Happy Hour 101: Drink In the View

Charlie Palmer Steak's popular Happy Hour 101 means you might wait a while for a drink.
Charlie Palmer Steak's popular Happy Hour 101 means you might wait a while for a drink. (Jay Premack - Jay Premack/for The Washington P)
By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 5, 2007

The view from the rooftop terrace of 101 Constitution Ave. NW is an impressive sight, even for the most jaded of Washingtonians.

From this height, the U.S. Capitol seems to occupy most of the horizon. The entire building -- Senate chamber, Rotunda, House of Representatives -- looms across the street, perched atop the hill that gives the neighborhood its name, surrounded by trees and more greenery than you'd think.

In the other direction, you can see the Mall, including the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian Castle, and the dull beige sea of limestone buildings around Federal Triangle. Look carefully and you'll spot the Lincoln Memorial and, off in the distance, Alexandria's George Washington Masonic National Memorial. Closer in, you'll discover that the Department of Labor has picnic tables on its roof and that the Canadian Embassy has a pretty nice plot next to the U.S. Court House and the rising Newseum. (Look for the maple-leaf flag.) Until last month, this panorama was reserved for deep-pocketed lobbyists and organizations that rented the space for fundraisers and private parties. Then Charlie Palmer Steak, which occupies the first floor of the building, hit upon the idea of using the deck for an outdoor happy hour.

The Thursday night affairs, dubbed Happy Hour 101, attract a wide range of lively Hill types, from groups of 20-something girlfriends sipping white wine to older guys in suits networking over Scotch on the rocks. Despite the sun and the captivating vista, several people are on their BlackBerrys, either because they can't escape work or because they've ducked out of the office a few minutes early.

A large tent provides shade and protects patrons from rain, but it's filled with amenities, including couches, a carpeted floor and a DJ spinning Thievery Corporation-esque global lounge beats. Most of the action, though, is near the edge of the building, where crowds jostle for position along the railings, both to people-watch and to take cellphone pictures of themselves with the Capitol as a backdrop.

Given the setting, cocktail conversation is entirely predictable. Any presidential or congressional candidate looking for free advice should wander through and eavesdrop, because there's someone who knows exactly what his or her campaign is doing wrong.

One thing Happy Hour 101 seems to have forgotten is that happy hour usually means discounted drinks, not prices targeted at folks with expense accounts. Glasses of American wine, a specialty at Charlie Palmer, range from $7 to $13, and I've received undersize pours when bartenders are rushed. A bottle of Bud Light sets you back $5, and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale is a staggering $7.

Of course, you have to get a drink first. The first happy hour featured two small bars on opposite sides of the tent, which worked well. Then last week they'd been combined into one long bar, which meant that a chaotic (if good-natured) mob, unsure where to wait for service, formed in front of the bartenders, and everything slowed to a crawl. About 7, I noticed people ordering a drink and then going to the back of the line to wait again.

(Thankfully, the servers passing trays of complimentary hors d'oeuvres -- shrimp, bite-size pieces of crispy spring rolls, mini corn dogs -- made sure to offer snacks to the folks in line.) As the sun set and the Capitol's dome glowed in the floodlights, the pace slowed and the atmosphere became more relaxed. I even saw a few people dancing. Happy hour runs until 9, and the crowd ebbs and flows throughout the night.

Despite the Thursday crowds, the building's rooftop remains a popular location for private gatherings, and the Happy Hour 101 schedule reads like an adult game of Red Light, Green Light. Private functions have closed the rooftop bar on some recent Thursdays. The Charlie Palmer Web site hasn't been clear about dates, although notices at the bar said Happy Hour 101 would be happening Thursday. You should probably call before you go.

Since this is Washington, prime seats are reserved for big donors: The Politico newspaper sponsors VIP-esque arrangements of tables and couches. A name tag is required if you want to take a seat. A 20-something man in a suit approached a woman sitting behind the Politico's sign-in table and asked, jokingly, "How do I get one of those [name tags] so I look important?" She thought for a moment and replied, "I think you have to spend $30,000 to $50,000 on ads."

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