IF NOT FOR dinner, you're probably down here in Southwest's little restaurant row -- Maine Avenue if you're behind the wheel, Water Street if you're a pedestrian or a native -- for a couple of things:
1. A drink -- maybe two.
2. A view -- maybe of the waterfront, maybe not.
Well, the drinks look and taste about the same here as elsewhere across the city, if not the planet, but it's the view that's beguilingly different. The views, I should say.
The better-known one twinkles outside the windows in back of every low-rise, high-overhead restaurant on the Water Street row parallel to Maine -- the houseboats and yachts bobbing and winking out there in the Washington Channel, the occasional headlight in the near distance of Hains Point, the air traffic lumbering in and out of National. Very nice. Yes. And we'll get to it in a minute.
Right now, though, the other view. It's the the one on this side of those windows: It's your date, possibly. Or your possible date (if you came alone). We're talking Hogate's lounge, on a Friday night.
Nice looking crowd.
Not to mention looking, also.
This, of course, does not include those who hit Maine Avenue this evening on a bus. Or those who get up and carry their drinks into Hogate's vast dining area after a voice on the loudspeaker interrupts a surprisingly good custom-made music tape to say, "McKinney, Finney, Dick, Bertram, Sachs -- your tables are ready." (The whole law firm? Here? Together?) Not that most of these people aren't just as nice-looking or well- dressed; it's just that the crowd that came to the lounge to be in the lounge definitely seems to have a better time.
Friday night is probably the lounge's best time -- starting at about 5 when Marriott (which owns Hogate's as well as the Casa Maria and Barley Mow next door, though it plans to sell all three within the year) provides free hot-and-cold finger food and cheap drinks ($1.03 for a draft Lite, for instance) until 7. After that, dinner traffic competes for waiting space with the loungers until about 9 or 9:30, when the taped fare yields to a deejay -- who starts out soft and builds gradually to a volume suitable for dancing and a playlist suitable for WKYS after dark (say, late Candy Shannon through early Howard Jones).
This is definitely one of Washington's most mixed crowds -- black, white, brown, pink (and then there are the colors of the outfits), the party of seven from HUD, the single girls from NASA (they dress that way for work?), the lawyers from Fifth Street, the wet-look guy from Nicaragua drinking tomato juice, whatever. Besides looking generally urban and professional, what everyone here seems to have in common is not minding paying $2.40 ("Thank-you-please," to quote the bartender) for a glass of chablis after 7 o'clock.
Those who do, however, can take a walk -- along the waterfront promenade out back. If the weather's cooperative, this can be an extremely pleasant place -- though you may occasionally get the feeling, as you pass all those glass-enclosed diners inside Hogate's, Casa Maria, Pier Seven and the rest, that if you were buck naked or suddenly hurled yourself into an empty houseboat slip, no one would miss a bite. Well, maybe a bite. It's just that the two worlds -- inside and out -- sometimes seem so separate, thanks mostly to all this inaccessible, early-1970s brickface-and-glass architecture.
In any case, the promenade itself is well-lit and in good repair (especially following this summer's Riverfest '84 party, which Mayor Barry threw largely for those Maine Avenue merchants who've been waiting since 1964 for Southwest to benefit, in terms of walk-in business, from urban renewal.) See for yourself, and walk up a couple of blocks to the floating estaurant known as the Gangplank. Don't take the gangplank into the Gangplank, though, or even the ramp down to the lounge below; walk to the end of the pier and up into the Gangplank's Tower, if it's the outside view you're after.
The Tower is a tiny, relatively quiet bar-in-the-round. The chablis here costs only $1.90 ("Only 1.90?", to quote the voice in my head), and the view is probably the best of any on the channel -- probably because it encompasses 360 degrees, the 40 most striking of which (to the northwest) include moorings in the foreground, skyline in the middle distance and the Washington monument behind it all.
I don't know. There's just something oddly spirit-lifting about being simultanously surrounded by pleasure boats and a big city. This is evident from the Tower.
The clientele is different, too. Some are definite neighbors, meaning they live on something that floats; you can always tell when they ask the bartender for plastic cups. There are quite a few starry-eyed couples sitting right on the windows but taking in the view only peripherally, or subconsciously, if you know what I mean. There are three guys at the bar, speaking some Middle Eastern tongue while they catch some dinner (the Tower, unlike Hogate's lounge, has a modest food menu).
And there's this one twosome -- she about 35, he about nine -- who come in for a nightcap. "A Southern Comfort on the rocks," says the kid, nodding toward his mother, who is grinning helplessly, "and a Gene Autry."
"A what?" asks the bartender.
"Grenadine, and ginger ale and ice," says the kid.
"That's a Shirley Temple," the bartender says. The kid smiles.
"Only if there's a cherry in it," he says. "I don't want any cherry."
A FEW ON THE WATERFRONT CASA MARIA -- 700 Water Street SW. Happy hour (free Mexican foods, hot and cold) is in the Cantina, 4 to 7 Monday to Friday. 554-5302.
CHANNEL INN -- The lounge adjacent to the Pier Seven restaurant inside is called the Engine Room, which has a live trio Monday to Saturday nights, plus free hors d'oeurves and two-for-one drinks 4:30 to 6:30 weekdays. 554-2500.
GANGPLANK -- 600 Water Street SW. Try the lower lounge if you want to meet some boat people (not the kind fleeing Central American communism, but the kind who are generally real happy about North American capitalism), or the Tower for a happy-hour sunset. 554-5000.
HOGATE'S -- Ninth and Maine SW. 484-6300.