We have become a world obsessed with rankings. The 23 best cupcakes in Washington. The 38 best ways to enjoy the summer. The 12 best restaurants you'll never get into.
I've done my part over the years as The Post's nightlife reporter, compiling lists of the best dance clubs, taco happy hours, beer bars and places to watch soccer. But when people ask me to name the best bar in the District, I never have a good answer, because I don't believe there is a "best" bar in the Washington area.
I'm not trying to be political. It's just that I'm a strong believer in nuance: The dive where I seek refuge after a long day at the office isn't the best place to meet a microbrew-loving visitor from New York; the cozy lounge where I'd treat a friend to a birthday cocktail isn't the best option for someone who wants to dance and mingle on a Saturday night.
That's why, instead of assembling a definitive list of the "best bars in D.C." -- the "best" Irish bar, the "best" dance club, the "best" happy hour -- I've put together a guide to 21 interesting places where you should drink and party right now. In an effort to keep things fresh, and to save you from reading about the glories of ChurchKey or the Columbia Room yet again, I've tried to limit this to bars that have opened, changed key staff or made significant upgrades in the past two years or so.
They're spread throughout the area, from Leesburg to Annapolis, and although some have probably landed on your radar, others surely remain off. Either way, there's something for just about everyone.
2 Birds 1 Stone
A hidden den for cocktail fans
Adam Bernbach's creative work at Proof, Estadio and Bar Pilar has made him one of Washington's best-known bartenders. His current playground is 2 Birds 1 Stone, an unpretentious cocktail den tucked under Doi Moi, a Thai-Vietnamese restaurant on 14th Street. Bernbach's talents are on display everywhere, from the hand-drawn cocktail menus (he illustrates them weekly) to the inventive drinks featured on them: Monster in the Parasol is sharply sweet, based around grappa infused with Ethiopian berbere spice; other selections incorporate homemade banana or carrot-and-curry sodas. His cocktails aren't cheap, starting at around $14, but the experience is worth it.
1800 14th St. NW. www.2birds1stonedc.com.
A neighborhood bar for everyone
Former Jaleo and Zaytinya bar manager David Batista is the man behind this one-room tavern in Shaw, and his attention to detail shows in the short-but-sweet menus. The cocktail menu recently expanded to seven options, almost all priced at $9. The popular one (and, at $11, the most expensive) is still the All Souls, a shot of Makers Mark served alongside a glass of sparkling rose. It's a wonderful pairing you'd never think of. The crowd here is never predictable, but the folks packed into the large corner booth or around the gently arcing bar (a fixture that came from Jaleo) are predominantly from the neighborhood, according to the bartenders.
725 T St. NW. 202-733-5929. www.allsoulsbar.com.
Avery's Bar and Lounge
H Street NE's best house party
Every time I climb the stairs to Avery's Bar and Lounge, I feel like I'm walking into a stellar house party: There's pumping music, plenty of laughter and an atmosphere that makes me want to grab a drink and stay a while. In the center of the action, you'll find owner Avery Leake, a Capitol Hill native who seems to talk to everyone in the room at some point.
Avery's has a good vibe during the week, particularly at happy hour and Tuesday's karaoke sessions, but it really comes alive Friday and Saturday nights. The evening usually starts with some kind of open-bar happy hour — think free Ciroc vodka or whiskey shots from 10 to 11 — before one of a rotating group of DJs sets it off with everything from Southern hip-hop to Wale to old-school jams. On some Saturdays you'll find a funky drummer playing a full kit along with the DJ's tunes, beefing up the grooves.
Avery's calls itself a lounge, but there's not much furniture; people gather around the bar, post up next to the DJ booth or, in fine weather, climb two flights to the rooftop deck, which provides a prime view of the rest of H Street, as well as the Capitol looming in the distance. With a drink in hand and people on all sides joking and conversing, you won't want the night to end.
1370 H St. NE. 202-399-0900. www.averysonhst.com.
Tiki drinks on tap and bargain Manhattans
Whenever someone complains to me about the high price of cocktails, I steer them to Bar Charley, a relatively modest neighborhood bar in the no-man's land between Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle. Run by the team behind El Chucho, Jackie's and Sidebar, Bar Charley has tiki drinks on tap for $7.95 (and just $5 from 4 to 6:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and all night on Monday). A selection of well-made classics, such as the Old Fashioned, Sazerac and Manhattan, are regularly $9 or less ($6 at happy hour). But it's not just happy hour that draws me to Bar Charley: I love sitting in the bar's bay window, where I can watch people stroll down 18th Street, or sipping a drink on the patio, which feels like you're crashing a backyard party.
1825 18th St. NW. 202-627-2183. www.barcharley.com.
The cocktails rock at PX's unpretentious younger sibling
Spend as much time in area bars as I do, and you'll realize that Julien Bourgon is one of the more creative mixologists around. He's a bit of a mad scientist: For last year's Rickey Month competition, he bested 50 challengers by mixing bourbon and a homemade cantaloupe soda, then adding "ice cubes" of honeydew melons that had been submerged in liquid nitrogen.
Bourgon splits his time between PX, the speakeasy-inspired cocktail destination in Old Town, and the more casual Bar TNT on Columbia Pike. Both gigs require him to invent cocktails and make his own orgeat syrup from Spanish marcona almonds. But if you ask him where he prefers to work, he doesn't hesitate: Bar TNT. At PX, customers come in primed for fancy cocktails. "They're like, ‘Entertain me. Set something on fire,' " Bourgon says. At Bar TNT, "I get to surprise people. They come in, they ask for a Sex on the Beach shooter, and I have to tell them I can't do it (because I don't have the ingredients), but I can give them this menu and make something that will blow them away."
I feel the same way: I enjoy the fancy cocktails and quiet, semi-formal setting at PX but have more fun at the rockin' TNT, where Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine blast from the stereo and bartenders work the 20-seat show bar like Benihana, chatting with customers and whipping up drinks.
Bourgon's latest addition to the menu is the Hemp-Hill, named after Bar TNT regular Jacob Hemphill, the singer of reggae band SOJA. Bourgon, a SOJA fan since he was a teenager, combines Hemphill's favorite shot, Jameson whiskey, with a hemp seed syrup that adds a viscous, nutty element to the drink. He then sprays a concentrated mixture of lemongrass, coconut and herbal Pernod onto the top of the glass. It's delicious. Want something less complicated? Cans of Coors are in the fridge.
2413 Columbia Pike, Arlington. 703-920-0315. www.bartnt.com.
Late-night pierogies paired with a $6 boilermaker
I usually don't pull up a bar stool at this reliable restaurant on H Street NE until after 10 p.m. Quark-and-black pepper pierogi, fiery honey-Sriracha wings and a rich charcuterie sandwich stuffed with prosciutto, mortadella and rapini are featured on the late-night menu (at 10:30 p.m., or 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday), and most items cost $10 or less. Boundary Road has a good selection of craft beers and creative cocktails, such as the herbal Industrial, made with Becherovka, Fernet Branca and lime. I'm more likely to order the $6 Comboh — a shot of Old Overholt rye and a can of Natty Boh — before the end of the night.
414 H St. NE. 202-450-3265. www.boundaryrd.com.
City Tap House
A Philadelphia import with 40 interesting craft beers
Craft beer lovers in Washington and Philadelphia maintain a (mostly) friendly rivalry over which city boasts the superior scene. So when City Tap House, a Philly mainstay, announced it was opening in Penn Quarter, there were plenty of jokes about "interlopers" attempting to cash in on the District. Thankfully, the outsider's arrival — with 40 taps and a pair of English-style cask beer engines — is a positive gain for us.
This isn't the only beer hall where Terrapin, Elysian, Firestone Walker, Flying Dog and 3 Stars find space on the menu — far from it. But the prices are comfortably in the $6-per-pint range, and you can put together a pretty sweet flight of small pours if you explore the menu, which is organized into such broad categories as "Belgians" and "Pale Ales."
City Tap House's event schedule has been expanding: This past week alone had an Allagash saison release party and a Victory tap takeover. And DC Brau's crew drops in the last Sunday of the month for a brunch starring rare brews as well as their standards.
801 I St. NW. 202-644-9433. www.citytaphousedc.com.
Dacha Beer Garden
Drink German beers in the sun
Two years ago, the corner of Seventh and Q streets NW in Shaw was home to a car lot surrounded by high chainlink fences. Today, it's home to Dacha, a lively beer garden decorated with flowering plants and a two-story mural of Elizabeth Taylor, and filled with people sitting at long communal picnic tables sipping steins and glass boots full of German beer. Owners Ilya Alter and Dmitri Chekaldin had no bar experience before opening the place, but they've got the basics down. After work, Dacha is crowded with folks enjoying discounted Weihenstephaner beers ($5 half-liters and $10 liters from 4 to 7 p.m.). On weekends, when gates open at noon, there are inevitably kids and canines enjoying the good vibes, too. (Notice the jar of dog treats at the bar?)
1600 Seventh St. NW. 202-524-8790. www.facebook.com/DachaBeerGarden.
Dram and Grain
An intimate speakeasy-style lounge with wildly creative drinks
I'm as tired of speakeasies as the next bargoer: Why should going out for a nice cocktail involve tracking down unlisted phone numbers, making reservations weeks in advance or searching for unmarked doors? And yet I'm willing to do all that for a chance to have a seat at the bar at Dram & Grain.
The quasi-secret cocktail lounge, which operates in the saloon-style basement of Jack Rose each Friday and Saturday, is the brainchild of Jack Rose bartenders Trevor Frye and Nick Lowe. The three seatings per night, at 7, 9 and 11 p.m., are limited to 20 people each. If you make it in, you'll be treated to one of the most interesting cocktail experiences in town.
Consider the Ode to Omaha: After combining Thomas Tew Rum, strawberry-cinnamon syrup and bitters in a cork-stopped glass orb, Frye fires up a dry smoker, sending campfire-scented smoke flowing through a tube into the sphere. Frye inserts the cork and gives the whole thing a swirl, trapping clouds of cottony gray smoke above the liquid. (At this point, all I can think about is potions class in a "Harry Potter" movie.) When the smoke dissipates, Frye pours some of the liquid into a glass, and the result is rich and satisfying, with a round fruit flavor.
Not everything is a science experiment; there are twists on classics, such as the Airmail and the Mother in Law, and a barrel-aged cocktail or two. Be alert for surprises: The menu lists only the ingredients for the rye-and-cognac Maiden Voyage, not telling you that it morphs from a Sazerac to a Vieux Carre as the large ice cube of absinthe and Benedictine melts.
Frye and Lowe work the room, encouraging questions and comments. Want to know how they make their own Amer Picon for certain cocktails or why they use a "reverse dry-shake technique" for some drinks? The small capacity makes it possible to chat with the bartenders whenever you're curious.
There's a two-beverage minimum per person over the 90-minute reservation, with cocktails costing $13-$17. If you don't feel like mixed drinks, there are other options, including four whiskeys on tap, a menu of rare whiskeys and, for the high rollers, a couple of pre-Prohibition spirits. (The Old Lancaster, distilled in 1920 and bottled in 1933, will set you back $175 per two-ounce pour.)
To score a seat, text or call 202-607-1572 and ask about availability. Dates are already filling up for May.
2007 18th St. NW. 202-607-1572. www.facebook.com/DramandGrain.
Celebrating bourbon and craft beer in downtown Annapolis
Jaded D.C. barhoppers will think they've seen this before: 120 bourbons and ryes! 16 craft beers on tap! Cocktails, sparkling wine and whiskey shots also on tap! But in Annapolis — with its Irish pubs, sailor dens and dockside watering holes aimed at tourists or Midshipmen — Dry 85 feels like a revelation.
It's the brainchild of Brian Bolter, the former Fox 5 newscaster turned barkeep, and his gift for storytelling is what helps separate Dry 85 from other whiskey bars, even ones in the District. Every whiskey on the menu gets a one-paragraph description, such as this one for the Col. E.H. Taylor Single Barrel: "A hard-to-find, limited release edition release from the folks at Buffalo Trace. A Scotch drinker's bourbon. Why? The smoke. Unmistakable against a citrus and butter backdrop. Aged 11 years 7 months in the warehouse Colonel Taylor built in 1881."
The explanations make the experience less intimidating for newbies and offer up facts that even Whiskey Advocate subscribers might not know. (Just don't ignore your date to read the menu.)
In addition to single glasses (many in the $6-$10 range), there are flights. Ignore Pappy and check out the Maker's Mistake, a rare chance to sample the "watered-down" 42 percent ABV Maker's Mark, which was released briefly in 2013, alongside the usual 45 percent and the Makers 46. Cocktail drinkers can order a decent Old Fashioned made with Hochstadter's Slow and Low rye (a steal at $7) or a sparkling negroni.
Although whiskey is the focus, don't sleep on the craft beers, which draw from Baltimore to the Eastern Shore. Bolter says he intends to offer Dry 85 exclusives, such as a beer from Burley Oak aged in a Breckenridge whiskey barrel.
193B Main St., Annapolis. 443-214-5171. www.dry85.com.
The best medium-size dance club you've never heard of
Flash is essentially two venues in one: The first floor is a relatively low-key bar and lounge, while the upstairs features a warehouse-style club with exposed brick walls, flashing light shows, a high-end soundsystem and heavyweight house and drum-and-bass DJs. Carl Craig, LTJ Bukem and King Britt have appeared recently, while Paradox (Thursday) and tech-house favorite Danny Howells (April 25) are booked later this month. The Florida Avenue location, between Howard University and the Shaw Metro station, is just far enough off the beaten path that it feels underground but is still convenient enough to hit for some dancing after a night of bar-hopping.
645 Florida Ave. NW. 202-827-8791. www.flashdc.com.
An attractive place to try unusual wines
Wine bars, like buses or grapes, come in bunches. We've recently welcomed the tasting rooms Eno and Flight; a date-friendly bar above Northside Social in Clarendon; and restaurants that might not be wine bars in name, but certainly act like it. Of the new places, I've been most intrigued by Flight, which sits in the shadow of Verizon Center. The design is gorgeous, the bar area is roomy and the by-the-glass list warrants exploration, especially when guided by one of the bartenders, who always seem up for a challenge. Flight's $18 trios might feature varietals from Serbia and Macedonia or new wines from Greece. These lesser-known choices appeal to young oenophiles' growing sense of adventure, but they also help keep price points low; a small glass of Slovenian pinot grigio costs $4 at Flight, while French whites are $6 and $7.
777 Sixth St. NW. 202-864-6445. www.flightdc.com.
A Penn Quarter basement brimming with craft beer and popcorn
Like its sister bars, Bedrock Billiards and Buffalo Billiards, Jackpot is located in a basement. Unlike its nearby sisters, Iron Horse and Penn Social, Jackpot is low-key and virtually distraction-free. No Skee-Ball. Only a couple of televisions. Just an extra-long bar, 20 draft beers and a solid selection of rum and whiskey. The thing most likely to grab your attention is the smell of buttery popcorn coming from a popper behind the bar; order a drink — a pint of Rogue, Victory or Evolution — and a bartender will set a basket in front of you and keep the popcorn coming. The assortment of peeling posters and weird objects on concrete walls give off a hipster vibe, but this place welcomes ball caps and Barbour coats alike — an oasis of sanity in bustling Penn Quarter.
726 Seventh St. NW. 202-628-5225. www.jackpotdc.com.
The Lodge at RedRocks
Two levels of DJs, dancing and al fresco drinks
There's no shortage of places for dancing on H Street NE. But only RedRocks brings in such DJs as underground hip-hop star Talib Kweli, Afrobeat party-starter Rich Medina, the True School DJs Cuzzin B and Face, and New York mixtape king Tony Touch — all without a cover charge. Hidden above the pizza restaurant, the Lodge at Red Rocks is a laidback two-story venue with a large dance floor, a spacious rooftop deck, great sound, and couches and chairs for when you want to take a breather and catch up with friends. Cocktails and beer start at $6. DJs spin from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights, and again at the "Soul Brunch" from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.
1348 H St. NE. 202-621-7300. www.redrocksdc.com.
MacDowell Brew Kitchen
Leesburg's slice of Margaritaville
On a pleasant day, MacDowell Brew Kitchen is a trip to the beach without leaving Leesburg's historic downtown. The patio, along busy Harrison Street, is covered with a blanket of sand and dotted with palm trees; Jimmy Buffett and James Taylor songs play over the speakers while a crowd nestles into Adirondack chairs or bellies up to the three-sided bar made from the hulk of a fishing boat called the Sea Witch. Beer drinkers kick off their flip-flops and wiggle their toes in the sand, while kids play with Tonka dump trucks and other beach-friendly toys. Personable servers and an outstanding draft lineup of craft beers that leans heavily on 3 Brothers, Devils Backbone and other Virginia brews set the tone as much as the blues bands, found outdoors on Friday and Saturday nights, or the carved wooden parrot presiding over the outdoor space.
202-B Harrison St. SE, Leesburg. 703-777-2739. www.macdowellbrewkitchen.com.
Happy hour for foodies and friends
When cocktail maven Jeff Faile left Fiola for the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, he brought his love of bitter Italian spirits and cheap happy hour deals to the Partisan, NRG's new meat-centric spot. Launched last week, Aperitivo Hour features five creative tastes for $5 each weeknight between 4 and 6 p.m. The citrusy, wine-based Cappelletti plays well with the medicinal Byrrh in an Americano Nuovo, while the hint of spice in the light, fruity Cocchi Americano Rosa is the perfect foil for sharp bitter lemon tonic in the Rosa + Lemon. While you sip, peruse a food menu that offers savory jowl ham or lardo wrapped around long, fluffy fried dough sticks ($2 each); a "sandwich" of fresh bologna and cheese stuffed into tigelle, the round Italian bread fried in lard ($5.50); and a huge plate of barbecue-dusted pork rinds with an extra-spicy BBQ sauce ($5). Tip: The area near the restaurant fills up quickly; head to the far end of the bar for more elbow room.
709 D St. NW. 202-524-5322. www.thepartisandc.com.
Friendly bartenders breathe life into a high-end hotel lounge
Dark wood. Low lights. Gilt-framed etchings of founding fathers. The Quill at the Jefferson is everything a "Veep"-loving tourist imagines a power hotel bar to be, right down to the tinkle of showtunes and Sinatra standards performed by a silver-haired pianist. So what separates Quill from its competition? The staff. Bartenders Rachel Kling and Sophie Szych trade quips and questions with customers while effortlessly whipping up delicious — though, at $15 each, slightly pricey — cocktails. There are signature drinks, such as the zesty Bittersweet Affair, as well as a monthly special inspired by a different author. (April's is a sweet gin-and-sherry concoction named after William Shakespeare.) Being at the bar with the welcoming Kling and Szych is like hanging out with chatty friends you haven't seen in a while, and keeps a refined hotel lounge from being too staid.
Inside the Jefferson, 1200 16th St. NW. 202-448-2300. www.jeffersondc.com/dining-lounge/quill.
Right Proper Brewing Company
Hanging out at the neighborhood brewpub
Brewpubs and breweries continue to pop up in Washington, but none of the newcomers have managed to combine fresh beer and good bar food with the mojo of a reliable neighborhood hangout as successfully as Shaw's Right Proper Brewing Company. In fact, I'm willing to bet that the place would be buzzing even if brewer Nathan Zeender weren't making beers like the sublime Ornette, a peppery Belgian-style beer known as a grisette, or selling the house brews for just $5 and $6.
The large building has multiple bars, including a long one overlooking the brewing facility, and plenty of standing room. Chalk murals and paintings by local artists add to the hip, buzzy setting. Southern snacks dominate the menu: Try pork rinds with a side of pimento cheese for dipping, or a Chick-fil-A-style chicken sandwich with pickles and boursin cheese. It can be hard to get a table at the end of the week, but things calm down on Sunday nights, when jazz musicians perform. A brewery you can enjoy all week? Lucky Shaw.
624 T St. NW. 202-607-2337. www.rightproperbrewery.com.
New spot for outstanding cocktails or rooftop drinks
The two levels of Roof Bethesda bring to mind fraternal twins: You know there's a familial connection, but there's little resemblance between the two.
Start with the restaurant, which is on the second floor of a nondescript building and accessed by private elevator. The modern-looking bar area is narrow and frequently cramped, so I find refuge at the narrow drink rails along the floor-to-ceiling windows, which offer panoramic views of the bustle of Woodmont Triangle. The $10 cocktails are some of the best beverages in Bethesda: summer concoctions that pair citrus vodka with fresh-squeezed mandarin oranges, lemongrass and Thai basil (the Zen) or floral gin, watermelon juice and agave nectar (the Refresh).
Meanwhile, the rooftop level feels unfinished — the strands of lights are taped to the railings instead of being permanently affixed, there's no cocktail menu and the computer screen at the register wasn't working on a recent visit. Yet it's a huge roofdeck in a neighborhood hurting for outdoor space. The views aren't the best, but that's not what the happy hour crowd — sipping $6 mixed drinks or canned beer from the likes of Flying Dog and Brewer's Art — cares about.
7940 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda. 240-245-7663. www.roofbethesda.com.
A roof with a view that's worth a weeknight visit
Only the intrepid or truly patient should consider venturing to Roofers Union on a Friday or Saturday night. Once you fight your way through the usual Adams Morgan crowds, you'll probably face a wait to climb the stairs to the rooftop bar, and even more to get your drinks. My best experiences have been hanging out on a Sunday night or stopping by after work on a Tuesday, when I've rarely had to wait for a seat. But the view and the drinks are worth the trip. There are 14 craft beers, starting at $6; a pair of $7 frozen cocktails, such as a sharp and refreshing Paloma; and $18 mini-punch bowls for two, filled with tiki-ish combinations of bourbon, rum, pineapple, mandarin oranges and lemongrass. A menu designed for snacking is particularly strong on sausages, especially the Andouille and veal heart on pretzel rolls.
2446 18th St. NW. 202-232-7663. www.roofersuniondc.com.
Dirt-cheap drinks and the District's best jukebox
The best jukebox in Washington costs nothing to play. Seriously, just punch up some Martha and the Vandellas, Duke Ellington, Link Wray or an obscure '60s D.C. soul band at Showtime Lounge, settle in with a $3 can of Natty Boh or Genesee and enjoy the music. That's why I love this Bloomingdale bar, where the tunes are curated by owner Paul Vivari, who DJs around town as Soul Call Paul. Showtime feels more like a finished basement than a destination — there are five seats at the bar and tables for maybe 30 more. The room gets sweaty on weekends, but people gamely keep dancing, perhaps propelled by the $5 beer-and-Club 400 whiskey combos. You won't know if the person sitting next to you will be a 60-something guy who used to get his hair cut here when it was a barbershop called Showtime, or a 20-something who just moved into a group house in the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood. The jukebox may be free, but remember to bring cash: The bartenders don't accept plastic.
113 Rhode Island Ave. NW. www.facebook.com/showtimebardc.