It’s been a busy year on the local bar scene with numerous openings and (shockingly) very few closings. Let’s look back at five trends that, for me, defined 2011.
Moving on up
Lots of rooftop decks or off-street patios debuted this year -- an easy way for bars to expand if the owners can’t afford the real estate next door. The best part is that they all have different flavors: Rock and Roll Hotel is divey and rough around the edges (and has great mulled wine) ; Jack Rose serves up tropical-style cocktails on balmy days; Lost Society is more of a DJ lounge with views up and down U Street; Biergarten Haus’s roof seats help ease the crush in the beer garden; El Centro D.F. hosts frozen margarita happy hours; Tru Orleans’ wrought-iron railings and Abita beers conjures memories of New Orleans; Arlington Rooftop Bar and Grill is a place to watch the big game; Whitlow’s is going for a tiki/beach hut feel. A number of backyard decks -- Smith Commons, the Queen Vic, Dodge City -- served as quiet places to enjoy with a drink outdoors.
For the first time since the 1950s, Washington has commercial breweries that we can call our own. DC Brau debuted to huge crowds at Meridian Pint in April and was sold on draft and in cans at dozens of bars by the end of the year. Chocolate City beers began showing up on draft over the summer and can be found from H Street to Columbia Heights. Across the Potomac, Alexandria’s Port City and Ashburn’s Lost Rhino opened for business, and are now all over Virginia and D.C.
Above-and-beyond bar food
I had some of my favorite meals of the year in bars: Oxtail pappardelle with bone marrow at the Queen Vic on H Street, where chef Ian Reeves arrived after a stint at one of London’s better-reviewed gastropubs, the Bull and Last; a buttery four-cheese grilled cheese sandwich, fried pickles and a mug of German beer at the Standard beer garden; duck lettuce wraps at the Passenger; a plate of Italian meats and cheeses with Jeff Faile’s outstanding $5 happy hour cocktails at Fiola; the muddy smoked wings (rubbed with the house chipotle honey butter) and a basket of fried okra at Smoke and Barrel. I could go on, but I’m getting hungry.
In an ideal world, a growing number of great neighborhood bars wouldn’t be a trend in Washington -- it would be a fact of life, as it is everywhere else. But whether you blame the economy or the real estate market, many of the really memorable places that opened in 2011 are focused on getting the basics right for a neighborhood clientele. Uniontown, the Boundary Stone and William Jeffery’s Tavern are all worth visiting, though they’re all off the beaten path for a bar crawl. Lucky neighbors. And even in the most congested of neighborhoods, you can still find small, local places with the owners behind the bar -- take MiG Bar, the one-room Adams Morgan drinking den that pairs good music, cheap beers and fun movie nights while avoiding the usual 18th Street shenanigans.
H Street still hasn’t turned into Adams Morgan!
Every time another liquor license application comes up on H Street NE -- and there are a lot of them coming up -- I await the chorus of neighbors wondering whether the popular nightlife district is going to turn into “another Adams Morgan.” (Example A: “We don’t want to be the next Adams Morgan,” ANC Commissioner Adam Healy told NBC4 back in September.) But while Adams Morgan is full of party bars and late-night loitering, the places that opened on H Street this year seem more urbane: High-end cocktails at Church & State, the British pub vibe at the Queen Vic, sophisticated ramen at Toki Underground, the multicultural vibe and craft beers at Smith Commons, the Wall Street-esque pricing scheme at the Big Board.