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Posted at 02:07 PM ET, 03/30/2011

Now open: Hill Country, Standard and more new bars

Between St. Patrick’s Day and the NCAA tournament, bars are often extra crowded in March. But the scene has been especially busy recently, thanks to all the new bars opening around town. These are our first impressions of five new arrivals; let us know about your experiences in the comments.

Hill Country

Barbecue-lovers are buzzing about the arrival of Hill Country, the New York-based purveyor of Texas-style barbecue, and fans of country and honky-tonk music have reason to be excited, too.

Bands perform Tuesday through Saturday in the spacious “Boot Bar” in the basement of the Penn Quarter restaurant, and the low stage offers good sightlines and great sound. Local country and rockabilly artists that have performed so far include Wil Gravatt and J.P. McDermott and Western Bop; upcoming highlights include the classic country tunes from the full Wil Gravatt Band on Thursday.

Wednesday marks the debut of Rock N Twang Karaoke, which lets amateurs take the stage and sing one of a few hundred songs -- anything from Johnny Cash to Guns N’ Roses -- while backed by a live band.

If you need some liquid courage, it helps that there’s a strong daily happy hour that runs from 5 to 7 and again from 10 to close, with $2 shots, $5 rail drinks and two-for-one beers and specialty drinks. The two-fer beers and drinks choices change every day; on Friday, for example, the deals applied to house margaritas, PBR cans, Budweiser and Bud Light. Outside of happy hour, stick to the house cocktails -- the Kreuz Margarita ($10) gets a nice little burn from serrano peppers.

A word of warning: The logistics of eating and drinking can be a pain. Once you’re at your table downstairs where the bands play, you place your drink order with a server (who takes your credit card if you open a tab), and then go back upstairs to get your brisket and ‘cue, which is generally purchased by the pound. The amount of food is recorded on a passport-sized card that you hold on to, just in case you want seconds. Then you carry your trays back downstairs to eat. At the end of the night, you pay for the drinks downstairs before taking the “passport” food order card upstairs to cashiers by the front door to pay for any food. I was told one night that even if I wasn’t dining, I had to carry one of those passports with me to prove I hadn’t had any barbecue. (If you can’t show the card when you leave, the restaurant’s policy is that you have to pay $50. No kidding.)

Servers seemed a little confused that my friends and I just wanted to see the band, and they were a little pushy about trying to get us to order barbecue. (We eventually did, and that brisket is highly recommended.) It helps that there’s no cover charge for any live performance.

— Fritz Hahn

Standard

With little initial fanfare, Standard — no capital letters, no “The” — has opened in the former Garden District store at 14th and S streets NW. The concrete building set back from the sidewalk used to showcase seasonal blooms and gardening supplies; now, it’s all about seasonal brews and a small barbecue menu. The place is so small it borders on claustrophobic: The patio is only wide enough for a handful of communal benches that seat between six and eight. On sunny afternoons and warm weekend evenings, there’s been a one-in, one-out policy in effect.

It’s easy to see why. The draft list is small but well-chosen, and nothing’s over $7. A mug of Hofbrau or North Coast’s Scrimshaw pilsner are the biggest bargains at $5.46 per pint. When paired with a pulled pork, brisket, bratwurst or even a grilled cheese sandwich ($6.37 each), it’s a particularly satisfying (and, for the neighborhood, relatively cheap) pairing. If you’re wondering about the odd prices on the menu, it’s because those numbers round up to $6 or $7 when you add tax.

The best time to go? When the place opens at 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday (It will be open on Monday and Tuesday once the weather warms up). Service goes until 1 a.m., but when the weather is warm, the place stays full. Be prepared to wait on weekends, when Standard’s gates open at noon.

— Alex Baldinger

The Limerick Pub

Here’s something you don’t find every day: A comfortable neighborhood Irish pub in the heart of Wheaton. The one-room Limerick Pub opened a week before St. Patrick’s Day, and it’s settling in nicely. There’s live Irish music every Friday and Saturday starting at 8 p.m., and it features bands like Garryowen and the Irish Breakdown. Sunday brings a well-attended traditional Irish seisiun, or jam session. Anyone can bring an instrument to play a few reels, beginning at 5:30 p.m.

The bar pours proper pints of Guinness and offers a nice selection of Irish whiskey, too -- peaty Connemara single malt, the light-colored Knappogue Castle ’92, a few varieties of Bushmills and Jameson. It seems like a cliche, but almost everyone at the bar knew each other (and the bartenders) by name already. That’s always a good sign.

Trivia night is coming soon -- it will be on Mondays, starting sometime in April -- and the pub is entering a team in the Washington Area Darts Association’s league later this year. Two dartboards are located in an alcove by the front door. One thing that seemed odd to me was the high-topped table and barstools blocking one of the lanes; I’m told it is moved when someone wants to play.

If you visit the pub once (have the fish and chips with a pint of McSorley’s Black Lager), you may want to become a regular. Here’s a reward: The pub is organizing a fall trip to Ireland to tour distilleries and pubs. Ask at the bar for more information.

— Fritz Hahn

Lou’s City Bar

Columbia Heights needed a bar with a large outdoor area and plenty of TVs. Lou’s City Bar fills both requirements admirably, with 19 screens of varying sizes on every wall and behind the 45-foot bar, plus a few more on the tented-and-heated sidewalk patio. All that makes it a great reason to stop in during March Madness. Sadly, just about everything else is just “blah” at best.

Service is completely hit or miss. One night, several people at one end of the bar were trying to get drinks, but one of the bartenders seemed completely oblivious. The burgers were dry and the “hot” wings weren’t as flavorful as advertised. Aisles around the bar are congested, and when all stools are taken, it’s hard to find anywhere to stand and watch a game without being repeatedly bumped -- especially when your attention is focused on a TV hanging over your head.

The bartenders don’t seem to know much about the beers, either. I heard one guy ask “Do you have any ales?” only to be met with a blank stare. Among the 24 drafts, there are maybe three or beers above the usual Budweiser and Smithwicks, including choices from Brooklyn and Troegs.(Getting a feel for customers could be an issue; I don’t think I’ve been in without at least one tap being off because they’d run out of the beer.) On my last after-work visit, the happy hour special was $3 Killian’s Irish Red.

I wouldn’t care if the drafts at Lou’s consisted solely of Bud, Bud Light and Guinness as long as I could get a good plate of wings, helpful servers and watch sports. Maybe once college basketball is over, Lou’s can take a deep breath and find its feet.

— Fritz Hahn

Mad Rose Tavern

This Clarendon nightspot has multiple bars, a solid whiskey selection, lounge areas with couches and a massive courtyard area that will be a magnet come warm weather.

Only a month old, the place is still trying to find its footing. On Friday, the blog ARLnow.com revealed that Mad Rose’s general manager, who’d designed the concept, had been fired.

It does seem like the place has some identity issues. While the name says dive bar, the menu is more high-end: there are upscale pigs in a blanket (brats wrapped in puff pastry) and deviled eggs topped with lump crab meat, alongside 40 single malt scotches and 20 draft beers. The leather couches are good for groups, but they feel out of place among large TVs and a sports bar-lite vibe. The loud Lady Gaga-and-Ke$ha soundtrack is jarring on a Thursday night.

These disconnects are off-putting, but the place’s patio could make it a prime attraction once the warm weather decides to stick around. With its high tables for groups of 6 to 8 and comfortable wicker-style chairs, the patio could become Clarendon’s best non-rooftop outdoor happy hour spot. And since it’s in the courtyard of 3100 Clarendon -- the same area as SoBe -- it has a more secluded feel than the sidewalk tables that are prevalent in the neighborhood.

If the sun is out and you’re looking for good drink specials -- say, $5 microbrews and $4 glasses of wine -- then this is a place to stop by. But I’m going to wait until things shake out a bit before I go again.

— Fritz Hahn

By and  |  02:07 PM ET, 03/30/2011

Categories:  Bars and Clubs

 
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