Hill Tastes | Knee High’s vintage is state of the art on E Olive Way

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Hill Tastes is a new CHS essay series from a variety of Capitol Hill voices exploring the flavors of Capitol Hill restaurants, bars and more. Have a taste you’d like us to explore? Let us know.

Bartenders in the years before Prohibition were highly sought after artists.

Liquor their paint. Crystal highballs their canvas. Add a botanical. Flourish with a bitter. Shake, stir and sip. When the nation banned booze, the steeped tradition of fancy cocktails mostly moved with the bartenders to Europe. Now, the pre-Prohibition era cocktail is back, fueled by a renewed interest in ryes, whiskey and homemade bitters.

Knee High Stocking Company, a postage stamp-sized speakeasy on lower Capitol Hill, is at the vanguard of this trend. Other Capitol Hill bars including Canon, Smith, Tavern Law and others also offer old-fashioned drinks, but no place goes as far as Knee High Stocking Company to capture a bygone era.

Opened on the Ides of March 2009, the restaurant is a private club to which everyone is invited. It’s both exclusive and inclusive, said Jack and Michelle Valko, the husband-and-wife owners.

The name came from the restaurant’s small size. It’s a company that stocks liquor.

“It sounds completely obscure,” Jack Valko said.

It’s not a theme. It’s a vibe, it’s a feeling.

“It’s whatever you think,” Michelle Valko added. “Because I want everyone to decide for themselves.”

The front door of the bar remains locked. Patrons ring a doorbell to enter. Reservations, highly recommended for this 42-seat room, are made by text message only.

There’s no standing.

“When our seats are full, that’s it,” Michelle said.

Like any speakeasy, there are more rules. Quiet conversation only. No photography. No phone calls — and “This is a small bar, we may ask for your table after you’re finished.”

“They’re more guidelines,” Jack said. But the size of the space demands patron politeness. It’s full most weekends. Weeknights fill up quickly too.

Once inside, the bartender is the star, mixing up an array of gorgeous drinks. Some are frothy. Others clear. All are strong.

The space has evolved into a kind of private living room, where it’s OK to talk to neighbors and discuss the subtleties of Vermouth, whiskey or rum.

Somebody may have wanted to keep Knee High’s secret all to themselves earlier this month. “If you went by Knee High today you may have noticed our sign is gone,” owner Jack Valko wrote CHS. “Someone ripped it off the side of the building, removing a good chunk of building material in the process.”

My Jack Rose, a pre-Prohibition mix of apple brandy, homemade Grenadine and lime, tasted boozier than others on the Hill thanks to the bonded bottle of Applejack, a premium bottle typically not stocked in bars. My partner’s vodka gimlet was made to order, more pucker than sweet.

Our neighbors at the bar, a couple from New Orleans, went through three Ramos Gin Fizzes, concoctions of gin, orange and egg whites, frothed into a kind of alcoholic milk shake. A perfect dessert. We watched as the smartly dressed bartender lovingly whipped up one elegant drink after the next.

The idea for Knee High Stocking Company blossomed out of Jack’s love of mixed drinks. He wanted to create a living laboratory for cocktails.

In 2008, he quit his Internet job and decided to pursue the restaurant business.

“It was time for me to seize my own future,” he said.

The couple found the location, an abandoned organic pizzeria, in the triangular shaped building that makes up the block between E Olive Way, Olive Place and Melrose Avenue.

While the traditional speakeasy didn’t offer food, Knee High Stocking Company took advantage of the small kitchen to prepare top quality nibbles.

A variety of snacks and dinner plates are available. They stuck with a simple philosophy. “What do we like?” Michelle said.

I tried the Knee High Tots, gourmet tater tots, and Crack Corn, salty caramel-coated popcorn. Small pork medallions with rich mashed potatoes were a fine entrée, but the chicken pot pie looked comforting, delicious and indulgent.

Before they opened, they auditioned around 200 bartenders, before hiring those who could balance mixology with personality.

“We wanted the bartender to be the center of the show,” Michelle said.

The response since opening has been terrific, the owners said. Now, the Valkos want to further refine their food menu and continue to build their reputation. As for finding a new, possibly larger location – it’s not in the plans.

“Knee High’s home is where it is,” Jack said.

Knee High Stocking Company, 1356 E Olive Way, is open daily from 6 p.m. to close. For reservations, send a text message to (206) 979-7049. More information at www.kneehighstocking.com.

You can contact Jackson Holtz at caphillfood@gmail.com.

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