As hotel bars become destinations for locals and guests alike, inventive chefs and bartenders are finding new places to call home. Close to Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., the Bell20 Tavern at the Crystal City Marriott has a secret weapon: Abonesh Bedada, known to guests and coworkers as Abby, and the head bartender for the past 18 years.
Originally from Ethiopia, Bedada first started out in hospitality 22 years ago as a part-time server in a Marriott-managed D.C.-area nightclub while taking college classes during the day. “I often found myself wandering into the bar area on my breaks to watch the bartenders make drinks,” she recalled. “I was so fascinated [by] their creativity.” She began experimenting with mixing cocktails at home and testing her creations on friends, developing a taste—literal and metaphorical—for mixology. After her manager at the bar tried some of Bedada’s cocktails, she was quickly promoted and began mixing drinks behind the bar.
After taking a break from bartending to start a family, she came back to Marriott at the Crystal City property in 2000 and has remained behind the bar ever since, experimenting with recipes and creating her own beverages. The Abby-tini, for example, is a combination of vodka and fruit juices that earned positive feedback in guest reviews. The Abby-tini became so popular with guests, in fact, that during the most recent menu rewrite, it was added to the bar’s signature cocktail list. “This example goes to show how impactful Abby has been on the restaurant’s operations and culture of service,” said Derek VanBrakle, senior operations manager at the hotel.
But for all of her creativity behind the bar, Bedada does not imbibe herself. “Everybody’s surprised,” she said, acknowledging the irony of a bartender who does not drink. Instead, when creating a cocktail, she smells the ingredients and reads the ingredients on the bottle to determine what goes with what and what the final taste will be. “Of course, I taste a little bit with a straw,” she admitted.
Bedada's knowledge of the property and the general area has turned her into an ambassador for Arlington. “She has amassed a wealth of local area knowledge that she is always happy to pass on to those visiting the area,” VanBrakle said. Bedada keeps a map behind the bar to recommend other watering holes and restaurants within walking distance, and to encourage guests to get out and see what the neighborhood has to offer.
And after nearly two decades at the property, Bedada has no plans to leave. “All of us are like family, sisters and brothers,” she said of the hotel crew. She has also forged close bonds with regular guests and their families. In fact, she said, when a Boston-based regular was terminally ill, one of his final requests was to come back to Bell20 for one more Abby-tini. She honored his last wish.
Abby’s Advice for Aspiring Bartenders
Just as few—if any—hoteliers start off as general managers, reaching the top in a hotel bar also requires learning the basics first. “They have to start from bussing tables and being a server,” Bedada said of aspiring mixologists. “You have to learn from the beginning.” Once a mixologist is working behind the bar, building a rapport with guests builds a loyal clientele. “Be yourself and always continue to learn new things,” Bedada said. “Always greet your guests with a warm welcome and leave them with the best experience possible. I’ve engaged in some of the greatest conversations and have created unforgettable bonds with some of the most memorable people while working [here].” Ultimately, Bedada said, tending a hotel bar is a good job—and a hard one, too. “It’s not easy, but it’s worth it.”
Abby’s Top 3 Signature Cocktails
Vodka, Apple Sour Pucker, Peach Tree, Pineapple Juice.
Patron Silver, Triple Sec, Grand Marnier, Fresh Lemon and Lime Juices
Crown Royal, Sour Apple Pucker, Cranberry Juice