Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to your new go-to summer gathering spot: Hill Country’s Backyard Barbecue outside the National Building Museum.
Sit on hay bales in the sun while listening to country-rock bands. Find a seat in the grass while servers deliver brisket sandwiches to your picnic blanket. Get your girlfriends together, stake out a picnic table and sip sangria or margaritas under shady trees. Make a beeline for the far corner of the museum’s green lawn, where you can play cornhole for free while holding a can of Shiner beer.
Any one of these things should be enough to entice people away from the been-there, done-that Jazz in the Garden, or persuade them to skip the usual downtown happy hour on a sidewalk patio. But when you put all four together — without a cover charge — and run it Wednesday through Sunday, it should become the District’s newest after-work destination.
“I love this,” said Caleb Campbell, who had commandeered the cornhole with friends as part of a going-away party. “I really like the laid-back atmosphere. It’s nice to come here on a Friday and de-stress.” The nonprofit group employee said that although he thought it was “nicer than Jazz in the Garden,” the party’s relaxed vibe “reminds me of college, a little bit.”
Located on the west side of the Building Museum, across from Verizon Center, the infrastructure is pretty simple: A white picket fence surrounds a grass area with a large food and drink tent. There’s a stage for bands, which perform from 5:30 to 8:30 on Friday and Saturday, plus the picnic tables and hay bales. (A couple of portable toilets are tucked in the far corner, near the cornhole boards.)
“When we first sat down, it was like we were at a barbecue in someone’s back yard,” said Dara Klein, a visitor from Boston who had snagged a picnic table with friends from Washington. “Someone’s really big back yard.”
Although Klein and her friends enjoyed the band and praised the Hill Country event for not feeling too crowded, they did bring up the “confusing” lines for food and drink. If you’re seated at a picnic table, on a hay bale or even just a blanket on the grass, servers come and take food and drink orders. But if you want to order a beer or margarita, or just want a spicy sausage (with signature Shiner mustard), you head for the main tent. Lines can be long: At about 6:30 on Friday, the wait was 20 minutes.
On opening day, when there were dozens of people in two lines, Hill Country staffers started sending servers into the crowd carrying buckets of Shiner cans, selling them to people who only wanted to order beer. When it gets really busy, said Hill Country general manager Alex Munoz, there will be satellite bars around the fenced-in area, hawking beers (but not margaritas) to cut down on lines.
That’s too bad: The margaritas and the Summer Porch Swing — a fresh strawberry lemonade spiked with gin — are more interesting choices than the four Shiner cans sold at the bar.
Drinks also aren’t cheap: A 12-ounce can of Shiner costs $7, a margarita is $8 and there are no happy hour deals. By comparison, at the Hill Country restaurant a few blocks away, a pint of Shiner is $6, and the happy hour includes $3 cans of PBR and $5 house margaritas. That said, the costs of most drinks are comparable to other outdoor bars outside of happy hour: A glass of house wine is $7 and mixed drinks are $7 to $9. Refreshing iced tea and lemonade cost $3 each.
Two weeks in, the Friday happy hour is the busiest, thanks to live music and two warm, sunny days. It’s rarely as crowded on Saturdays and Sundays, when attendance ebbs and flows throughout the day. It’s worth noting that the event is family and dog friendly: There have been toddlers and pups at every visit.
Talk about Texas hospitality.
National Building Museum, Fifth Street between F and G streets NW. 202-556-2050. www.hillcountrywdc.com. Open
4 to 11 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 9 p.m. Sunday.