Before it had settled into the neighborhood, the Presidents Sports Bar was the subject of controversy. Shortly after its late-February opening, a former Clinton staffer complained that the bar's decorations -- large photographs of American presidents playing sports or attending athletic events -- were biased toward Republicans and against his former boss.
He does have a point. When you walk in, you see several dramatic photographs of George W. Bush throwing out the first pitch at the 2001 World Series. Behind the bar, there's one photo of a flushed-looking Bill Clinton shooting pool. (The bar has promised to get more photos of Democrats.)
Political-themed bars, as fans of Capitol Lounge and Politiki can tell you, are hit or miss and certainly a natural for Washington. But Presidents is clever; and, for a history buff, the more than 50 poster-size photographs are better than the staid-looking portraits in many museums. On my first visits, I walked around, drink in hand, taking in the "exhibit": Gerald Ford playing football at the University of Michigan and, decades later, kicking a soccer ball with Pele at the White House; a young John F. Kennedy in his football gear, the young president yachting around Hyannis; William H. Taft playing golf. Numerous presidents are captured throwing out first pitches at Senators games.
But the hotel wants you to watch sports here, too. Nine televisions are scattered throughout the large, L-shaped room, including two flat-screen TVs behind the bar, invariably tuned to ESPN, ESPN2 or CNN.
It's an attractive space, even if the combination of rich red walls and dark wood have become predictable in bars that want that upscale look. (There is some blue on the walls to spice things up or add a splash of Americana.) The seating options vary from large, semicircular booths and high bar tables to a long banquette opposite the heavy wooden bar.
Still, it's hard to shake the "I'm in a hotel bar" feeling. Maybe it's the tourists wearing nametags and sitting in groups. Maybe it's the walk through the Renaissance Hotel's cavernous lobby (and past another cocktail bar) to reach the Presidents Sports Bar's entrance. Maybe it's the lighting -- harsher than you'll find in most happy hour hot spots. Maybe it's the staff wearing nametags.
Beers hover around $4, whether one of the three on tap or one from the longer list of bottles. There's a decent list of cocktails in the $8 to $9 range. (Save money at the daily happy hour from 4 to 7.) The menu doesn't move too far beyond bar-food basics (potato skins, nachos, burgers), although the buffalo wings are pretty good and several salads are available.
A great novelty bar, Presidents is the kind of place you can take your out-of-town friends and relatives, regardless of their political affiliation. The happy hour is a good addition to the neighborhood; but if you don't work in the neighborhood, Presidents is not the kind of watering hole you're going to go out of your way to visit more than once or twice -- unless you're overly fond of the Executive branch.
-- Fritz Hahn (March 2003)