A Little Bamboo With Your Beer?

Friday, July 7, 2006

The most unlikely happy hour spot in Washington boasts a setting that any restaurant or bar would covet: an enormous patio with numerous tables, plenty of trees providing shade, a great view, convenient parking and Metro access, and beers for less than $4.

Oh, and pandas.

Meeting your crew for a drink at the National Zoo (3001 Connecticut Ave. NW; 202-673-4800) sounds about as likely as taking your visiting relatives out for late-night dancing at Cubik or holding a keg party at the Jefferson Memorial, but it's completely on the up-and-up and a great idea the next time someone complains that they need an interesting new happy hour.

The Panda Cafe, on the heavily trafficked Olmstead Walk between the cheetahs and the Elephant House, isn't a fancy spot. The primary draw is a concrete observation deck overlooking the rear half of the giant panda habitat. Visitors young and old lean on railings and crane their necks for a glimpse of Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and rambunctious little Tai Shan, who will celebrate his first birthday Sunday. A concession stand sells the usual mix of juice, pizza and popsicles, and families gather for lunch at picnic tables under a shading canopy or next to planters filled with bamboo.

What's not well advertised is that the same stand offers beer as well as soda. There are no drink specials -- just an everyday price of $3.95 for a 12-ounce cup of Budweiser or Bud Light or $4.50 for selected "microbrew." At the moment, the latter option is Kirin Lager, from the largest brewer in Japan and a fixture at sushi restaurants across town.

"Beers at the Zoo" sounds like a challenge, so recently, friends and I met up about 3 for a couple of Kirins. Tai Shan was in an effervescent mood and put on an extended show, swinging between two branches like they were uneven bars, lolling beneath low-hanging limbs and scaling his mother's back and nipping at her tail. The crowd responded with squeals and loud cries of "awww" whenever he fell over or did something cute, which seemed to be every other minute.

This brings me to the most disconcerting aspect of the Panda Cafe: If you're not used to being surrounded by kids when you're drinking, you may want to choose another destination. You may just tear out your hair when faced with the inevitable cooing and baby talk ("Can you see the panda? Can you? Can you see him?"), recoil from shrieking children with hands sticky from ice cream or mutter under your breath after being jostled by tired, camera-toting parents who want to get a picture of Tai Shan before putting the kids back in the stroller and moving on to the next exhibit.

Zoo visitors also know that visiting Tai Shan can be a hit-or-miss experience. Instead of a perpetual-motion show like we saw, you might hang around for an hour and catch only a glimpse of a static black-and-white mound of fluff high in a tree. (Tian Tian, Tai Shan's father, is usually eating or sleeping, which doesn't make for an exciting visit.) And if the animals are inside or resting in one of the dens at the front of the yard, it's impossible to see anything from the cafe.

It's best to visit the Panda Cafe on a weekend because unless you've taken the day off, you probably won't make it for a plastic cup of Bud after work. Food and drink are supposed to be served until 5, but one Saturday, zoo staffers stopped just before 4:45 to "get ready to close up for the day." Those aren't the kind of hours that nightlife savants are used to keeping. Besides, Tai Shan usually heads inside about the same time. At that point, with no beer for sale and the main attraction being put to bed, you might as well head up the street and hit the rooftop deck at the Cleveland Park Bar and Grill on your way to the Metro.

Still, you got to spend happy hour looking at pandas. As small talk goes, that's a pretty impressive way to break the ice.

-- Fritz Hahn

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