What to See Where to Stay Dining and Nightlife Getting Around
Washington Nightlife 101

Washington may not have a nightlife scene on par with New York or Miami, but this city still has a lot to offer. With numerous universities, a bustling high-tech corridor and tons of intern positions open every year, Washington always has scores of young people looking for something to do. We have huge dance clubs, great corner bars and cozy Irish pubs. And in 2000, the subway extended its hours on the weekends until 2 a.m., a boon for the nightlife scene.

More importantly, because of Washington's diversity, there's something for everyone, whether that's salsa dancing, Ethiopian nightclubs, places to watch European soccer, country karaoke or Persian techno. It might take some legwork, but it's there. We promise.

Adams Morgan
Adams Morgan is the key neighborhood for Washington nightlife. Any kind of going-out option you need sits chock-a-block around the intersection of 18th Street and Columbia Road. There are Caribbean and African clubs; the swank Felix martini lounge; the giant dance club Heaven and Hell, with its legendary '80s night on Thursday; "neighborhood bars" like Toledo Lounge and Millie and Al's; the best salsa dancing (and Mojitos) in D.C. at Habana Village; several rooftop bars; and Madam's Organ, which Playboy named one of the best bars in America. A neighborhood landmark, Madam's has nightly specialties that move between blues, bluegrass, jazz and even a wandering magician.

The crowd varies by club, but by and large, most are night owls ages 21 to 35; and if you go by the license plates that fill every parking space within eight blocks, the majority is suburbanites looking for thrills they can't find at home.

Word to the wise: Don't drive if you can help it. Parking spaces go quickly. Beware the homeless men who will "help" you find a parking space that you've already seen. Take Metro: Go to the Woodley Park/Adams Morgan station, then board a shuttle, which costs $.25 each way, or make a 10-minute walk.

Capitol Hill/Union Station
At Capitol Lounge, a comfy pub and restaurant with a cigar lounge in the basement, there's a chalkboard behind the bar that lists the brands of beer on tap. At the bottom, in bold and underlined letters, is this message: "No Politics!" That's the problem on the Hill, where young congressional staffers, lobbyists and government types gather after business is concluded. Most bars try not to wear their politics on their sleeves, although it's sometimes obvious Tortilla Coast is home to lots of Republicans, for example. But it's not always so easy. Staffers of all stripes love both the Hawk and Dove and Capitol Lounge, and unless they're toasting the "Nixon's the One!" poster, you can't tell whom they work for.

Instead, the nightspots on the Hill are more easily divided by their proximity to a certain side of the Capitol. Over on the Senate side (closest to Union Station), the hot bars are the enormous Capitol City Brewing Company in the old Post Office building, My Brother's Place, with its weekend $12 all-you-can-drink specials and cheap happy hours, and two neighboring Irish pubs: the Dubliner (traditional) and the Irish Times (young and boisterous).

Along Pennsylvania Avenue and the House side, there are two main strips: Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Street. Highlights include the venerable Hawk and Dove; the Penn Ave. Pour House (a Pittsburgh-themed bar); Politiki, a tiki bar in the basement of the Pour House; and Mr. Henry's, a cozy bar with live jazz upstairs (Roberta Flack was discovered there). More bars are clustered a few blocks away by Eastern Market (around Seventh Street). There you'll find great jazz at Ellington's; and Bachelor's Mill, a club that's popular with gay African American men.

If all the politics get to be too much, for a welcome break hit one of Pennsylvania Avenue's dive bars Zack's, Lil' Pub, the Tune Inn.

Dupont/West End
Dupont Circle has been a popular neighborhood with Washington's gay community for decades. But the neighborhoods around the circle have been growing and diversifying in recent years as well.

The bars along 17th Street, such as JR's, are (and have been) landmarks for gay nightclubbers. The can't-miss stop is and Chaos, which offers a great drag brunch every Sunday morning and drag bingo on Tuesday nights. There is also a cluster of bars along P Street, including the Fireplace, known for its huge fireplace, and Mimi's American Bistro, with its singing waiters. Also near the circle are the Big Hunt, which has almost 30 beers on draft, and Buffalo Billiards, downtown's best (and most swank) pool hall.

South of Dupont, a new nightlife hub is forming around the intersection of M Street and Connecticut Avenue. This is the site of several of the city's best upscale clubs: MCCXXIII, Ozio, and the ultra-exclusive 18th Street Lounge. There are also two great after-hours dance clubs both Five and Red go until the wee hours of the morning.

The West End, which has nothing to do with the one in London, is southwest of Dupont Circle, and might well be called Georgetown East. It's the home of the legendary Brickskeller, which offers more than 800 beers, and a number of bars for the twenty- to thirty-something set: Lulu's Club Mardi Gras, the Madhatter and Rumors.

Downtown/MCI Center
The area around the MCI Center has grown exponentially with real estate development, and the nightlife scene there has become diverse. You'll find steakhouses (Angelo and Maxie's); brewpubs (Capitol City Brewing Company and Gordon Biersch); steakhouses that brew their own beer (District Chophouse); mega sports bars (the Rock and the F Street Sports Bar); and Fado, the largest Irish pub in Washington.

Also around that way, the F Street corridor is home to Platinum, a large New York-style dance club; the relatively new VIP Club, a very upscale four-floor lounge and dance club; and Polly Esther's, a weekend-only club that made its reputation with '70s and '80s dance music, although they play some Top 40 as well.

Long considered a must-do area for Washington nightlife, this neighborhood draws on two nearby student bodies (Georgetown and George Washington universities), students who come from area universities to party with those local students, and visitors who go to the clubs and bars after dinner or shopping trips.

Like Adams Morgan, most of Georgetown's nightlife is set around one intersection in this case, Wisconsin and M streets.

Since Georgetown is essentially the closest thing Washington has to a "college town," you'll find plenty of young people drinking beer in spots like the Rhino Pump House or Garrett's. The Tombs, located within walking distance of Georgetown University, is a traditional spot for students and alumni, although it seldom gets as rowdy as the Rhino. The Third Edition, the bar used as a location in "St. Elmo's Fire," draws a mix of professionals and students; while the happy hour at Clyde's is famous for its half-price hamburgers. Mr. Smith's, another local fixture, offers a great burger and piano players who take requests (a teenaged Tori Amos once tickled the ivories here). In 2001, Modern, Georgetown's first upscale lounge, opened to long lines and mixed reviews from patrons who aren't used to dress codes and $8 martinis.

In the summer, Georgetown is a great place to spend an evening. The bars on the Waterfront Riverside Grille, Tony and Joe's, Sequoia, Sole are packed with people enjoying the great views and the cool breeze blowing in from the Potomac River. Tiki bars, located inside Third Edition and farther up Wisconsin at the Deck, are packed.

U Street
This street has long held a special place in the Washington nightlife scene, especially for the city's African American population. In the 1920s, this was the "Black Broadway," where a young Duke Ellington and his band performed. In the '50s and '60s, luminaries like Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk played in its clubs. Less jazz is performed here these days, but U Street has a number of great options for going out.

First, let's pause to remember Republic Gardens and State of the Union, two legendary hip-hop/R&B spots that recently closed. (Gardens owner Marc Barnes is rennovating the spot; meanwhile, he opened the megaclub Dream in late 2001.) Hip-hop still rules Bar Nun, although the club has has great open-mike nights as well.

Those looking for jazz can sample it at the renovated Bohemian Caverns, which has hosted everyone from Ellington to Monk to Billie Holiday. For smaller, less-pricey shows, consider U-topia, where the excellent Pam Bricker and her trio perform on Sunday nights; Twins Jazz, which hosts great musicians while serving traditional Ethiopian food; or Chi-Cha Lounge, a cozy, warm place that has Latin and Brazilian jazz, great drinks and comfy sofas.

Other options include Kingpin, a hidden hangout favored by a mix of scenesters; 2:K:9, a huge dance club located near Howard University; and the Black Cat's Red Room lounge, located around the corner on 14th Street. The Cat's jukebox is one of the city's finest.

Maryland and Virginia

Regardless of what you hear, there are nightlife options outside Washington's city limits. Here we'll look at two of the most popular (and most accessible destinations) Arlington, Va., and Bethesda, Md.

Arlington's nightlife center is Wilson Boulevard, a long stretch of road that runs directly above Metro's Orange Line, giving visitors easy access to its bars and clubs. Get off at Courthouse for Dr. Dremo's Taproom, a divey joint with a great selection of home-brewed beer. Also there are Summers Restaurant, a bar favored by local soccer fans who gather on Saturday mornings to catch the latest action from Italy and England, and Gua-Rapo, a chic lounge that shares ownership (and musicians) with Chi-Cha.

One stop farther is Clarendon, a lively neighborhood with a younger crowd. A trio of great live music venues are found here Iota, Whitlow's on Wilson and Galaxy Hut, although the latter two are also great places to grab a beer and hang out. Mr. Days is great for watching the big game, and the Clarendon Grill is good for burgers and a brew. Across the street is Virginia's first big-time dance club, the deco-style Clarendon Ballroom, which has swing dancing on Tuesdays, electronic and hip-hop on Friday, and happy hours on its rooftop deck.

Hop back on the Metro for one more stop and you hit Ballston, where you'll find Carpool, a bar-restaurant-pool-hall-pick-up joint that is always packed with young professionals ready to party. There's another branch of the Rock Bottom Brewery (located in Ballston Commons Mall) and the Rio Grande Cafe (also known as Uncle Julio's), where the free chips are hot and the margaritas are loaded with tequila.

Not to be confused with Bethesda's vast array of international dining options, most of the bars and clubs seem to be limited to places designed for (and populated by) the "Young Professional" set in its twenties and thirties: Tommy Joe's, Willie and Reed's and the Barking Dog.

Sure, there are other options Flanagan's, an Irish pub with darts, live music and three kinds of stout and Uncle Jed's, a roadhouse plopped down in the middle of Bethesda.

But alas, the biggest nightlife destination in the Maryland 'burbs lacks a good dance club. The limited options include the large floor upstairs at the Barking Dog, which is sometimes given over to hustle or swing dancers, and the Shark Club, which hosts salsa and techno nights, in addition to an array of pool tables and aquatic life (in tanks).

Griping aside, Bethesda has all the makings of a good night out, especially since so few of the bars ever charge a cover. Our favorites are Montgomery's Grille, a YP magnet that has the widest draft beer selection in Bethesda and a great outdoor patio; Rock Bottom Brewery, the only microbrewery (and some of the best beer) in town; and the Austin Grill, which is a great place for margaritas and people-watching.

Fritz Hahn

© Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company