Made in the Shade at Union Pub
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, May 5, 2006
Far too often, it seems like happy-hour deals and outdoor seating is a one-or-the-other proposition in Washington. The best after-work deals are mainly confined to bars that offer little more than a handful of tables on a sidewalk, while the most popular patios don't need to rely on cut-rate drinks to lure patrons through the doors.
Not at Union Pub, though, where one of Capitol Hill's best outdoor spaces offers a dizzying array of drink specials and happy hours targeted at both congressional staffers and neighborhood residents.
Let's start with the fenced patio, which is perfect for killing a lazy afternoon or evening without killing your budget. Because the 80 or so seats are shaded by a giant awning, it's not the place for people who want to bask in the sun like cats. On the other hand, it's ideal for Washington summers: The roof provides cover during sudden thunderstorms, so you won't have to scurry indoors for a three-minute downpour, and overhead ceiling fans keep air circulating despite stifling humidity. (Those who want some sun can sneak over to the "standing section" on the far left, where it's possible to catch a few rays during happy hour.) A pair of televisions, which always seem to be showing baseball or -- surprise -- CNN, are mounted high on the brick walls.
After work, the waits for outdoor tables are understandable, given the prime location on Massachusetts Avenue, just a few blocks from the Capitol and Union Station. (Psst, guys, please tuck away your laminated IDs once you're out of the office. Thanks.) A stream of servers rushes in and out of the bar, carrying pitchers of beer or frozen margaritas.
If all this is starting to sound familiar, it's because this corner bar was once Red River Grill, a destination for class after class of young Hill staffers. A fallout between owners led to Red River's closing in January 2005, and it reopened almost seven months later with a new look. Indoors, the wood paneling and Western knickknacks went the way of the uninspired Tex-Mex menu. The main bar took a page from the lounges popping up across the District, with an industrial combination of metal panels and barstools, icy blue walls and banquettes and touches of honey-colored wood. Farther back, the rear dining room is more of a Victorian saloon, thanks to plush carpet, red walls and a heavy wooden bar. Both spaces have plenty of seats, though you'll have to squeeze to get to the bar at prime times.
But Union Pub is really a destination for the Hill's captive audience -- unpaid interns, underpaid staffers -- looking to socialize and have a good time while getting the most bang for their happy-hour bucks.
It's easy to lose track of what prices are slashed when. Outside, a chalkboard announces all-night specials because "it's 5 o'clock somewhere" and discounted drinks for women. Posters in the doorway advertise $4 Samuel Adams beers and $11 Sam Adams Seasonal pitchers during baseball games. Cards on every table spell out a laundry list of deals for every night of the week, and when I talk to the bartender, he mentions others that I hadn't seen in print. (Since the Nationals and Red Sox were on TV, a combo of a jumbo hot dog with sauerkraut and a pint of beer was $7.95.) On Friday, for example, that "5 o'clock somewhere" deal m eans different beverages are discou nted every hour from 5 to 8: $2 rail drinks until 6, then $3 martinis, followed by $3 margaritas and, finally, $8 pitchers of domestic beers from 8 to 11. Hang around, and from 10 until close, women get $1 rail drinks and draft beers. As you'd expect, it's crowded and loud, but the crowd definitely extends beyond twenty-somethings.
Red River's legendary (and crowd-pleasing) Wednesday happy hour has also survived the changes, with $1.50 bottled beers from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., when they rise a whole 50 cents for the rest of the night. Also sticking around are Margarita Thursdays, when the attraction is large pitchers of mango, strawberry or "original" frozen margaritas for $14. My margarita-loving friends deemed them "average," and only the mango-flavored slushy made an impression on me. Still, one pitcher is more than enough for two people, especially when you can taste the tequila, and it does taste good on a hot day.
Ladies, the day to put on your calendar is Tuesday: Women receive free domestic beers and rail drinks from 5 to 7. No, there's no catch.
Union Pub's patio is a different place on Saturdays, when the ambitious young staffers are replaced by terriers, retrievers and Labradors. The Pooches on the Patio happy hour, which began last month, is a relaxing afternoon-long event that draws neighborhood couples who want to take their dogs out for a walk and stop in for a drink. It's a chance for both leashed canines and their owners to socialize. There's plenty of sniffing, some occasional barking and, thankfully, a lack of marking territory.
Last Saturday, the stars of the show were two gigantic Irish wolfhounds. When they stood, they towered over nearby tables. When they were lying down, they became huge, fuzzy gray speed bumps for the staff to walk around. It seemed like everyone on the patio, dog owner or not, had to come over and see the beasts for themselves.
Everyone, of course, gets free and discounted drinks. Union Pub staffers set out a metal tub of water near the patio's entrance and bring shallow bowls to individual tables, while humans are offered $10 pitchers of beer (served with a plate of fries) or those frozen margaritas, plus rotating food specials, including half-price burgers or chicken sandwiches.
Ah, the dog days of summer.