In my role as The Washington Post’s NIGHTLIFE reporter, I spend the majority of my time exploring happy hours, hunting down the freshest ales on tap and sampling the latest cocktails from the city’s most creative bartenders. Late weekend nights are expected, but I usually stay out until the wee hours on weeknights, too, checking out bands or sipping whiskey — and sometimes both. ¶ Except in January, when I swear off alcohol.
In each of the past six years, I’ve given up drinking for several weeks at a time, usually at the beginning of the year. No beer (that includes non-alcoholic varieties), no wine, no spirits. I’m so serious about it that I leave out anything that contains traces of alcohol, such as Scope or Nyquil.
For me, giving up booze for a few weeks after the holidays is like pushing away from the table after a big meal. December is a month in which seasonal happy hours, office parties and gatherings with friends and families stack up night after night. Rich food, spiked punch, boozier-than-usual beers: By the time the ball drops on New Year’s Eve, I’m full, I’m tired and I need some time to digest.
There are health benefits to giving up alcohol, of course. The time off gives my liver a chance to regenerate. Consuming fewer drinks means consuming fewer calories, so I always lose weight. I’ve found I sleep better. My blood pressure goes down as well.
(This is all great, but at the same time, I’d hate to make anyone think that giving up booze for a few weeks is a panacea. If you drink to excess the other 11 months of the year, one little break will not do much for your overall health — especially if you leap headfirst off the wagon.)
For some people, a multi-week break from alcohol would be a welcome excuse to stay in every night, assembling Ikea furniture, organizing their record collection or catching up on book club selections. I’m not one of them. My job is writing about nightlife, and I don’t get a paid vacation while I’m off the sauce. I still spend my nights in cocktail lounges and dance clubs and at happy hours — I just don’t drink while I’m doing it.
There are times when teetotaling feels unusual — for instance, watching my favorite soccer team in a pub on a Saturday morning, drinking coffee and a virgin bloody mary instead of a pint of bitter. I feel conspicuous when I find myself at a bar and I’m the only one without a drink. Last week, I visited Jackpot, a new basement tavern across the street from Verizon Center. It’s a simple place: 24 taps, including some excellent craft brews and well-chosen spirits. The bartender kept my pint glass filled with ice water and lemon. My friends tried a round of aged rum, and the bartender poured a sample into a small shot glass and set it in front of me. I sniffed it, looked at it meaningfully and set it back on the bar unsipped.
By now, I’m used to seeing a server’s face fall slightly when he or she realizes I’m not ordering (and tipping on) an expensive cocktail or couple of beers. I’ve played the “I’m the designated driver” card to lessen the stigma of being the only one who’s not imbibing, even though I haven’t owned a car in years. And I’ve steered clear of my neighborhood tavern, where the bartenders have a beer and a shot of whiskey ready for me by the time my backside hits the barstool. I’m sure going in there dry would just feel awkward for everyone.
But the truth is, going out without drinking is easier than ever. An increasing number of bars create unique flavors of gourmet soda, which can be spiked and served as highballs or enjoyed on their own. Mixologists who embrace the challenge of building a gin cocktail to suit a customer’s taste are usually happy to try to whip up something interesting with the selection of juices, syrups and bitters behind the bar. And the Chuck E. Cheese-ification of bars — think Skee-Ball, shuffleboard, board games — means that you can hang out and drink Coke with no one noticing. Taken overall, this is a boon for people who’ve chosen to stop drinking for whatever reason, whether pregnant or just taking a turn as the designated driver. Everyone should be able to enjoy a night out, even if they’re taking a night off.
Sobriety doesn’t mean you’re relegated to sipping Coke or club soda with a lime (although that drink makes a fine last resort). Washington is one of the country’s top cocktail towns, and our talented bartenders aren’t just mixing concoctions with name-brand spirits; they’re crafting their own proprietary sodas and syrups which, conveniently, also can be used on their own in non-alcoholic beverages. (A bonus: You’ll pay about $5 for these non-alcoholic drinks, or roughly half the price of an average stiff drink.)
Here are tips for exploring the sober side of the cocktail scene.
Check the menu
Bartender Jon Harris of Firefly creates what I refer to as trompe l’oeil cocktails: Non-alcoholic drinks that look and taste remarkably similar to their boozy counterparts. His “Gin and Tonic” is based around a “gin infusion” of traditional gin spices, such as juniper, coriander and star anise, in water, to which he adds tonic syrup and limes. An “Old Fashioned” is made with barley tea in place of whiskey, plus a lemon twist and non-alcoholic bitters.
Sometimes, the non-alcoholic versions are better than their cousins: Harris’s “Cosmo” — which he says is one of Firefly’s most popular drinks, even when it’s not on the menu — mixes orange flower water, lime and homemade grenadine with cranberry bitters. It lacks the cloying sweetness that you get from a “real” Cosmopolitan, though it retains the bright pink color.
Firefly, 1310 New Hampshire Ave. NW. 202-861-1310.
Also try: Daikaya (Chinatown).
Ask the bartender
If you don’t see non-alcoholic drinks on the menu, don’t be afraid to ask. Many bartenders are receptive to trying to concoct a special drink without spirits, much in the same way they’re happy to get creative while helping a customer find the perfect cocktail.
At 2 Birds 1 Stone, the relaxing lounge under Doi Moi, a bartender took the wonderfully spicy house ginger beer — which is usually combined with cinnamon-infused gin in the bar’s take on a Pimm’s Cup — and shook it with mint and limes to create a bracing cooler that tasted like a gingery mojito.
Other drinks I enjoyed at 2 Birds 1 Stone included a tiki-style combination of passion fruit, grapefruit and pineapple with a touch of basil and shaved nutmeg on top; and a fizz made with the house carrot soda, which has a rich body and spice thanks to orange curry and ginger.
2 Birds 1 Stone, 1800 14th St. NW. www.2birds1stonedc.com.
Try a special soda
These days, more and more bartenders are also soda jerks. Some of my favorite house-made sodas are found at Graffiato, where my staple has long been the pungent 5 Spice ginger beer. The seasonal options, including a delicate pear and rosemary and a fruity, dry pineapple and sage, also satisfy.
Green Pig Bistro in Clarendon has a great list that rotates frequently; the rich vanilla-cinnamon cream soda and hibiscus-grapefuit sodas were my favorites this winter.
Graffiato, 707 Sixth St. NW. 202-289-3600. www.graffiatodc.com.
Green Pig Bistro, 1025 N. Fillmore St., Arlington. 703-888-1920. www.greenpigbistro.com.
Let’s be frank: When you make plans to rendezvous with friends after work, the point is to enjoy a few drinks before going home. If you’re avoiding alcohol, though, happy hour loses some of its luster. Instead of moping, freshen up your routine with one of these alternatives to the bar scene.
If you want to flex your creative muscles, the Corcoran Gallery of Art can help. Those who are serious about leaning a new skill can try the Create at the Corcoran workshop, which is led by instructors from the College of Art and Design. The two-hour, hands-on classes are small (10 to 15 participants) and they teach the basics of making jewelry, crafting glazed ceramic tiles, or, as 12 students did in January, painting a still life under the watchful eye of artist Joey Manlapaz in one of the college’s basement studios.
Be sure to plan ahead: Classes sell out a month or two in advance; check the Corcoran’s Web site for information about upcoming events, and sign up for e-mails for the first crack at available classes.
Looking for something less formal? Corcoran Uncorked, held the third Wednesday of each month, is a themed open house (the name is a nod to the optional wine tastings and cash bar). January’s event focused on “New Year’s Resolutions,” so dozens of participants took short gallery tours that also taught basic phrases in foreign languages (learning to ask “Bonsoir. Comment allez-vous?” in front of a painting of a cafe scene, for example). Other guests made memory books or watched CrossFit demonstrations.
Next month’s Uncorked, on Feb. 19, is a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock; expect movie trivia, a chance to print your own vintage movie poster, screenings of “Rear Window” and “The Birds,” and a tour of the Alex Prager photography exhibition.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW. 202-639-1700. www.corcoran.org. Admission to Corcoran Uncorked is $12; Price for Create at the Corcoran is usually $30, and includes all supplies.
The Library of Congress is best known for its books, but it also houses one of the world’s largest film repositories. Movies are regularly shown in the Mary Pickford Theater in the James Madison Building on Independence Avenue. The screenings are based on themes, such as documentaries about Richard Wagner operas last fall or this month’s series of jazz-related films. (“Black Friday,” about the late trumpeter Lawrence “Butch” Morris, screens Friday at 7 p.m.) Admission is free, though space is limited; doors open 30 minutes before showtime.
Library of Congress film screenings:
Mary Pickford Theater, James Madison Building, 101 Independence Ave. SE, third floor. 202-707-5502. www.loc.gov. Free.
Spend enough time in Washington and you’ll hear about concerts, film screenings and parties at embassies and cultural institutes. And you usually don’t have to know someone who knows someone to get in.
Wine tastings, French-language game nights, concerts and cinema are on the agenda at the Alliance Française. Besides evening events, the French cultural institute offers language classes and crash vocabulary courses that will provide you with les essentiels for a trip to Paris.
The Mexican Cultural Institute regularly hosts music, art and lectures at its Columbia Heights headquarters. Admission is free for most events, including the Feb. 4 concert by the contemporary CEPROMUSIC Ensemble and the Feb. 27 Ibero-American Film Showcase, though RSVPs are required.
Germany’s Goethe-Institut tends to tackle more serious subjects at its Penn Quarter event center: Next month’s calendar has a three-day “Uranium Film Festival,” with documentaries exploring issues and challenges related to nuclear power, and March brings the Environmental Film Festival and related panel discussions.
Alliance Française, 2142 Wyoming Ave. NW. 202-234-7911. www.francedc.org.
Mexican Cultural Institute, 2829 16th St. NW. 202-728-1628. www. instituteofmexicodc.org.
Goethe-Institut, 812 Seventh St. NW.
Sitting at the bar when you’re not imbibing can be uncomfortable, whether your friends are drinking or not. So instead of chatting over a tall glass of ice water, find a place where your group can leave behind the barstools and do something fun:
●At the cavernous Penn Social in Penn Quarter, for example, the bar isn’t the focus of the room — heck, the long row of Skee-Ball machines takes up more space than the beer taps. Bring quarters for foosball or the Pop-A-Shot basketball games and dollar bills for “Big Buck Hunter.” Reserve a shuffleboard or pool table. Play the Jenga set made from two-by-fours. There’s plenty of space if you just want to spread out and watch sports on television, too.
●I have a certain fondness for Atlas Arcade on H Street NE, thanks to memories of pumping quarters into “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Double Dragon II” and “The Simpsons” video games in my younger days. All of them are available at Atlas, along with a selection of sodas, as well as Red Bull.
●The game-themed Board Room in Dupont Circle offers customers a mix of the old and familiar, such as Connect 4, Trivial Pursuit and Don’t Break the Ice, and newer hits, including Cards Against Humanity and Settlers of Catan. (Game rental costs $1-$5.) The drink menu is heavy on draft beers and cocktails, but you can ask bartenders for non-alcoholic sips, such as the house-made cola used in the Adult Cherry Cola cocktail or the fizzy mango water that’s a part of the Bionic Woman.
Penn Social, 801 E St. NW.
The Board Room, 1737 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-518-7666. www.boardroomdc.com.
Atlas Arcade, 1236 H St. NE.
Going to a concert is the easiest entertainment option for people who want to go out but don’t want to feel pressured to drink. When you’re at the Rock and Roll Hotel, the Black Cat or U Street Music Hall, the bands and DJs are the focus, not whether you’ve got a glass of something in your hand. Even better, at many music venues, you don’t have to ask the bartender to pour you a water: The aforementioned clubs have large jugs of ice water sitting at one end of their respective bars, along with plastic cups.
The three clubs also sell non-alcoholic drinks; I’m partial to Abita Root Beer at the Cat, while cans of Red Bull are popular with crowds dancing until 3 a.m. at U Hall.
Then there are music and dancing venues where alcohol isn’t even an option. The historic Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo, for example, is home to all-ages swing, ballroom and tango dances every week, and nothing harder than soda is sold, since alcohol is not permitted on National Park Service property.
But a word of warning: Things can still get awkward at a club that offers alternatives to alcohol. I went to Hill Country earlier this month to catch Whiskey Shivers, an awesome alt-bluegrass band from Austin. The barbecue restaurant’s menu has a solid list of sodas, from black cherry cola to Mexican Coke to Big Red, a candy-sweet Texas concoction that’s otherwise impossible to find in this area. When I finally fought my way to the bar in the crowded basement concert hall, the bartender told me that they didn’t stock non-alcoholic drinks downstairs. She sent a server upstairs to grab me a soda, while I waited in limbo for eight minutes, the clock ticking closer to set time. Everyone who wanted a beer or a margarita got it right away.
The show started soon after I got my drink. When the bottle was empty, I decided against the hassle of getting a second one.
Rock and Roll Hotel, 1353 H St. NE. 202-388-7625.
Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW.
U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. 202-588-1880.
Spanish Ballroom at Glen Echo Park, 7300 MacArthur Blvd.,
Glen Echo. 301-634-2222.
Hill Country, 410 Seventh St. NW. 202-556-2050.