We are in the middle of Americans’ least-favorite months of the year. It’s cold. The sky turns gloomy and dark before most of us have left the office. The holidays — the brightest and happiest bit of winter — are over, and there are still two months to go before the spring equinox.
Your instinct might be to put on flannel PJs and burrow under your comforter for a few weeks. Wrong. Instead of complaining about the chill in the air, take advantage of the things that make winter special: Sip warm drinks around a fire, get together with friends for a much-deserved coffee break or feast on warm, soul-satisfying melted cheese.
This kind of seasonal self-care is essential and growing in popularity: Recent years have seen an avalanche of books on hygge, a Danish concept that loosely translates to a state of comfort and coziness, and kos, a Norwegian word that includes a similar, all-encompassing sense of well-being. Both countries endure much longer and colder winters than Washington’s, but they are perennially ranked among the world’s happiest. Maybe these ideas merit further exploration, after all.
Here’s how to live life to the coziest.
Scandinavians drink more coffee per capita than anyone else in the world, and it’s a social lubricant as well as a source of caffeine. In Finland and Sweden, it’s not uncommon for workers to take multiple coffee breaks a day — and these are not “coffee breaks” in the American sense, where you grab a cup as fast as possible, run back and down it at your desk. Instead, it’s about conversation and interacting socially. So skip the cool, minimalist coffeehouse and head to one of these where lingering is encouraged and rewarding. (Leaving the laptop at home: even better.)
Calabash : “How can we heal you today?” is not the standard greeting at most teahouses, but Calabash is far from the usual. Run by self-described witch doctor Sunyatta Amen, the cafe has a menu full of herbal teas designed to jump-start your day, help you relax or soothe an oncoming cold. The Shaw space itself is a warm and comfortable living room, with brightly patterned couches, stools and armchairs, inviting you to stay for another cup — or snack on the vegan sandwiches and pastries. 1847 Seventh St. NW.
The Coffee Bar : Though it’s a short walk off the 14th Street strip, this neighborhood place seems much further from the bustle of restaurants and trendy-but-cold coffee shops. High tables and seats at the counter are laptop-friendly, but those who want to relax can bring their mug of flavorful single-origin coffees or “dirty chai,” a tea bumped up with shots of espresso, over to the squishy vintage sofas to relax and gossip. The cool soundtrack enhances the vibe of hanging out at an in-the-know friend’s house. (There’s a location across the street from National Geographic, but the original Shaw TCB is the one to visit.) 1201 S St. NW.
Ebenezer’s Coffeehouse : Ebenezer’s could be a chain: Sunny and welcoming, it has a carefully chosen color scheme and a mix of seating for groups, including a central butcher-block-style table, and small tables for two. But this neighborhood hangout, popular with Capitol Hill dwellers as well as commuters to nearby Union Station, is run by the nearby National Community Church. All the coffee is fair-trade, and the snacks are local, including Republic Kolache and Mission Muffins. If you’ve ever wondered why cats perch in windows, sink into an armchair or sofa in front of one of Ebenezer’s bay windows, where you can alternate between chatting, reading or just watching the world go by. 201 F St. NE.
One of winter’s great contradictions: If you’re choosing to stay inside a restaurant or bar, why do you want to sit or stand next to a fireplace that’s going to make everything even warmer? There’s something about the flicker, the satisfying “pop” of burning wood and radiating warmth that slows down time while lifting the comfort level.
Chez Billy Sud : It’s worth walking past the well-reviewed Georgetown restaurant and heading next door to Le Bar à Vin, Chez Billy Sud’s rustic, wood-paneled French wine bar. Flickering candles sit on tables and the long mantelpiece, but the best and most romantic seats are in front of the wood-burning fireplace. Grab a spot on one of the vintage sofas or velvet-cushioned armchairs, which could have been taken from your great-aunt’s parlor, and settle in to enjoy a few glasses from the Rhone Valley or Southern France. 1039 31st St. NW.
Gaslight Tavern : Located between the buzz of U Street and the landmark 9:30 Club, the entrance is all too easy to walk past. But this welcoming lounge, which opened in February 2017, deserves more attention. While the spacious back patio is the draw for much of the year, there are working fireplaces in the handsome dining room and in the conservatory-like back bar. The cocktails, including a rich maple syrup Old Fashioned, are suitably wintry. 2012 Ninth St. NW.
600 T : This secretive Shaw basement bar doesn’t have a name, just a street address, but it’s one of the coziest, most comforting watering holes in the city. A fireplace glows, candles glimmer on every table and Edison bulbs hanging from the low wooden rafters cast a flattering yellow glow on the roughed-up brick walls. In short: This is the dimly lit spot where you want to hide for a few hours on a Friday night. The short-and-to-the-point cocktail menu features one drink per spirit — the rum option, which mixes 15-year-old Barbancourt and Mount Gay Black Barrel with herbal Green Chartreuse and allspice dram, is particularly nice — but bartenders are happy to create something new. 600 T St. NW.
You can’t read an article about hygge (pronounced HOO-ga), kos (coos) or the next European-import lifestyle fad without an expert extolling the benefits of candlelight for relaxation and comfort. Candlelit restaurants are inextricably linked with Valentine’s Day, but at this gray, gloomy time of year, you don’t need a romantic occasion to visit.
Blues Alley : It’s rare to find a club that’s both this good and this intimate. Blues Alley has been a Washington staple since 1965, bringing giants of jazz to a stage in a tiny brick Georgetown carriage house. The candlelit tables are packed close together, but that’s part of the experience — as much as the “no talking during performances” policy. After hearing McCoy Tyner or Terence Blanchard up close and personal, you’ll walk out glowing. 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW.
The Dabney Cellar: Though it began as an offshoot of the Michelin-starred Dabney restaurant upstairs, the Cellar has become a destination in its own right. Candles cast light onto the faded brick walls of the basement, while electric lanterns shine overhead, creating a warm, relaxing atmosphere that works for dates or a not-so-quick catch-up with your best friend. The menu is limited to comfort snacks — local oysters, artisanal charcuterie, cheese from small producers — that pairs perfectly with the well-curated wine list and expert cocktails. 1222 Ninth St. NW.
Why would anyone choose to be outside on a chilly night when they’re steps away from a heated restaurant or bar? Wouldn’t you rather take your jacket off and enjoy your drinks in a temperature-controlled climate? No. The truth is, it just feels better to be outside, with the wind on your cheeks alternating with the warmth coming from the flames of a pit, while hot drinks keep your insides toasty.
Calico : Obelisk-shaped heaters on the spacious patio of this secluded Blagden Alley spot keep hands toasty, and customers can help themselves to blankets and “snuggies” (sleeved blankets) hanging on racks by the door. But the real draw is a trio of hot drinks for two ($20), including an Old Forester hot toddy with lemon and clove, and hot chocolate with spicy Amargo de Chile, an amaro made with seven different chile peppers. They’re served in large thermoses with a pair of mugs, so you can pour another for your friend or date when they’re running low — a much more intimate way to get a refill than getting up and going back to the bar. 50 Blagden Alley NW.
Iron Gate : The Dupont Circle restaurant offers two ways to sit by a fire. On chilly-but-mild nights, in-the-know diners ask to sit in the trellis-covered courtyard, where some of the tables have their own fire pits. (There’s a reason a cocktail made of warm Greek sangria is called “Is the Patio Heated?”) The intimate main dining room, where chef Tony Chittum cooks on an open hearth, is made even cozier by a wood-burning fireplace. 1734 N St. NW.
Room 11 : The Columbia Heights bar has been a date-night go-to for almost a decade. It’s even more romantic in winter, as couples and groups keep warm around tall patio heaters or the flames of a gas-fueled brazier. Room 11’s mulled wine is a traditional Scandinavian-style glogg — drier and less sweet than its German counterpart, with seasonal spices. This year’s new creation is the Hot Hopper, a warming riff on the Grasshopper cocktail that tastes like a melting chocolate-and-mint Andes candy. 3234 11th St. NW.
The Salt Line : The Salt Line’s popular outdoor dock bar has closed for the season, but the Navy Yard restaurant has moved a pair of table-style fire pits to the riverwalk facing the Anacostia. Surrounded by rocking chairs and cushioned couches, these pits are a place to relax with a warm drink in hand, watching the light play off the water. Standout seasonal cocktails ($11 each) include a hot toddy with the exclusive house Woodford Reserve, honey and Madeira, and garnished with a clove-studded orange, and organic hot cider spiked with brandy and sherry. Heat lamps overhead offer some protection from breezes off the water, and the Salt Line offers embroidered fleece blankets to keep legs and laps warm. 79 Potomac Ave. SE.
Melted cheese is the ultimate cold-weather comfort food, filling your belly while warming both body and soul. No wonder some of our favorite versions come from countries known for skiing and snow-capped mountains.
Right Proper Brewpub : Fondue might be a 1970s stereotype on the level of the Bee Gees or the Pet Rock, but the wizards at Shaw’s Right Proper Brewpub cheese counter take it seriously. On Tuesday nights (“Fon-Tues-Day”), they prepare small servings of fondue to order, varying the cheese each week, but always using a recipe with garlic, kirsch and a house beer as a base. (On a recent visit, it included Jumi, a raw milk raclette from Switzerland, and Zebra Crossing, a spicy wheat beer.) The flavors are nutty and well-balanced, and the presentation — an adorable eight-ounce Le Creuset stoneware pot heated by a Sterno flame — turns dipping chunks of cheesy bread into an unbeatable date night. 624 T St. NW.
Stable : Washington’s only Swiss restaurant has an unmistakable Alpine vibe, from the barnlike rear dining room to the menu of schnapps-spiked “après-ski” cocktails. But nothing says winter vacation like the weekly Raclette Thursdays. Hosts carry large half-wheels around the dining room and scrape slices of gooey melted cheese directly into bowls filled with potatoes, pickles and shaved speck. Enjoy the performance, then dig into the cheese-covered peaks in front of you. An appetizer-size portion is $6, or $8 with meat; servers say it’s not uncommon for guests to ask for an encore. 1324 H St. NE.