In a fit of nostalgia, I recently went back to the Front Page, a bar where I spent — let’s call it a few — Thursdays when I was an intern, and then more during my post-college years. Much of the atmosphere was just as I remembered: young professionals in their 20s, wearing ill-fitting suits and backpacks more appropriate for campus than the working world, waiting in line to grab a plate of free tacos. At the bar, a scrum of customers two or three deep was leaning between bar stools, waving credit cards to get a bartender’s attention. Music played at a volume that occasionally required you to yell to the friends standing next to you.
Apparently, I used to love this.
The closure of any bar is going to be tough for its regulars, but the Front Page, which will shut its doors after 32 years on Sunday, is different. Not many bars stick around for more than three decades anymore, and few can argue they’ve been relevant for close to that long. The Front Page can.
Two decades ago, says Eric Heidenberger, one of the Dupont Circle restaurant’s managers had an idea: What if they charged $1 for bottles of Corona at Thursday night happy hour, and, to sweeten the deal for the interns and young professionals who packed the neighborhood’s bars, what if they gave out free tacos, too? “As owners and managers, you’re always trying to come up with ideas” that will get people in the door, says Heidenberger, one of the partners in the Front Page. “Some sound great, some sound a little crazy. I think that one probably sounds crazy when it was first thought up.”
But the gimmick — a free dinner and a couple of rounds of after-work drinks for less than $10 — became one of Washington’s most successful and longest-
running weekly happy hours, nourishing generations of broke, ambitious young people. Intern coordinators introduced it to their charges, who eventually introduced it to their charges, the way those happy hour Excel spreadsheets were passed from office to office.
In the early- and mid-2000s, the Front Page was the nexus of Washington’s hottest happy hour scene, arrayed in a rough triangle bounded by the Farragut North, Dupont Circle and Foggy Bottom Metro stations: Rumors, Sign of the Whale, Lulu’s Club Mardi Gras, McFadden’s, Madhatter. For a while, Lucky Bar ran a counter offer to the Front Page: Thursday was $1 Bud Night (later $2 Bud Night), which made for an easy bar crawl before continuing the night on U Street NW or in Adams Morgan.
Although most of those places closed or moved on, the Front Page kept attracting interns and young office workers watching their wallets. Heidenberger saw the happy hour, which later upped beer prices to $2 and added a whole roasted hog each week for taco fillings, as “a big promotion that gave us name recognition,” he says. Customers who had gone on Thursday “would come back and check it out on a Friday night when we didn’t have stuff on special. They would come back for brunch for the unlimited buffet and bottomless mimosas.” That’s how a restaurant sticks around for decades.
But there’s another story here, too: D.C.’s neighborhoods grew and changed, spreading bars down H Street NE, up 14th Street NW and out to Bloomingdale, Brightwood and beyond, but the number of places catering to interns, students and people on starting salaries began to dry up, even at happy hour. The Front Page remained relevant, at least to certain crowds, because it was one of the few places where it was still possible to get a round of beers and change from a $10 bill. (Of course, even that’s changed a bit: On my recent visit, I saw some Front Page customers putting a pair of $2 Coronas on a credit card. Back in the day, you went to Dollar Bud Night with a roll of $1 bills for expediency.)
The Front Page will go silent after Sunday: The restaurant’s longtime landlords have kicked them out, along with similarly tenured neighbors Buffalo Billiards, for renovations. When work is finished, a different, and probably more expensive, restaurant will move in. Heidenberger says they’d like to reopen the Front Page elsewhere in the neighborhood — “maybe with a more contemporary design” — but they haven’t found a suitable location. Until that happens, what will happen to the young and hungry?
So after I got my fill of tacos and nostalgia, I took a tour of other neighborhood bars to see if any could, conceivably, replace the Front Page as a new intern hotspot.
The Big Hunt ’s bar has $4 beers and rail drinks all night, but much of the crowd seems to be waiting to go downstairs for an Underground Comedy show. Cafe Citron ’s happy hour is lively, but the Corona-and-a-taco combo that costs $2 at the Front Page is $7.75 here, which is an argument against it. Lucky Bar is fine, but the cavernous main room is dead. And so on.
The place that I would want to go for affordable food and drink — maybe as an underappreciated intern, definitely as someone at least a year into the real world — was the Madhatter . Not surprisingly, the Dupont Circle tavern is also owned by the Heidenberger family’s DC Restaurant group, along with 801, the Bottom Line and the newish Northside Tavern. The front of the pubby bar feels more spacious than the Front Page, and the happy hour — $3 domestic draft beers, $4 frozen margaritas, $5 Orange Crushes, and $5 appetizers, including wings and nachos, from 4 to 8 p.m. — is almost as good as what’s being offered up the street. What makes this my top Front Page replacement, though, is its long-running Thursday night deal: $1 mugs of Miller Lite and $5 Makers Mark drinks from 8 p.m. to close. Those are serious throwback prices.
There’s a DJ playing Top 40, and you might wind up drinking punch from a fishbowl-sized plastic hat with a group of friends, so you’re not going to impress your date. But is that why anyone spent Thursdays at the Front Page in the first place?