Bocce is the group sport du jour in Washington, especially for forever-young adults graduating from kickball or those too unathletic to play softball. While other bars have dabbled in the Italian lawn bowling game (e.g., Vinoteca, Blackjack, and Penn Social),it was inevitable that a bar fully devoted to bocce would open in DC.
That place is Vendetta, the new Italian restaurant/bocce bar from bar impresario Joe Englert on H Street. Located in the old Red Palace space (which itself was a combination of two very different bars, The Red and the Black and Palace of Wonders, neither of which I visited), Vendetta is a nicely decorated spot, with red walls accompanying Vespas hanging or embedded in the wall. A nice 25 foot bocce court highlights each of the two floors; it’s free to play and easy to learn if you haven’t played before. There is small, bare bones deck (with chair umbrellas) off the 2nd floor.
Pasta and gnocchi make up the food menu, while the beer list is nothing special, moderately-priced (for DC) cocktails ($8-10) and prosecco on tap are the draws. For the straight guys out there, take note: the clientele was about 75% women on my visit, and friends have confirmed the favorable mix at other times. A nice addition to the H Street landscape.
Fried chicken, doughnuts, and beer are three things that are stellar on their own. Still, one place dares to put them all together—GBD (Golden Brown Delicious). This new Dupont Circle joint, from the same folks who brought you the uber-popular Churchkey and Birch & Barley, is located in sliver of a storefront previously (ironically) occupied by Yola, the yogurt parfait + coffee shop (operated by a young, idealistic fellow UVa alum, as chronicled in this illuminating Washington City Paper story in Oct 2012). GBD mostly lives up to its hype as a welcome change from the meat markets that make up Dupont/Midtown—though the anticipated throngs have not yet materialized.
Open nearly all day and night (save for mid-afternoon and Monday nights), GBD offers great doughnuts all day, solid-but-not-great fried chicken (at its best, it is still underseasoned), the best biscuit (crème fraiche) in the city, a variety of beers (helpfully organized as fried chicken or doughnut beers), and tasty punches (a recent visit found bourbon, gin, and vodka punches) in a low-key environment that inspires one to just chill and let the Luther-induced food coma slowly take you over (in case you don’t know, the Luther is a sandwich made up of a donut sliced in half with a piece of fried chicken and bacon in between; it’s delicious and heart attack-y as it sounds).
GBD contains two rooms: the front area includes bar stools by the front bay window (good for people watching) and the only bar; the back contains tables and a few booths. Most crowded during the great happy hour ($3-5 beers & punches from 4:30-7p Tues-Sat., along with an industry happy hour after 9p on Sun.), GBD has sadly been relatively empty the times I’ve stopped by after midnight on the weekends (10-15 people in the entire place). No one likes a crowded bar, but more patrons would definitely add a needed jolt of energy late night and keep this place sustainable long-term. A well-advertised late night happy hour (drinks and/or food) may be a good idea. Still, GBD is a solid place to get good eats and beers in a more Metro-accessible location.
Quite likely the largest sports bar in DC, Buffalo Billiards is also arguably the best, which says more about the quality of sports bars in DC than anything. Opened in 1994 by the same folks who earlier brought you Bedrock and Atomic Billiards (and later opened Rocket Bar and Board Room), this cavernous, subterranean bar right south of the Circle itself cost nearly $1.5 million (adjusted for inflation) to build out originally.
Tons of tvs (over 50; mostly flat screens with a few huge projection screens thrown in for showcase games) adorn the walls, while at least 15 pool tables, 10 shuffle board tables, a couple ping pong tables, skeeball, darts, and other assorted games fill up the floor. There are three bars spread out to serve you mostly standard ho hum beers (everything on draft here seemingly tastes slightly worse than every other DC bar, too cold usually) and rail drinks (no cocktail list here, though not sure why you’d want to order one), along with a mixture of standard tables and hightops with barstools where you can receive very sporadic service from the disinterested waitstaff. During big events, such a Michigan Wolverine games and fights, at some of the bars, Buffalo Billiards will actually set up a queue to make the drinking process more orderly, which actually works out pretty well (I wouldn’t mind if other bars tried this at times).
The spotty service when you’re not at the bar, coupled with the huge space, makes this bar very appealing for you cord-cutting cheapskates out there: this is probably the easiest bar I’ve ever been to where you can pull off,without awkwardness, watching a whole game without ordering anything (pour yourself a glass of water at the bar from the pitchers provided). Also cool-there are enough tvs so you should be able to catch any game you want (just ask the guy upfront who controls the tvs), the layout is such that you can walk around very easily to get a better look at TV showing another game you’ve suddenly become interested in, and usually the bar turns on the sound for the marquee game (this is rare in DC). There are lots of different nooks (but not enough bathrooms), including a couple private rooms (a smaller one in the left when you enter and a huge one in the back) that are often open to everyone and a sizeable open-air basement patio which is marred by the overwhelming presence of smokers and poor TV angles.
Even though I often try my best to pick another bar (though only works well in DC when you’re watching a game of the most local interest or the biggest game of the day) when I want to watch a game at the bar instead of home, and have never had any desire to go when not watching a game, Buffalo Billiards remains the best place in DC to consume the most games at once.
Although Penn Quarter/Chinatown has a ton of bars, a handful of which are solid, and I live a mile away and work 5 blocks away, I rarely make it over to this neighborhood, for a lot of different reasons that I won’t get into here. When I do come to the area, it’s to catch a movie or attend a Wizards or Caps game (or some other event or concert) at the venue which made the neighborhood a destination after it opened in 1997, the Verizon Center (formerly MCI Center).
One of the bars I might check out before or after a game or movie, up on 7th St. just north of H, is R.F.D. Washington. This bar, which stands for “Regional Food and Drink” (I know, terrible), opened in January 2003 and is owned by the family that brought you the legendary Brickskeller, one of the first and biggest beer bars in the U.S., which was operated in Dupont Circle until 2010 (now the Bier Baron, under different ownership). R.F.D. itself is a beer-lovers haven-you’ll find a huge beer menu, a ton of beers on tap, and a host of beer events (though usually off the radar compared to others spots like Churchkey, Meridian Pint, or even the nearby Penn Social).
I recently stopped by before a Capitals playoff game; happy hour until 7p includes four different $4 craft draft beers-all solid, unique, and new to me-along with a skip-it $5 “Rockin’ Red” shot (Finlandia cranberry flavored vodka, Triple sec, and a splash of cranberry juice) (see above for HH menu and below the Caps shots). Beers normally are the standard craft-beer price, $6-8. The bar, probably because it is so huge, is full of folks in red jerseys but not too crowded even before a sold-out playoff game.
R.F.D.’s atmosphere is not really divey or hip, it’s evokes more of a T.G.I. Friday’s vibe (unless you’re in a basement or crappy hotel-it’s hard to be divey in Chinatown). You’re not going here to rage or have a romantic classy cocktail. Walking in, there are two small seating areas on opposite sides of the entrance which flank 7th Street-they are isolated from the rest of the bar but are exposed to natural light. A few steps up take you to the main part of R.F.D. A long u-shaped bar is to your left-the bartenders are pretty responsive and there’s usually enough space to stand near the bar, while ordering and drinking. The bulk of the room is devoted to lots of regular tables like a restaurant with waiter service which kind of contributes to the chain restaurant atmosphere; a few more hightops and communal tables would help.
After you wind your way through the tables, glass doors lead you to the outdoor patio area. Although covered with absolutely no view (more like a greenhouse courtyard than anything), the patio has its own bar (not always open) and waiter service and lets you drink outside-this is surprisingly hard to do in the neighborhood. Beyond, there is a whole another large back room (in a different building) with its own bar, tables and more open space than the front bar-if you’re looking for a relatively more party-vibe in R.F.D., this is where you’ll find it.
Although not really a destination of itself, R.F.D. is a solid spot to meet friends and grab great beers before or after a game.
[Update 6/22/13: Wine Bar and newly constructed bar upstairs to be renamed Bar 515, opening in mid-September] The W Washington hotel, with a location a block from the White House, is a popular spot for celebrities (I think I saw a Jonas brother one time) and presidential fundraisers. It also is famous for perhaps the best view in all of the District(of the Monument and the Mall and the White House) in its rooftop P.O.V. Lounge bar; surprisingly, I actually still have not made it there in its current incarnation (I once had an awkward summer associate outing when it was the decidedly less hip Hotel Washington).
Down below, you can find one of the best steakhouses in DC, the J&G Steakhouse, where tucked under the dining room, somewhat below the ground level, is one of the more pleasant surprises in downtown DC, the Wine Bar. It’s a nice, cozy, rarely crowded spot with a small bar with about 6 seats, a long communal table in the middle, a few tables off to the side, and more bar stools along a railing that faces the patio. Speaking of which, J&G’s Patio (which sort of seems to be claimed by both the J&G Restaurant and its Wine Bar), is one of the nicest non-roofdeck patios in the city.
Facing both 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, this expansive space has several tables with umbrellas along with small firepits surrounded by brown couches. Owing to its location right in tourist central, there are often more tourists here than the typical DC spot, as the patio is hard to resist, but it’s rarely crowded (these pictures are misleading as they were taken at the Spring Patio Launch Party) and the Patio often hosts barbecues and parties to coincide with big events like July 4th.
Not really a late night spot (good for happy hour or early evening), the Patio and Wine Bar are solid, nicer choices downtown with solid cocktails and wines (though the beers are the standard Stella/Amstel/Heineken bottled kind of crap).
Garden District (formerly Standard), website, Twitter, 1801 14th St. NW (14th & S), opens at 5p (weekdays) noon (weekends), closes at 2a (Fri-Sat), 1a (rest of week), closed Mondays except during summer months, est. 2011 [Yelp, WaPo, Tripadvisor]
Previously an open lot to pick up plants and little trees, the incredibly popular Garden District (formerly Standard) is, since spring 2011, an open lot to drink large $7 German beers and eat barbecue sandwiches and assorted sides. Aside from a small building at the back of this lot, which includes the small bar, a couple bathrooms and a few bar stools, this spot is nearly entirely outside, so count on crowds anytime the weather is pleasant (and even if it’s not, as long as it’s not raining or snowing, when the place is closed). There are a number of communal picnic tables (with a few outside the tall fence that surrounds the lot), but the space is spruced up with some hanging lights, heat lamps, shades from the sun, and the lively crowd.
Expect a crowd every day after 6pm and on weekend afternoons, though it tends to thin out a bit later in the evening and usually if you can’t find a spot on a picnic table, it’s fine to stand and drink while ordering from the bar in the back. The pulled pork is great, and consider getting the grilled corn when it’s available; sometimes Garden District fries up some donuts, which are reportedly tremendous. The prices on the menu seem bizarre ($6.36 for a beer), until you realize that adding the 10% DC tax makes everything a round number.
Aside from the wait/crowd, this bar also unfortunately (but understandably) is closed for the winter (from mid-November to end of February) and serves only 6-7 draft beers, somewhat bottled sodas, and water (so you cocktail or wine lovers are SOL), but all in all, a good spot to drink and eat outside on the 14th Street corridor.
Just north of the Dupont Circle North/Q Street entrance, this basement bar-known as Cantina Pub, though I’ve never heard anyone call it anything except Darlington House-opened up in the old Childe Harold space (which apparently the Boss Bruce Springsteen played at in the 70s) in spring 2009. This fairly small, low-ceiling’d bar below the much nicer restaurant upstairs, isn’t quite a dive, but is a decent, fun spot to stop by for happy hour and can be surprisingly lively late (though never crowded) on a weekend if you’re in north Dupont.
Once you walk in the entrance a few steps down from 20th Street, you’re right in the bar, with the sole, long bar to the left with a few table tops and bar stools on the right. The place opens up slightly in the back with a few tables for sitting maybe 20 people. Throughout the inside is one of my opposite-pet-peeves, exposed brick.
The beers on tap are nothing to write home/prison about, but there is a decent cocktail and TV situation slong with a covered patio upfront can also fit around 20 people that is good for people watching. Because of the layout, you have to actually walk on the sidewalk to get to the patio; it feels weird to take a beer from the bar (or vice versa), but no one has seemed to mind-yet.