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Reviving the retro soda shop: Buffalo & Bergen grows with second location

Inside D.C.'s Union Market, Buffalo & Bergen serves soda fountain classics, including the egg cream. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
'What we’ve created here is a nostalgic place'

WTOP's Rachel Nania

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WASHINGTON — Six years ago, when veteran bartender Gina Chersevani told friends she wanted to open a soda bar in D.C., the typical response was, “What the heck is that?”

And she didn’t exactly have an answer at the ready.

“I didn’t know, because one didn’t exist, so I had to come up with a way to make it happen,” said Chersevani, who is known around town as “the mixtress,” thanks to her award-winning career in cocktails.

Her idea was to bring back the Brooklyn soda shop experience of her mother’s childhood, but with a few updated twists and personal touches — think booze and bagel sandwiches.

After tracking down a vintage 1930s Bastian-Blessing soda fountain from a Chicago-based refurbishing factory (Chersevani found out she couldn’t just buy a new machine — they don’t make them anymore), she opened Buffalo & Bergen inside Union Market.

“It’s kind of wonderful, because what we’ve created here is a nostalgic place,” Chersevani said.

At the horseshoe-shaped counter, diners can order soda-shop classics, such as the egg cream, which gets its name from the meringue-like head of foam that forms on the top of the drink. More than 10 homemade syrups make up the soda selection (lemon-lavender, root beer and pineapple-cardamom are a few of the available flavors — booze is optional), and all orders come with a show, of sorts, from the nearly 90-year-old steel fountain.

“Part of [the experience] is the banging of everything,” Chersevani said, referring to the classic swing and “jerk” of the soda arm on the 12-pump fountain — a skill that took her about nine months to master.

“She is temperamental. … And, one thing I love about these things that most people don’t know is that in these soda arms are leather gaskets — there are no plastic pieces in there.”

Soda shops rose to popularity during prohibition, Chersevani explained, but lost their luster in the 1960s and ’70s, when soda was more readily available in cans and bottles. However, the concept experienced a recent resurgence (Chersevani said it happened around the same time of the craft cocktail movement), and in D.C., she saw a demand for even more.

“Crafting soda has become a thing again,” said Chersevani, who also lists cocktails, knishes and an array of bagel sandwiches on Buffalo & Bergen’s menu.

This spring, Chersevani will open a second location of Buffalo & Bergen on Massachusetts Avenue in Capitol Hill. The new spot will expand its food offerings to include three meals a day with deli/diner fare. It will also showcase another vintage soda fountain, albeit a smaller one.

Chersevani hopes that just like the Union Market location, which brings in diners of all ages, including those who frequented soda shops in their prime, the new Buffalo & Bergen will be a gathering place for all Washingtonians.

“That’s what a soda counter is, it’s family. It’s a harmony of flavors, people and experiences,” Chersevani said.

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