These days, the best bars in DC are even more popular destinations than usual.
From fabulously gimmicky destinations like José Andrés’s “cocktail lab” Barmini to ultra-old-school haunts shaking up solid classic drinks like Downtown's Old Ebbitt Grill, the scene is a varied one—as it should be. The city is filled with craft beer drinkers, wine lovers and cocktail aficionados, so there is room for all sorts of establishments to occupy the capital's imbibing network.
Fun fact, before you get drinking: because DC technically isn't a state, locals enjoy certain alcohol-related loopholes that aren't found in other parts of the country. For example, all local restaurants and bars can purchase their liquor stock directly from distilleries and breweries, cutting out the wholesale middleman that functions as a distributor in other states. A win for mom-and-pop breweries indeed.
The best bars in DC
DC has no shortage of places trying for a "neighborhood" feel, but Daniel O'Brien and Ali Bagheri's quirky A&D comes pretty close to nailing it. The narrow front room is dominated by a bar at which you can order well-crafted cocktails, many made with local spirits including Green Hat Gin and Catoctin Creek rye; the larger back room offers tables and waiter service. There's no real food menu to speak of, save snacks such as nuts or caramel popcorn and movie theater–style candy, but those with more of an appetite can bring in sandwiches from Sundevich around the corner, owned by the same duo. While drinks are perhaps pricier than the neighborhood vibe would suggest (many are more than $10), weekday happy hour from 5 to 7 offers $4 tallboys and $5 drafts and glasses of wine. If you're looking for a tasty drink in a laid-back atmosphere, this is a solid bet.
This no-nonsense drinking den in Shaw is modestly decorated and frequently cramped. Much like the mood lighting, cocktail prices are low. Here you’ll find arguably the city’s best Negroni, along with a Manhattan, Old Fashioned and French 75, each under $10. Owner David Batista, the former bar manager at Zaytinya and Jaleo, also offers a handful of wines and beers by the bottle.
The younger and less popular sister of Café Saint-Ex, Bar Pilar is affectionately referred to as a dive bar, dressed up. The vibe is intimate, with just 38 seats, and the low-key attractions include bacon bloody marys at brunch (sort of a liquefied BLT, hold the lettuce) and a kitschy photo booth.
For local foodies, José Andrés’s Minibar is the Moby Dick of DC dining reservations: available to those truly dedicated diners who pursue it for months. For the rest of us, there’s Barmini, the adjacent “cocktail lab” that lets you try Andrés’s creations without half a year’s lead time. Reservations aren’t required—on a recent Wednesday night visit we were seated immediately—but on weekend nights they're a good precaution. Press a button outside, which causes a light to flash over the door inside, and a hostess leads you into a space where the drinks are as surreal as the decor. The novel-thick, silver-covered drink menus are divided by spirits; options include classic cocktails as well as Wonka-esque creations served with beakers of vapor or puffs of cotton candy. The food comes in small but powerfully flavored portions; think crispy, melty, truffle-laced grilled cheese and a mini lobster roll covered in buttery foam. As you might imagine, a night here isn’t cheap—but for cocktail lovers and seekers of imaginative dining experiences, this is a must-visit.
Biergarten Haus is a Bavarian-style beer hall with one-liter pours and robust German food (plus trivia on Tuesday night).
Bluejacket was one of the most hotly anticipated openings of 2013, and after numerous delays it finally opened in October, making the Navy Yard neighborhood a bona fide destination for craft beer connoisseurs. ChurchKey's Greg Engert is behind the program of 25 drafts and cask ales, along with brewer Megan Parisi; ChurchKey/Birch & Barley's husband-and-wife team of Kyle Bailey and Tiffany MacIsaac create the food and dessert menus, respectively, at the attached restaurant, the Arsenal. The dishes are mostly upscale twists on comfort food—think deviled eggs with crab and a grilled pork chop with wheatberries and sunchoke purée—and the dining room's rustic warm wood contrasts pleasantly with the stainless steel of the brewery equipment. All the beers come in two sizes—a tasting portion and a full glass—so you can try a few before you commit to anything. The friendly servers are more than happy to walk you through the menu to make sure you're happy with your selection.
Whiskey lovers will feel at home at this Irish-leaning Bloomingdale mainstay, which turned out to be a harbinger of hip when it first opened in 2011. Though that tiny strip of Rhode Island Ave. has since gotten more crowded (see: El Camino next door and Showtime across the street) Boundary Stone still draws a loyal crowd with its front patio, cozy booths, picklebacks and elevated, late-night pub grub.
Yes, the second floor of this three-level bar looks more like a Downton-era hunting lodge than a real Brixton tavern. And no, the menu offerings of Thai chicken salad and miso-glazed black cod aren’t really authentic either (although, to be fair, rotis and samosas are available too). But don’t let that bother you, because the Brixton’s vibe is charming, with leather stools and wood paneling inside and a spectacular roof terrace. It gets packed to the rafters with college kids late at night so come early for surprisingly good Pimm’s cups, Boddingtons and Newcastle on draft, and Fuller’s London Pride in bottles.
Brookland’s Finest is a little bit Mr. Rogers, a little bit Charlie Sheen. Though it’s often crawling with families, this neighborhood joint from John Solomon (Solly’s) and Tony Tomelden (The Pug) also slings stiff classic cocktails and stays open late on weekends. The menu is a real crowd-pleaser, with cheeseburger, spaghetti and meatballs, mushroom risotto and kale salad. Head back the morning after to nurse your hangover at brunch.
The upstairs bar above sister restaurant Birch & Barley has one thing on its mind: beer. More than 500 varieties, to be precise. But this isn’t your average brewhouse—the shiny wood floors, sculptural light fixtures and bustling crowd should tell you that. ChurchKey opened in late 2009 and has barely had time to breathe since, drawing crowds nightly for its gourmet lagers and ales (housed in state-of-the-art, temperature-controlled vaults), upscale comfort food (tater tots and grilled cheese), and energetic scene. Wednesday through Saturday, expect long waits and don’t bank on a table.
Cocktails. Dumplings. Repeat. That’s pretty much the game plan at this H Street newcomer run by Minibar veteran Devin Gong. The kitchen serves Chinese street food (steamed bao, potstickers and meat skewers), while the upstairs bar delivers artful concoctions borrowed from mixologists Gong has met and liked (hence the name). Can’t find something you like? Consult the blackboard of flavor combinations and build your own cocktail from scratch.
The metal exterior of this Japanese spot behind the Gallery Place movie theater is carved with designs that resemble the symbol for wi-fi signals. If that doesn't clue you in that the place you're about to walk into is not your usual bar, one look at the menu of the upstairs izakaya should do the trick. Drinks are inventive and surprising—especially the take on a sake bomb, with spherified sake floating in a glass of Sapporo—and the small plates include ingredients not often found on Japanese menus, such as burrata salad and Old Bay seasoning. More traditional dishes make an appearance, too, including pork-filled onigiri and sashimi, but chef Daisuke Utagawa's training with José Andrés means even the familiar has unexpected elements. Reservations are available online, and they're a good idea; the sultry lighting and cool decor (red-backed bar shelves, manga wallpaper) encourage lingering at a table over another glass of sake or sochu.Hours and prices are for upstairs izakaya only; ramen bar hours are different.
East of Dupont Circle, the Donovan House Hotel has a snazzy rooftop pool complete with bar, Donovan House Rooftop Pool Bar, and glittering views of the city. The gay-friendly location has reasonably priced drinks, sun loungers, and even an outdoor fireplace, making for a relaxed vibe and an ideal spot after dinner at Zentan restaurant downstairs.
A recent addition to the neighborhood, this stylish, all-white Capitol Hill outpost of the Dupont Circle and Alexandria seafood chain boasts ownership of the Eddy Bar, a long stretch of marble offering house-made sodas in flavors such as "citrus sage" and punny cocktails (the Oh Rickey You’re So Fine features bourbon, Gewürtzraminer, and lemongrass). The beer menu is esoteric, consisting mostly of brews you’ve never heard of, from the 21st Amendment Dub Step IPA on draft to the local Port City Tartan. Come for happy hour (Monday to Friday, 5–7pm), stay for the cocktails and bowls of Goldfish crackers.
Were Jim Morrison ever to be reincarnated and transported to Washington, the response to his immortal request, "Show me the way to the next whiskey bar" would inevitably lead him to Jack Rose. This is, quite simply, the only place to drink whiskey in Washington, with a remarkable selection of more than 1,500 different varieties. The tall, clubby space feels like a library, with leather seats and ladders to help bartenders reach the highest bottles; if you don’t know much (or anything) about whiskey, don’t be afraid to ask, since the staff are happy to impart their wisdom. On sunnier days, there’s also an outdoor terrace and tiki bar.
From the owners of Wonderland Ballroom in Columbia Heights comes this Petworth favorite. The upstairs bar serves as the setting for a popular trivia night, while the lower level hosts DJ nights that may include ‘90s hip hop or ‘80s music. Picnic tables dot the back patio and inevitably lead to mingling between groups. Or maybe it’s that $6 beer-and-whiskey combo.
A gay-friendly sports bar? Mais oui, with karaoke on Tuesdays, Smart Ass Trivia Night on Wednesdays, board games galore, and a roof patio; along with ten HD TVs and one giant screen for game days—in the more traditional, sports-bar sense of the word. Nellie’s, named after the owner’s great- and great-great-grandmother, has all the accoutrements of a regular sports bar (wings, nachos, burgers), along with a mixed crowd, a serious take on sports, and Latin-themed arepas and empanadas from the Venezualan co-owner.
The Old Ebbitt first opened in 1856 as a boarding house, and over the years its more illustrious guests have included Presidents Grant, Johnson, Cleveland and Teddy Roosevelt. Just a block from the White House, it’s a popular place for the power lunch (in the main dining room, that is, not in the atrium). The two bars—one at the back, one at the front—are always packed, usually with men who ensure that no nubile young thing has to pay for her own drinks.
Stand smack in the middle of Adams Morgan Party Central, the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road, NW (the traffic is so gridlocked on weekend nights that you can often do so without any significant risk to either life or limb), and you’ll see the illuminated rooftop of Perry’s, hangout of beautiful people and their attendant wannabes. The largely twentysomething crowd is attracted not just to the lights—and the lively scene under them—but to the array of well-executed sushi prepared downstairs, where a classic wood-paneled dining room offers a more sedate setting for unwinding. Along with sushi, the menu features a short list of New American starters and entrées, with such favorites as seasonal heirloom tomato salad, grilled swordfish steak with lemon chutney and the chef’s veg platter. Perry’s drag queen brunch is offered every Sunday. The fixed price includes all you can eat and dancers to entertain you. Arrive early for the show.
If you’re looking for proximity to the White House, the W Hotel’s POV is hard to beat: the rooftop terrace has such great views of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that you can see the snipers lurking on the roof. The bar gets packed in good weather so reservations are recommended.
A word to the plastic-dependent: Red Derby is cash only. That minor annoyance aside, the upper Columbia Heights bar has everything a neighborhood watering hole should: a no-frills bar with a collection of well-loved board games, pool tables and a spacious roof deck strung with café lights. Beer prices are so reasonable—$2 Natty Bohs, $3 PBR’s and a $6 Bud and shot combo—they’ll make you do a spit-take.
This is the place where, it’s said, the term "lobbying" was first coined. Those wanting a quiet word in President Grant’s ear used to hang around in the lobby of the Willard InterContinental Hotel hoping perhaps to stand the president or one of his advisors a drink in the Round Robin Bar. The lobbyists may have moved on but you’ll find that the bar is still reminiscent of an old-fashioned gentlemen’s club. Take a seat in the dark green, round space and see how many of the portraits of previous guests you can recognize: Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Nathaniel Hawthorne and President Abraham Lincoln, who lived at the hotel for two weeks before his inauguration, are among the distinguished subjects.
Sonoma offers a welcome grown-up respite from all the other dives and sports bars stretching down Pennsylvania Avenue. The long granite bar, exposed brick and extensive wine list make for a stylish, urban feel, and the upstairs lounge has plenty of comfortable alcoves to settle in to (although it’s often closed for political functions and events). Sonoma’s proximity to the House office buildings also allows for great eavesdropping while you’re savoring that Russian River Valley pinot gris—as long as you’re not put off by the ping of a thousand BlackBerrys.
Wolfgang Puck’s dramatic Asian-Fusion restaurant tucked under the Newseum also has a ground-floor lounge ideally located for an upscale post-museum fortifier. The minimalist/contemporary scene attracts a diverse crowd, with power players joining the tourists to watch sports on the three flatscreen TVs. Try the extensive (and inventive) cocktail list (sample: Asian Pear Drop with saké and pear purée); or one of the hundreds of bottles of wine lining the walls. And if you’re in the area between 4pm and 6pm, stop by for happy hour and sample some of the city’s best small plates for a fraction of the usual price.
The Tabard Inn makes for a most relaxing place to start, end or break a day of sightseeing. The bar is set in a shabby-chic, living-room-like front room, where patrons can relax on Victorian sofas in front of a log fireplace that might have come straight from the pages of Wuthering Heights, while sipping a fortifying glass of wine or brandy.
One word: snug. That’s the term owner Erik Holzherr uses to refer to Wisdom’s semi-private seats, which line the walls of this hidden gem in Southeast and are partitioned off by thick velvet curtains. Each snug comes with its own volume control, so you can dictate the noise level. Pair that feature with one of DC’s deepest gin collections, and you’ve got a long night ahead with a high chance of canoodling.