The best bars in DC range from fabulously gimmicky destinations, such as José Andrés’s “cocktail lab” Barmini, to ultra-old-school haunts shaking up solid classic drinks, like Downtown's Old Ebbitt Grill. Whether you’re in the mood for a craft beer or a killer happy hour—pre-, post- or in lieu of a feast at one of the best restaurants in DC—these are the bars that keep you coming back for another round.
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.
Gentrified H Street has gone from sketchy to super-cool over the last few years, boasting a fleet of hipster bars offering cut-price cans of PBR and adult entertainment (no, not that kind—think arcade games and pinball). Perched on the end of the H Street strip, the Argonaut is one of its better bar options, with a pretty, spacious terrace outside and regular themed nights (trivia’s on Wednesday, live bluegrass on Thursday). There are 12 draft beers on tap, including the excellent DC Brau, and sample flights of four are available. Thanks to its Metro-unfriendly location, the bar also tends to get less crowded and raucous than other H Street nightlife spots.
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.
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.