Capital Cheers: The Best Bars in Washington, D.C.
With craft breweries, distilleries and locally owned bars on the rise, there's never been a better time to drink in the District.
There’s never been a better time to be thirsty in Washington, D.C., where craft brewing and distilling are booming simultaneously. The city has an undeniably strong bar scene — not only do hardworking locals like to kick back with a cocktail, but District denizens also consume the most wine per capita in the country. Here are 12 locales that should be a part of any imbibing itinerary, from breweries and a distillery to the trendiest places to order drinks. Cheers!
Photos by Laura Hayes
Cocktail Bar: 2 Birds 1 Stone
When you walk into this cocktail den on 14th Street, you’re supposed to feel like you’re at a good friend’s house party — if that friend were impossibly cool and had impressive bar skills. Descend the stairs and you’ll notice scenesters on barstools and couples tucked into semi-private nooks perusing Bar Director Adam Bernbach’s hand-drawn weekly menu. There’s always balance between booze-forward heavy drinks and more delicate tropical cocktails or punches. Bananas Is My Business, for example, blends whiskey, amaro, hefeweizen and banana soda. As with sibling restaurants Proof and Estadio, 2 Birds has restroom decor that’s well worth a peek.
Ordering off the draft list at Bluejacket is a little like dating in the District — you can’t get attached, because there’s a good chance your love won't be here for long. With a menu that changes weekly, the Navy Yard brewpub practically guarantees a new swap on the 24-beer list each time you visit. Beer Director Greg Engert always stays on trend — meaning a current focus on sour beers. Also consider sipping one of Bluejacket’s signature drafts, which could include a mole-inspired stout called Mexican Radio or a dry-hopped Kölsch dubbed Forbidden Planet. Taster pours ($2 to $4.50) are always available, and free tours are offered on Saturdays (except when there’s a Nationals game).
Speakeasy: Dram & Grain
Tucked in the underbelly of Jack Rose Dining Saloon is a hush-hush bar that succeeds in not being a speak-cheesy. Sure, having a Facebook page may detract from the secrecy, but guests do need to text a burner phone for a Friday or Saturday reservation. The 20-seat bar operates on a first-come, first-served basis Tuesday through Thursday, and there’s always a two-drink minimum. That won’t be a problem, given the leather-bound drink menu’s classic and creative original cocktails. The Double Dragon combines top-shelf bourbon, bitters and bone-washed Cynar and Becherovka, which both spend some time with smoked turkey fat, lending a rich mouthfeel.
Date Night: Iron Gate
Stepping out onto this vine-canopied patio gives the same tingly romantic feeling as seeing The Notebook for the first time. Though the restaurant could probably rest on the laurels of atmosphere alone, its food, wine and cocktail programs are excellent, making it ideal for date-night drinking. Start with something stiff like the bourbon-based Art of Almost before moving on to Iron Gate’s calling card: Greek wine. Since red is more readily associated with romance, order a bottle that’s light enough for the Greek dishes. Wine Director Brent Kroll recommends the 2012 Tetramythos “Black of Kalavryta” from the Peloponnese ($40), which is similar to Pinot Noir or Gamay, and will hold up alongside Mediterranean small plates like charred feta-stuffed squid.
No-Frills Bar: Tune Inn
Beers served mere hours after sunrise, all-day breakfast, a beer-battered burger and plenty of local history all make the Tune Inn one of the most-beloved dives in the city. Open since 1947, the bar has been run by three generations of the Nardelli family, which helps keep locals and Hill staffers coming back. An appearance on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives may have contributed to the well-deserved hype, but what’s not to love about drinking dirt-cheap cans of beer (paired with shots when necessary) in a low-lit watering hole embellished by taxidermy?
D.C. Haunt: Off the Record
Set in a basement just across from the White House in The Hay-Adams hotel, Off the Record seems designed for those looking to have serious conversations over stiff drinks in the city shadows. Maximize your experience by nipping at a peaty Islay Scotch or a perfectly constructed Manhattan in a luxe red velvet-backed booth while ogling the political caricatures lining the walls — one or two of the contemporary etchings may depict someone who is currently in the bar with you. Expect to sip high-end bottled water, nibble bar snacks like spicy Asian cucumber and marinated olives, and be cared for by a bartender who takes his job as seriously as the president takes his.
Sherry Bar: Mockingbird Hill
The District’s ham-and-sherry bar debunks myths about a liquid more often associated with cooking by serving it with a sidecar of education. Thanks to passionate staffers and a menu that reads like a good book, novices are bound to learn about the remarkable range of sherry, from delicate finos to sticky cream sherries. Mockingbird Hill has amassed 95 different sherry options to date, serving them neat, in creative flights and in cocktails further demonstrating the fortified wine’s versatility. The Shaw bar even launched sherry-based tiki cocktails for warm weather, like The Fog Cutter, with a funky oloroso float. Snacks like Manchego cheese served with a honey dipper and chocolate-covered corn nuts are choice pairings.
Beach Bar: Pop’s SeaBar
You can hit the beach without even leaving town, thanks to Pop’s SeaBar and its retro sips. This urban beach bar puts twists on beloved, familiar classics, like its Hup Hup Orange Crush, combining vodka, aquavit, Combier, orange juice and lemon. It’s finished with oranges that get charred on the grill, adding an unexpected depth of flavor. Also try the most-Instagrammable drink in the city: an Ice Cream Luge. It’s hard not to want to snap a picture while a server pours amaro down the side of an ice cream sandwich. The bar keeps up the beach theme with fried seafood — an excellent pairing with the canned beers. You can either pay $1 to keep your can cool in a Pop’s SeaBar koozie, or bring in any you kept as a wedding souvenir and they’ll trade you for it.
Wine Bar: Flight Wine Bar
Pre-game drinks options near the Verizon Center can be very sports-centric, unless you know where to look. Flight Wine Bar pours wines from around the world, offering an impressive mix of options, all sans snobbery. The playful menu features 20 flights with themes like Sailing on the Mediterranean and Hipster and Proud of It. Beyond flights, the menu includes 40 wines by the glass, and a collection of pricier choices available in single-ounce pours utilizing the Coravin system (listed in the perfectly punned Higher Altitude section of the menu). The list aims to include 250 bottles, meaning it has the perfect wine for every flight of fancy.
Beer Garden: Dacha Beer Garden
It’s easy to mistake Shaw for Bavaria with a visit to Dacha Beer Garden. Set under a perky mural of Elizabeth Taylor, the bar features expansive seating, cooling misters on hot days, ample taps and a full food menu starring sausages and schnitzel. There’s even brunch with beertails on the weekends. Sound knowledgeable when stepping up to the three-sided bar by practicing the word Weihenstephaner — Dacha is largest retailer of the German beer in the world, according to co-owner Dmitri Chekaldin. Mead, cider and wine are plentiful for the gluten-free crowd. When you find something you like, order it by the boot.
Brewery: 3 Stars Brewing Co.
3 Stars Brewing Co. never settles: Since opening in 2012, the brewery, led by Dave Coleman and Mike McGarvey, continues to innovate and double its production yield every year. The brewery debuted canned versions of Ghost, a white IPA, and a Citra Lemon Saison, making for ideal pool drinking. But if there were one bucket-list beer coming off the line, it would be Desolation — an imperial porter dry-hopped with coffee beans that is aged in a whiskey barrel before being roasted by Qualia Coffee. Coleman leads free tours Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., and you can pop in for pints and growler fills during tasting room hours.
Distillery: One Eight Distilling
This 2015 District distillery stands out because of its eye-catching, industrial-chic tasting room. The booze makes an impression too. Named for the section of the Constitution that establishes the District as the capital, One Eight produces Ivy City Gin, District Made Vodka and Rock Creek White Whiskey, with aged whiskeys on the way. The gin is noteworthy because of its American dry style boosted by spicebush, a botanical that was used for medicinal purposes before European settlement. Co-founder Sandy Wood says it lends white pepper and allspice notes, and only a handful of distillers use it. Visit from 1 to 4 p.m. on Saturdays for free tastings and tours, plus cocktails and bites from local food vendors.