Svetlana Legetic remembers fondly what it was to be a D.C. intern in the early 2000s. She had to scrimp and save just to make it onto the Metro — but then it would whisk her off to a bar offering $3 rail drinks and as many wings as you could devour.
“I have a very romantic memory” of those days, she says. Bargain-basement happy hours were hidden all over Washington; finding a gratis steak sandwich or a 25-cent beer “was like a game to some extent.”
Washington has never been an inexpensive city. But the District of past decades was at least moderately comfortable for the annual influx of baby-faced summer workers. It had bars that were all too pleased to cede their sticky dance floors to interns on slow nights. On the Hill, a generation of tuition-addled students made passable dinners from $1 tacos and washed them back with pale, flavor-deficient beers that cost little more. Many nightclubs offered DJs and no cover; others charged a flat rate at the door that let the young gorge on as many lagers and rail whiskey-cokes as they could toss back.
But the intern class of 2018 has arrived to a vastly different city, squeezed dry of dives, dollar beers and even once-popular free diversions such as Screen on the Green. It’s a Washington of $2,000-a-month studio apartments, $14 cocktails, $22 bowls of pasta and $37 fitness classes. And it’s exacting a psychic toll.
“I try to drink wine and stay in,” said Sophie Peters, 21, a Scripps College senior who is doing an unpaid internship on Capitol Hill.
“The guilt I feel paying $15 for breakfast,” added her friend, Ally Merkel, 20, over matcha lattes at a coffee shop in Dupont Circle, “is just not worth it. . . . We barely manage.”
Rough estimates on what it costs — yes, costs — to be a D.C. intern range from $4,500 (how much the University of Pennsylvania tells its students they will need for eight weeks of rent, groceries and incidentals) to nearly $7,000 (according to Time magazine’s educated guess, across all major cities).
“I’m very careful with my money. I count everything. I don’t go out every night,” said Lilia Popova, 24, an international policy intern from Russia, on her way out of happy hour at the Front Page in Dupont Circle.
Legetic, a founder of the event promoter and lifestyle website Brightest Young Things, now has her own interns. The work experience available in Washington is so specialized and so career-boosting, she said, that she’s confident the city will continue to draw ambitious youngsters every summer. They’ll make the finances work somehow. But after hours, “I think they’re buying mixed six-packs at Trader Joe’s and sitting in their apartments.”
Before a wave of new restaurants began opening roughly a decade ago, the city was flush with unpretentious bars that catered to the young and broke.
My Brother’s Place, a low-ceilinged dive just off Constitution Avenue, drew interns with a $15 all-you-can-drink Saturday special. Asylum, an old haunt on Adams Morgan’s main drag, hawked pints of Miller Lite for less than a dollar during certain hours. McFadden’s poured $3 beers in Foggy Bottom.
“Intern bars were meat-markety,” said Raman Santra, who has covered the city’s nightlife scene for his blog, Barred in D.C. “Sticky floors — that was always a thing.”
But all-you-can-drink has become a foreign concept in 2018, he says. All three of those bars have closed, along with many other of the city’s kind-of-charming-after-two-beers hangouts, such as Adams Morgan’s Millie & Al’s and Chief Ike’s Mambo Room. Even Dupont Circle’s sloppy, wanton Rumors has shuttered.
No longer does the arrival of the summer intern class even merit much notice on the nightlife scene, particularly in a city whose permanent population of 18-to-34-year-olds hovers at nearly one-third. “I never think, ‘Oh, it’s time for the influx of interns,’” said Santra. “It doesn’t resonate.” Probably because they’re not drinking where Santra’s going.
These days, the Front Page is one of the few bars still courting the intern crowd, with a legendary Thursday night free-taco special. “Dupont Circle as a whole has seen a bit of abandonment, both for the professional scene and restaurants closing,” said co-owner Alex Heidenberger. He’s continued to find it lucrative to focus on the young; his staff even reaches out to companies that hire or place interns to get the word out.
But John Andrade, the D.C. restaurateur behind now-closed Asylum — where pints once sold for a quarter — sees no more future in that market.
“I’ve always been entrenched with that demographic,” Andrade said sympathetically — the interns, the AmeriCorps volunteers, the bartenders and hostel-dwellers and other low-wage strivers. But the city’s pro-development policies and the influx of wealth into Washington have driven up rental rates and the price of doing business, making profit margins “microscopic.”
“I held on as long as I could,” he said. But you won’t find any intern-friendly bargains at his new restaurants, including Meridian Pint in Columbia Heights.
The changes distress Andrade. A city that doesn’t accommodate its lower-paid workers — or can’t afford to — will find itself drained of its character, he says.
“The cultural diversity that’s not only racial but also economic — that’s what makes D.C. fun.” he says. Without it, “we’re going to evolve into a Manhattan.”
But would this generation of interns even appreciate a dive if they found one? Legetic notes that the city's luxe new standards seem to have trickled down to its youngest workers — even if they can't quite afford them.
“My interns,” she said, “have opinions on what whiskey they like, and discuss, like, Glossier and Instagram.”
That may be why, on a recent blazingly hot Friday evening at Jazz in the Garden, you couldn’t walk five feet without tripping over an intern sprawled on a blanket, hummus and crudites ferried from home in tightly packed Rubbermaid.
The weekly summer concert series on the Mall outside the National Gallery of Art was traditionally a hangout for an older crowd — stroller-pushers, serious jazzheads and what we used to call yuppies. But as Samantha Panchèvre, a 22-year-old Georgetown University student interning for a federal agency, noted: Admission is free.
Panchèvre and her friend Diana Cruz, 21, a Wellesley student in town for a gig with Voto Latino, waited patiently in the lengthy line for sangria. At $20 a pitcher, it could serve three or four, making far more economical sense than a round of $12 cocktails, the going rate at many bars in town.
Panchèvre and Cruz ticked off strategies for stretching their dollars through the D.C. summer: free movie screenings and museums, of course. But also: finagling invites to other people’s dinner parties and “pre-gaming” at home before going out to a bar.
Any plans to wrap their forks around a cacio e pepe at Rose’s Luxury or sip an orange wine at Maxwell, among the city’s hottest hot spots? Both women shrugged.
“I only plan happy hours,” Cruz said. “Then I go to McDonald’s and eat there.”