Washington’s bars are in a constant state of flux. Every year, a place where someone went on a first date, fell in love or had The Best Night of Their Entire Lives will close. And every year, new lounges and neighborhood bars and gastropubs will open, and someone else will share a first kiss or discover their new favorite cocktail drink.
As we wonder what 2019 will be like without Justin’s Cafe or the Black Cat’s Red Room, it’s worth remembering there were dozens of additions to the scene. Will they still be favorites 10 years from now? Maybe, maybe not. But these bars all made 2018 more interesting and more fun. Who knows: One of them might become your go-to.
The best bars transport you to somewhere else entirely. They make you feel like you’re at the center of an amazing party, dancing and drinking and enjoying things that you’d never known you wanted to experience. That’s how I feel when I walk through the doors of the Green Zone in Adams Morgan, and that’s why the Green Zone is my pick for the best bar to open in Washington in 2018.
For four years, Chris Hassaan Francke was a bartender in search of a home. His Middle East-inspired cocktail bar, the Green Zone, existed in the most spectral sense of the word, as pop-ups and one-off events, where the curious were introduced to drinks flavored with dates, yerba mate and incense smoke. This year, the Green Zone became a permanent fixture when Francke took over the former Rendezvous Lounge on 18th Street NW and filled the two-level space with Moroccan tile bar tops, antique teapots, vintage travel posters and murals of Syrian singer Omar Souleyman.
Familiar cocktails get a Middle Eastern twist in Francke’s hands: The Toufan — which is Arabic for “Hurricane” — gives the classic New Orleans beverage bursts of pomegranate and Iraqi citrus, while the Saz’Iraq receives a sweetness boost from dates. Arak, a traditional liquorice-flavored Middle Eastern spirit made with anise, features prominently across the menu. The wine selection includes bottles from Lebanon and Turkey, and Palestinian and Jordanian beers are served alongside Narragansett.
Head upstairs on a Saturday night, and you’ll feel like you stumbled into a house party where DJs are spinning a wide variety of pop music from Egypt, Lebanon or Iran, while a diverse crowd dances, drinks and sings along. (You might not have heard dabke or rai, but you’ll be enjoying it by the end of the night.) A late-night menu — featuring Lebanese falafel with radish and tomatoes and Iraqi kubbat halab, a samosa-like snack with a mix of ground beef and lamb in a crunchy, fried-rice wrapper — fuels the fun until the wee hours.
There is nothing wrong with a gorgeous bar where you can sit down and sip a beautiful cocktail. But sometimes you want to experience an atmosphere and flavors that can’t be replicated anywhere else, at least in Washington. Right now, that’s the Green Zone. 2226 18th St. NW.
This combination bar/cidery in Petworth opened in July and has become the de facto destination for the city’s hard cider fans, thanks to a dozen taps regularly pouring at least one cider made on-site, and 10 others hailing from within 200 miles of the U.S. Capitol. Beyond the beverages, Capitol Cider House is a community gathering place, hosting live music and spelling bees, and welcoming families — there’s usually at least one nonalcoholic cider for the little ones to sample while they play games. 3930 Georgia Ave. NW.
In June, Jackie Greenbaum and Gordon Banks, the owners of Bar Charley and the Quarry House Tavern, turned an unused room above their pizza restaurant, Little Coco’s, into Coco Beach, a lively summer-themed bar serving squeezed-to-order Orange Crushes and tropical drinks. The kitsch was as strong as the mai tais: Plastic flamingos hung on the wall, and a life-size cutout of David Hasselhoff kept watch over the door.
In December, the space traded Ocean City for Vail, reopening as the après-ski themed Hot Coco. The new menu is loaded with warming drinks, including a cayenne pepper-spiced hot buttered rum and citrusy gluhwein, which guests can enjoy while perched on sheepskin-covered bar stools or relaxing in front of a fake fireplace. Although the drinks are top-notch and prepared with housemade ingredients, one look at the giant papier-mâché bear’s head mounted like a trophy shows that Hot Coco doesn’t take itself too seriously. Frankly, more places should do the same. 3907 14th St. NW.
There are two sides to this basement-level watering hole in Logan Circle. The first is a cozy, turn-of-the-20th-century tavern decorated with burnished wood and exposed brick — the perfect place to grab a craft beer or pick a dram from the well-stocked whiskey selection. Through a set of doors is another, surprisingly large room with curving red leather booths running the lengths of the walls. Blues, jazz and Irish bands play on a low stage Wednesday through Friday.
This welcoming spot is collaboration between the owners of neighborhood hangout Kingfisher and well-known D.C. bartender Brian Harrison, who served drinks with a hearty “Cheers, bro!” at the Reef in Adams Morgan for a decade. The bar doesn’t have a kitchen, so guests are welcome to bring in food from the Indian restaurant Pappe, located upstairs. 1317 14th St. NW.
Most of Elle’s plaudits are for its food: It was the No. 1 restaurant in Tom Sietsema’s Spring Dining Guide. But there’s more to this charming and airy little space, in Mount Pleasant’s old Heller’s Bakery, than fresh baked goods and filling meatball subs. The cocktails, overseen by a veteran of Rasika and the Columbia Room, are as seasonal as the dishes coming from the kitchen, taking advantage of fresh strawberries or Japanese winter squash, for instance. The wine list is well curated and funky. The only problem is Elle’s popularity: Reservations are hard to get, so many guests choose to dine at the bar, leaving scant space for those who just want a drink. Try to hit happy hour to beat the crowds. 3221 Mount Pleasant St. NW.
The soft, feminine touches of Morris American Bar — baby-blue walls offset with floral wallpaper, flowering plants on tables, brightly patterned cushions — help it stand out from the other dimly lit cocktail bars around town. Thankfully, this Mount Vernon Triangle spot is more than just a looker: Bartender and beverage director David Strauss served in a similar role at Barmini, and the crack staff builds excellent beverages, such as the current Cowboy Bebop, where the herbal-honey sweetness of Drambuie is an excellent bridge between cognac and orange curacao flavors. Some of the drinks, like the Como la Flor — mezcal, crème de violette and citrus combined in a soft purple vision — are as attractive as their surroundings. 1020 Seventh St. NW.
New restaurants and pop-up bars continue to sprout near Nationals Park, and Mission, which got its big reveal during the All-Star Game festivities in July, is the one with the most utility. Bigger is better, whether you’re talking about the 10,000 square feet of space spread over two levels or the 150-foot bar at the heart of the action. Whether meeting friends before a Nats game on the balcony overlooking N Street SE, getting together with fellow alums to watch college football or stopping in for a late-night happy hour — how many other places discount food and drinks after 10 p.m. on weekends? — Mission fits the bill. 1221 Van St. SE.
For a long time, kickball teams and bachelorette parties ruled the Brass Monkey, Roxanne, Peyote Cafe and Spaghetti Garden — four bar spaces crammed into two neighboring Adams Morgan buildings. This summer, longtime JR’s manager Dave Perruzza transformed the space into Pitchers, a sports-friendly gay bar and restaurant. The basement, formerly a karaoke joint, is now, under the supervision of former Cobalt stalwart Jo McDaniel, A League of Her Own, the lesbian bar that the District has been crying out for since Phase 1 closed.
The secret to Pitchers’ success is a little bit of everything: five bars; a pair of rooftop areas; a game room with dart lanes, foosball and flat-screen TVs hooked up to Nintendo Switches; a dance floor that throbs to the beat of both throwback and modern DJs. There are viewing parties for football games as well as “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” In a year that saw the closing of the city’s biggest and most important gay dance club, Pitchers is just what the District needs. 2317 18th St. NW.
This was a good year for anyone who enjoys pairing cocktails and craft brews with Skee-Ball and vintage video games, as arcade-style bars continued to open at a steady clip. Moving ahead of the pack was this 1970s-inspired Logan Circle game room and lounge from Eric and Ian Hilton. Customers peruse “A-Team” and “Star Wars” trading cards set into the bar while ordering a beer, or play pinball, pop-a-shot basketball or the retro bubble-top hockey game. If you work up an appetite playing foosball, the Shake Shack upstairs delivers. Players Club can be crowded and a little gimmicky — OMG, there are sex toys in the claw machines! — but it’s a fun place to spend a roll of quarters. 1400 14th St. NW.
Todd Thrasher helped usher in the Washington area’s serious cocktail scene with his work at Alexandria’s PX, but his latest endeavor is 180 degrees from a speakeasy. Tiki TNT, a sprawling bar and rum distillery that opened at the Wharf earlier this month, is colorful and playful, with a rooftop bar and multiple outdoor spaces with water views that will be perfect for enjoying one of Thrasher’s frozen rum-and-Cokes, served in a Coke can. For now, we can sit at the bar with tiki drinks that bear his stamp — playful, flavorful and far too easy to drink — and pretend we’re sipping happy-hour daiquiris outside while watching the sun set. 1130 Maine Ave. SW.