected to open in January 2020 at 900 F Street NW in Washington, D.C.