HERE'S YOUR CHANCE to do a little wining without the dining. Washington is now home to a number of wine bars where you can explore good wines for a reasonable price.
In addition to offering an alternative to formalized wine tastings or the risky business of springing for an entire bottle of unknown vintage, the wine bars are quiet havens free of the loud music and milling crowds of many popular bars.
While any number of restaurants and other establishments offer wine by the glass, wine bars are distinguished by the quality and diversity of their offerings and the special attention paid to wine.
Among the area wine bars worthy of discovery is Suzanne's, at 1735 Connecticut Avenue NW. Suzanne's offers wonderful pastries, cakes and cuisine and an equally fine selection of wines available by the glass. When the wine bar first opened, Suzanne Reifer employed a manager who chose the wines. But she found she had a knack for it herself, and now selects all the wines served daily. Suzanne's is somewhat noisy but wonderfully informal. The wines, all of good quality, are modestly priced from $2.50 to $4.50. Wine is available by the glass Monday through Thursday from 11:30 a.m. till 11 p.m., and on Fridays and Saturdays until 1 a.m.
Not far up Connecticut Avenue from Suzanne's is the Park Place Cafe and Wine Bar, at 2651 Connecticut Avenue NW. Owner Zena Green has made it a special hideaway. Nestled in a row of restaurants that cater to tourists from the nearby hotels, the cafe offers a number of wines by the glass, live jazz on Friday and Saturday evenings, classical music during Sunday brunch, and continental cuisine at modest prices. The wines are listed on a blackboard near the bar.
In contrast to most other establishments, Park Place Cafe allows customers to taste a wine before they're served a full glass. That way, you aren't stuck with a wine you may not be overly fond of. (It'd be nice if other wine bars followed this example.) Approximately 10 wines are available by the glass for $2.50 to $5. Wine is served Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. until midnight; Saturdays until 2 a.m.; and Sunday from 11 a.m. to midnight.
One of the smallest and yet most romantic wine bars in town is the Tabard Inn, 1739 N Street NW. In an old brownstone just east of Connecticut Avenue, the inn has a New England country atmosphere. Wine may be drunk at the small bar adjacent to the dining room or taken in the anteroom lined with soft and inviting couches and equally soft and comforting lighting. Four to seven wines are available for $3 to $4.75, from 11 a.m. to midnight, Monday through Saturday.
The stately Fraser Mansion at 1701 20th Street NW houses the one-two combination of the Four Ways Restaurant and Bermuda Lounge. While the restaurant offers wine by the glass, the lounge provides the most relaxing atmosphere to enjoy any of the approximately ten wines selected by Jim Hutton, generally regarded as the father of Washington wine bars. Prices range from $3.75 to $7. The lounge is open from noon to 2:30 p.m. and 5 till midnight Monday through Friday; 6 to 11 p.m. Saturday; and 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 6 till 10:30 Sunday.
Wine-bar hoppers can also check out La Colline Restaurant, 400 North Capitol Street NW, where eight or so good wines are available daily from 11:30 a.m. until 10 p.m., at prices ranging from $2.25 to $4.50; and the Vista International Hotel, 1400 M Street NW. Of all the wine bars, the Vista offers one of the most extensive selections -- 20 different wines by the glass -- at prices ranging from $2.75 to $4.25. And as at the Park Place Cafe, the Vista allows you to taste a wine before buying it. Wines are available daily from 11:30 a.m. until 11 p.m.
The Palm Court at the Sheraton Carlton Hotel, 16th and K streets NW, is a pleasant, quiet cafe where you can get about a half dozen wines by the glass at prices ranging from $3.25 to $5.25. The wines are of good quality and changed weekly, and available during lunch hours and from 5 p.m. until closing seven days a week.
(Perhaps the most elegant wine bar is at the Sheraton Grand Hotel, 525 New Jersey Avenue NW. Closed for the summer but scheduled to reopen in September, it has a mahogany bar inlaid with pink Italian marble and wines of high quality. In the past, it has offered complimentary cheese, crackers and fruit, with ten wines available at prices ranging from $3 to $5 and served from 4 to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday.)
Washington doesn't have a total lock on wine bars, by the way. There's a hidden gem in Alexandria's Old Town, the Bilbo Baggins Cafe-Restaurant, 208 Queen Street. Using two nitrogen dispensers, owner/chef Mike Armellino is able to offer 24 different wines by the glass. (With a nitrogen dispenser, opened bottles are placed under a nozzle and the air above the wine is replaced with a layer of nitrogen gas. That allows the same wine to be served the next day without any appreciable change in quality.)
His wine list reflects an effort to satisfy the most discerning of customers as well as those interested in self-education. For example, his is the only wine bar where you can try a side-by-side varietal tasting of, say, chenin blancs from France, the United States and New Zealand.
Servings range from $3 to $5.50 and are available Tuesday through Sunday from 11:30 a.m. until 10:30 p.m.