Drinking in D.C. culture, one cocktail at a time
Five Washington, D.C. bars where you can soak in the particular, particular culture of the district that administers the affairs of this strange and wonderful country
You can’t launch an Old Fashioned tumbler from a Lyft window in downtown Washington, D.C., without hitting a craft cocktail bar. Like most cities these days, the nation’s capital is packed with joints where guys with sleeve tattoos mixify Chartreuse-and-cognac elixirs with Sichuan peppercorn syrup and so forth. But you can also find a handful of bars that are more fundamentally of the town, not just in the town. By virtue of history, address, or clientele, they convey the peculiar, particular culture of the capital city. They are places that simply couldn’t exist anywhere else.
If you’re a good steward of your travel time, and you like a good drink, you’ll spend some of your visit at one of these places. The barrier to this sort of liquid tourism is low. All you need is an hour or so to kill, a credit card not too close to its limit, and curiosity about life in the district that manages the affairs of this strange and beautiful country.
Sit at the bar, and you may overhear some pretty interesting conversations. Or maybe you’ll just hear some clown with a bad haircut gassing on about European Union import tariffs. Either way, make friends with the barkeep and you’re likely to pick up some useful intel about this peculiar city.
Off the Record: A Washington caricature
If you shot a nerf gun from the White House portico hard enough to penetrate stone walls -- an interesting idea, actually -- the foam ball might plop right into someone’s Martini at this long-tenured bar.
Off the Record is the house watering hole of the long-tenured Hay-Adams Hotel, located immediately across Lafayette Park from the White House. It’s a good redoubt after hitting the promenade on Pennsylvania Avenue, taking in the beauty of the President’s home and stepping briskly past the omnipresent gaggles of protesters hollering retribution at the fence. Last time I was there, hundreds of people were chanting something about Ethiopia, I think. What they had to say to President Biden is anybody’s guess.
Anyhow, Off the Record feels like a speakeasy on its best behavior. And it nearly shudders with Washington Self-importance. As one of the few restaurant-bars within a quick walk of La Casa Blanca, it fills with executive branch staff at lunch, happy hour, and especially in the evening. I went there not long ago about 9 p.m. on a Wednesday, and the place filled up just as we were leaving, like one of those cool clubs where only the losers show up before 11 p.m.
The big circular bar dominates the room. Call for a drink and it’s served up on a coaster carrying a political caricature. On my last visit the barkeep offered a choice: a joint portrait of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer, Florida Governor Ron deSantis, or California Governor Gavin Newsome. I asked if he had any moderates back there. He smiled uncomfortably.
The drinks aren’t bad. I had a Smoking Mirrors, an Old Fashioned made with 10-year Whistlepig rye and infused with cherrywood smoke via a very crafty ritual of flame. But: $32. That Whistlepig don’t come cheap. Hey, at least it had a piece of bacon as garnish. Most drinks on the menu are more reasonable.
Pocket the coasters, and you’ll amortize your drinking tab as souvenirs.
The Vue: Look down on the President
This top-floor spectacular, lined with full windows facing three points of the compass, offers some of the coolest views of monumental Washington available to the public.
From the Vue you can see the Washington Monument close enough to remark on the brickwork, with the Jefferson Memorial tucked among the trees behind. To the southwest you see the top of the Lincoln Memorial. In the distance you see the little-known Air Force Memorial, three enormous sculptural contrails that shoot from the horizon. You also see the thick rim of mid-rise office buildings in Rosslyn, Va., which house the federal contractors who feed off federal programs like a hagfish off the carcass of a pike.
But -- here is the coolest part -- you also get to see what may be the only close-up views of the White House from above that people like you and me can get. Okay, well: The White House view is significantly obstructed by the expanse of the Treasury Building roofwork with its HVAC towers and whatnot, but as a bonus you can peer at the Presidential residence roof, which has long been said to be fitted with missiles, but who the hell knows. It looks like there’s a walk-out balcony (hey, didn’t I see that on House of Cards?). The White House is framed by the florid Second-Empire hulk of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Fun fact: That’s where most of the President’s staff work. The West Wing is small and cramped and houses only a handful of the closest aides.
In the Vue, you can grab a rail seat that puts you nose-to-glass for the views. But don’t sit at the bar: Your back will be to all the views. Oh, and both the food and drinks are forgettable. Swing by for the view, grab a quick picker-upper, and move on.
The Round Robin: Not a stand-up place
The historic Willard Hotel dates from the early 19th century, and it still reigns as temporary D.C. quarters for the potentates of the world, from oil barons to blue-suited supplicants hoping to land federal contracts to some very well-heeled recreational visitors. It’s the hotel of choice for donors around inauguration time. In its magnificent salons, Trumpists conspired feverishly on the afternoon of the January 6, 2021 insurrection.
But to the matter at hand: The Round Robin bar is a buffed-up re-creation of what the place might have looked like in the Willard’s youth, when it was the hostelry for 19th-century swells. (Mark Twain wrote two books there; Buffalo Bill stayed overnight.) As advertised the bar is round, occupying the room like an antique libatory command center, the sun cutting through a tower of cocktail glassware.
When the renovated Willard re-opened in the 1980s, the Round Robin fully recreated the 1880s experience by providing no chairs at the bar. Well that didn’t last long. Now you’ll find about 20 cushy bar stools, maybe a dozen tables, and the expected throwback Washington artwork.
The house cocktail is the Mint Julep, thanks to the bar’s role introducing the Southern favorite to Washington, as a balm to its sweltering summers. The Round Robin makes a polished one. But last time I had a Last Word, an 1880s classic, equal parts Gin, Green Chartreuse, Maraschino Liqueur, and lime juice. It made me wish I was standing up at the rail instead of sitting.
No it didn’t.
Cafe Milano: For a moment, you're a someone
And now we head to Georgetown, once the center of Washington’s social life but now a churning retail hub packed with national chains, cupcakeries, noodle shops, and a small number of one-off specialty stores and restaurants.
A few blocks from the center of madness you’ll find Cafe Milano, where Washington’s bold-faced names gather -- Congress members, cabinet officials, ambassadors, hot shot journalists, sports stars, Hollywood actors. An armada of black Chevy Suburbans usually idles out front. To drop just a few names: Barack and Michelle Obama, Michael Jordan, Sen. Joe Manchin, Bradley Cooper, the queen of Jordan, Ivanka Trump, Jennifer Lawrence, Serena Williams...you get the idea.
And you can go there too! My wife and I stopped in late one Saturday afternoon. I wore jeans and a henley. She arrived on a bike and her hair was wild. We were treated with great hospitality by the hostess and the folks behind the bar. They probably thought we were the sort of people who are so rich they don’t have to care about what others think. If only they knew. We left a good tip.
The restaurant is bright and contemporary, the bar generous and well-stocked with an alarming selection of beverages that can gut your wallet with one misjudgment. But you can enjoy a fine shared contemporary Italian-ish meal without pain, and wine and drinks are hardly more than you’ll pay at most upmarket bistros.
Martin’s Tavern: You don’t know Jack
Our last stop is a small corner tavern in Georgetown that’s been in the hands of the same family for four generations.
Let me be plain: The place puts the “shabby” in “shabby charm.” In my visits the food has been unremarkable, the drinks undistinguished. The quarters are cramped, cut-up, and unrestored. When you walk up to the restroom you have to duck your head. And I’m 5’7”.
But Martin’s Tavern is the place where neighborhood resident Senator John F. Kennedy proposed to his girlfriend, Jackie Bouvier, in 1959. The well-beaten booth is marked with a plaque.
Everybody wants to reserve the Kennedy table. Good luck with that. Maybe you’ll have a chance if you tell them you’re going to propose yourself, or at least renew your vows or something. If you’re ready to tell a useful lie for personal gain, cheers to you! You’re starting to absorb the true Washington vibe.