As soon as the weather turns pleasant, Washingtonians begin hunting for rooftop bars and outdoor bars with a view of more than the building next door. If you’re looking to combine them, there’s only one place to go: the Wharf.
We know. You're tired of hearing about the new upscale development. It's expensive, it can be hard to get to. But bars overlooking the water have always been an attraction in D.C. — why else would people go to Washington Harbour? — and the Wharf has been adding more and more rooftop options.
The InterContinental Hotel’s 12 Stories rooftop lounge opened earlier this month. A few days later, Officina’s rooftop Terrace Bar hosted its first DJ-fueled weekend day party. This week, the Anthem announced the return of its Marquee Bar, which is open to the public on nights when there’s no concert. Add those to the four rooftops already along the waterfront, including the popular Cantina Bambina, which isn’t quite a rooftop bar but still offers drinks over the water, and there’s a scene that few D.C. neighborhoods can match. Here’s where to go.
The newest rooftop lounge at the Wharf has a pedigree: It’s part of the Gerber Group, whose international portfolio of penthouse-level hotel bars includes the acclaimed Whiskey Blue in Atlanta and Mr. Purple in New York City. It’s no wonder everything seems so meticulously planned: the wide marble bar; the long rails for dining and drinks that run along the floor-to-ceiling windows; the mix of seating, ranging from sofas facing across cocktail tables to a massive sofa for 20 in its own nook. A deck, accessed through folding glass doors, holds tables with views that stretch from the Wilson Bridge to Georgetown. And yet it still feels attractive and organic, rather than rote.
Despite the expensive trappings — the velvet ropes outside the private elevator that takes guests directly from the street to the 12th floor, and the sofas that can be reserved for bottle service or private seating — “We’re not a club,” co-founder Scott Gerber says. “We don’t want to be a club. The vision is to create a bar and lounge where you can come with friends for cocktails."
The sound system has been designed so it's clear and punchy at low volume, not club levels, Gerber says, and the couches and tables won't be dedicated to bottle service, though they can be reserved. (On a Thursday night visit, most of the seats, even sought-after outdoor tables, were free for the taking.)
At the large marble bar, the staff serve “Zero Degree” cocktails, which are chilled to a low temperature so they’ll stay cold longer, raspberry spritzes and a nicely spicy nonalcoholic Ginger Snap. But Gerber knows a bar needs more than location and cold drinks to succeed. “The most important thing is hospitality,” Gerber says. “It’s really about the experience.” Sitting at the bar, watching the sky just beginning to turn orange, with a drink in hand, you’ll probably agree with him. 75 District Sq. SW.
Todd Thrasher’s waterfront rum distillery has outdoor seating areas on every level, including a sidewalk patio and a wraparound deck that offers alfresco access to the main bar. But the best seats in the house are on the rooftop. Come on a Tuesday instead of a Saturday, so you can waltz right in and take an elevator to the third floor. At the square-shaped main bar, set off in an area of its own, the walls are covered with a soothing collage of palm fronds, and decorated rum bottles hang overhead. The bamboo fencing that surrounds the uncovered dining area is decorated with strings of white lights, giving it a distinct feeling of being on vacation.
You’ll want to look for anything featuring the spiced rum made in the distillery downstairs. The rum’s refined allspice note comes though in the Grog, a mix of lemon verbena tea, soda water and more lemon, and the Rum in Coke, a frozen concoction with rum and actual Coca-Cola, served in a Coke can. (There are plenty of other boozy tiki drinks, including the high-test Jet Pilot and a classic Mai Tai.)
The bar gets really crowded on weekend afternoons — Thrasher says he hired security to deal with customers shotgunning beers, among other transgressions — but it can be a refuge at the end of the night, when specials include $4 beer, $5 rum and half-price frozen drinks from 11 p.m. until last call. 1130 Maine Ave. SW.
At Officina’s new day parties, which run from 1 to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday through the end of the summer, you’ll find some of Washington’s better party-rockers, such as DJ Smudge, a regular at Marvin and Eighteenth Street Lounge, spinning on the shaded third-floor terrace while a well-dressed crowd lounges on cushy sofas and wicker chairs.
Look for drinks with an Italian touch, such as the Ramona, a dry grapefruit wine spritzer, or Summer in Milan, a rum cocktail that gets a refreshing mint touch from Branca Menta and Fernet Branca.
The vibe is light and easygoing, though getting in might be a challenge: When the roof hits capacity, as it sometimes does later in the afternoon, you’ll be asked to wait in the ground-floor bar until other people leave. 1120 Maine Ave. SE.
Last summer, I came to think of the Anthem's outdoor Marquee Bar as the greatest secret at the Wharf. There were happy hours when friends and I would be among just a half-dozen people sitting at tables directly above the concert venue's landmark marquee, sipping beer or wine and watching boats drift by.
The Anthem is, first and foremost, a place to hear Tame Impala or Lizzo or Maggie Rogers. Having a drink at the Marquee Bar before or after a concert is just a bonus. But on days when the stage is dark, the bar opens for business on its own.
This year, the hours have been expanded: Doors open at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There’s happy hour until 8 p.m. on weeknights, with $5 Pacifico beers and 25 percent discounts on all other drinks. It’s not fancy, but it works. (Caveat: If you want to open a tab, you have to do it with Rooam, the smartphone app that handles bar tabs at the Anthem, so download that somewhere with WiFi first.) 901 Wharf St. SW.
Whiskey Charlie, the first of the Wharf’s rooftop bars, made its full debut in April 2018, and was slammed throughout the summer. With all of the competition, it’s gotten much easier to have an elevator whisk you to the top floor of the 10-story Canopy by Hilton hotel. While most of the other rooftop bars only occupy a portion of a building facing the Washington Channel, Whiskey Charlie runs almost unobstructed between the water and Maine Avenue, so you get views to the east (the Capitol and Library of Congress domes) and the south and southeast (Nationals Park, lots of cranes) as well as scenes of Reagan National Airport, Alexandria and the Wilson Bridge.
There’s a full-service outdoor bar, saving the need to go inside when glasses are empty, and plenty of first-come, first-served seating at tables and on outdoor lounge furniture. The drinks are a mixed bag — a friend compared the vodka-heavy frozen Orange Crush to “a screwdriver I made when I was 14” — so it might be better to stick with a glass of white wine or rosé. 975 Seventh St. SW (inside the Canopy by Hilton hotel).