High atop the Donovan House, a Kimpton Hotels property located on Thomas Circle and 14th Street (in somewhat of a no-man’s land between downtown and the Logan Circle/14th Street neighborhood), is the DNV Rooftop Lounge. This newly renovated and renamed spot (DNV evokes the name of the hotel, but also is said to stand for “Damn Nice View”) surrounds a pool (though you can’t swim while the bar is open) and is located 14 floors above the city with a sweeping 180-degree view of DC to the north.
Although you wonder where the $300,000 that reportedly cost the hotel to renovate the space went, DNV lives up to its billing as one of the best rooftops to get a drink in the city. Featured at the main bar (there is a smaller satellite bar near the pool) is a refreshing Pimm’s Cup on tap, pricey “towers” filled with cocktails for a group to share, and two frozen drink machines.
Go for the weekday happy hour, which runs from 5-7p. The draft Sapporo beer is $5, all the wines are $7, and select cocktails are around $6 (half-off the mostly $12 cocktails). At a recent happy hour on a beautiful mid-80s summer day, the HH cocktails were the Pimm’s Cup, both sangrias (get the White Rabbit Sangria, with chardonnay, acai berry vodka, pineapple, orange), and a frozen drink made by the bartenders. The latter-although the concoction wasn’t ready until half-way through the happy hour- it was well worth the wait and rivaled Estadio’s slushitos for the best frozen drink in the city.
To get a seat at the bar or around the pool during happy hour, make sure you get there by 5:30; otherwise the place gets a bit crowded. If you get there before the bar opens, the downstairs Zentan restaurant (which supplies the Asian-influenced food upstairs) has a happy hour with decent food specials from 3-7p.
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).
Perhaps the most polarizing bar in all of the District, the Big Hunt (one of prolific-bar owner Joe Englert’s first bars, it opened in 1992) evokes strong reactions from everyone who have had the fortune (or misfortune) of frequenting this establishment. To wit: this is probably my favorite bar in DC. My girlfriend, on the other hand, refuses to step foot in this establishment any more, despite being about a third a mile from our home (this opinion is shared by many of my friends).
I think it’s a great dive bar with one of the best beer lists in the city, friendly bartenders, a neighborhood feel on weekdays, 15-cent wing night on Tuesdays, and a somewhat-hidden-secret of a back patio deck. Others feel that the décor is sketchy/weird as hell, too divey/dusty, too much wood-paneling and taxidermy and weird-safari themes, too meat markety-young on weekends, and even the name is problematic (the unfortunate obituary typo involving Larry David’s beloved aunt in Curb Your Enthusiasm comes to mind). I concede that some of these are true, but I think they are much outweighed by the positives of the Hunt.
You first walk into this bar, which is located on the east side of Connecticut Ave. on the block just south of the actual Dupont Circle, using the right door under the circus-like entrance awning. Although I’ve been to the Hunt countless times, I finally realized on a recent weekend visit how big this bar really is. There are 4 different bars to order drinks from and about 8 different seating areas, though oftentimes on weekdays only one bar is open, and the rest of the establishment is off-limits.
After you enter, there is a table or two just off the front window and a fairly long bar on the left; low-slung red booths line the right side of the bar. More tables are in a back area that feels somewhat separate.Just beyond the bar there is an entryway to the other side of the first floor of Big Hunt. Here, another bar basically mirrors the first bar, and more tables, a couple of booths, and a similar back seating area comprise the rest of the room.
Down the stairs leads to a basement bar that I seriously did not know was actually still open until recently as I hadn’t been down there in probably 5-6 years; lots of red, a vaguely devilish theme along with a stage for recent burlesque and comedy make up this space.
Head back to the first floor, where you can take two separate sets of stairs (one on each half of the bar) that lead you to the second floor. One room contains a couple skee ball machines and seating, while the other room contains a very small bar along with barstools and railings to put your drink.
Behind the 2nd floor bar, a door and a few steps lead you to the hidden gem of the Big Hunt: a nice, secluded patio deck that fits maybe 25 people that is open during nice weather; even haters find it hard to dislike this aspect of Big Hunt. The view isn’t spectacular but better than one would expect for a second floor patio deck surrounded by office buildings (feels like a courtyard). Often there is a server who takes drink/food orders, and if not, the 2nd floor bar is just a few feet away.
As mentioned earlier, the drink du jour everyday here is beer, and be sure to try wide variety of beers and check out their frequent beer events. This isn’t a sports bar, so the place isn’t crawling with TVs, but there are few nice HD flat screens on the first floor so you’ll be able to keep up with any big events. Pro tip: most bars that have “house” beers, are just macrobrews from A-B or MillerCoors (or maybe PBR or Natty Boh) with the bar’s brand name tacked on; the ones at Big Hunt, Light Ass and Bad Ass Amber Bock are actually Michelob Light & Michelob Amber Bock).
Despite its imperfections and antipathy held by many in DC, this remains one of my favorite DC bars.
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.
Possibly the most infamous bar in DC (surpassing even McFadden’s), Smith Point is the closest thing to a UVa frat party in DC. Opened way up Wisconsin Ave. in Georgetown back in 2000, Smith Point had its heyday during the Bush years, but still serves as a fun, yet douchey late night spot in Georgetown (I’ve never been there before 1am, and I don’t think it opens before 10:30p). Technically, Smith Point is a club with members, so I’ve only been able to get in as a guest of a friend who was a member when he lived nearby (with a steep $10-20 cover due to the many guests he would bring in). Guests (maybe everyone) must enter on an unmarked gate (usually with a line, see picture below) on O Street, which leads into an long, narrowish patio area. Once you’ve gone through the patio area, you’ll enter onto the dark, sticky frat party dance floor, with the bar in the back.
The entertaining, drunk, and exceedingly preppy crowd drinks vodka tonics and Jack/cokes and bottles of Bud Light (don’t think there’s anything on raft); even the Bush twins and other famous Republicans were apparently frequent guests back in the 2000s, but no longer. My friend no longer lives in Georgetown so not sure if I’ll ever make it back here, but you can’t consider yourself a DC bar expert without spending 1:30-3am on a Saturday night (followed by the Five Guys catty corner across Wisconsin Ave.) at Smith Point.