For more than a dozen years, I’ve haunted D.C. bars, and frankly, I’m feeling a little withered.
No longer am I the nimble athlete who danced on tables. I want a seat and for someone to turn down Drake. After a long day at work, being jostled repeatedly as I wait for my $14 drink now feels exactly like being nudged with a cattle prod.
A more enjoyable experience was on Tom Brown’s mind, too, when he opened Left Door steps from the mayhem of 14th Street NW a year ago. “I just wanted a place that felt like Grandma’s apartment. I just wanted that comfort level,” he says. At Left Door, there is no “Game of Thrones”-style battle for open seats, even on weekend nights. A doorman ensures patrons have one before they’re allowed in.
This is just one upshot of the Washington bar boom. The city is teeming with beer boîtes. Tiki havens. Distillery-bars. Not just speakeasies but nerd speakeasies. Now, there are also a few drink dens that specialize in being the sorts of places where you actually can have a conversation with an old friend or a date, where finding a seat isn’t a pipe dream — and where that seat might even turn out to be a cushy armchair by a fireplace.
Once-bustling bars have calmed down a bit, too, now that they are no longer the hot new places. And a couple of chic coffee shops transition into night via bottles of wine, jazz and cheese plates. Read on to find bars that, like Left Door, are ideal places to post up for an evening if you believe that a cocktail is nice, but conversation comes first.
How does a bar in the District remain blissfully pleasant even on weekend nights? The ethos at Left Door is simple, says Brown, the owner: “There should be no more people in the bar than there are seats.” So, before you can belly up to this marble bar top for a brandy- or Scotch-laced cocktail, surrounded by vintage wood and dim lighting, you might have to leave your number with the door guy. You’ll probably have to go somewhere else and wait for his text, and if there are 10 of you, it probably just isn’t your night. But in most instances, you’ll be inside in under an hour, and the wait won’t matter much once you can see yourself staying for two or three hours more. It’s all by design, says Brown, down to the music. “You’ll probably hear a pretty wide variety of music at Left Door,” he says. “But you’re probably not going to hear Iron Maiden blasting.”
1345 S St. NW. leftdoordc.com.
Tucked next to Chez Billy Sud on a relatively quiet Georgetown street, Le Bar à Vin feels as if someone intentionally hid it where the college set would never dare to go and where happy-hour-seeking colleagues would never think to venture. Instead, particularly on weekdays, a mature crowd of neighborhood residents mingles against a French-inspired backdrop of flocked wallpaper, a fireplace and cozy nooks. Even on Friday nights the vibe can be subdued, but for a true respite from the noisy scene, executive chef Brendan L’Etoile recommends booking your just-drinks date here on a Sunday night, when this wine-focused bar is at peak calm.
1035 31st St. NW. chezbillysud.com.
Georgia Avenue has a healthy collection of raucous bars. Then there’s Colony Club, where it’s hard to know whether the word “bar” even applies. With its exposed-brick walls and midcentury modern touches, is it a stylish co-working space? A coffee shop? A bohemian, neighborhood-centric place to catch jazz? Whatever it is, the creative types who are hard at work on laptops here, even in the evenings, seem to encourage patrons to use their inside voice, and the very tight selection of craft beers, cocktails and glasses of wine keeps things civilized, even when it’s last call — often not much later than 11 p.m.
3118 Georgia Ave. NW. colonyclubdc.com.
This cocktail bar from the folks behind Hank’s Oyster Bar is another destination that benefits from its almost-out-of-view locale. On a far corner of Upshur Street NW in Petworth, it can be easy to miss, but that’s what makes it ideal for a first date, particularly on weeknights: It’s bustling without being loud, attractive without being stuffy, and happy hour, with $5 punch and $5 Old- Fashioneds until 8 p.m. on weeknights, makes it easy to pick up the check.
819 Upshur St. NW. hankscocktailbar.com.
If you’re trying to catch the Columbia Room’s Punch Garden in repose, a couple of quiet months remain. On warm days, tables can be hard to come by, but for now, the crowds are sparse, and you can order drinks from the same menu offered indoors while relaxing on the wooded, enclosed deck under newly installed heaters. The garden differs from the Tasting Room and Spirits Library in that no music is piped in; plus, because the Columbia Room is on Blagden Alley, even the outdoor space feels just far away enough from the world to make it an ideal escape.
124 Blagden Alley NW. columbiaroomdc.com .
Walk through the ritzy Jefferson Hotel to find Quill, one of the city’s coziest hotel bars. It can feel snug inside, like half the main room is taken up by the piano. But for those who long for a former Washington, where there were classy places to hear piano music late into the night with barflies at least 20 years over the legal drinking age, Quill remains one of the city’s sweetest watering holes. The live music, offered several nights a week, is a bonus; if you prefer to sip in silence, go before 9 p.m.
1200 16th St. NW. jeffersondc.com/dining/quill.
You have to make a reservation to imbibe at José Andrés’s cocktail lab, and the result is that you’ll often find yourself seated next to only a handful of fellow cocktail geeks. This is the place to marvel over creations that change color or arrive at your table bubbling with a smoky hibiscus “cloud,” to talk with the bartenders, to chat up your date or to entertain a business partner for a night. But it feels like a luxury in part because there’s no fighting here for the bartender’s attention: The comfort level is so high that when your bill arrives in a pill-shaped check presenter — the staff jokingly refers to it as the “bitter pill” — it never really feels that hard to swallow.
501 Ninth Street NW. minibarbyjoseandres.com/barmini.