You can’t fling a martini glass out an Uber window in downtown Washington, D.C. without hitting a craft cocktail bar. But beyond the joints where guys with sleeve tattoos present mezcal elixirs with Sichuan peppercorn syrup, you’ll find a handful of bars that are, fundamentally, of the town itself. By virtue of location, clientele, or history, they convey the peculiar, particular culture of the capital city. They simply couldn’t exist anywhere else. If you’re sly, you’ll spend a bit of time at one of these bars that embody something significant and singular about the nation’s capital — maybe even more so than the other places you’ll spend time while in town.
Most of these bars can get packed on weekend nights. A pre-dinner drink is probably a better bet. You may get lucky with a nightcap, depending on how late you cap your nights. Weeknights tend to be more open. All five are located hard by the city’s monumental core, in areas that are pretty safe. A rideshare is rarely more than 3 minutes away. All the lounges have at least acceptable bistro-style food: burgers, mussels, charcuterie, crab cakes (a Maryland regional specialty appearing on many D.C. menus), and so on.
The barrier to this sort of D.C. liquid tourism is low. All you need is an hour to kill, a willingness to foot a fulsome bar tab, and curiosity about the lifeways in the district that administers the affairs of this strange and beautiful country.
Pro Tip: Sit at the bar, and you may overhear some pretty interesting conversations among the capital’s inhabitants. Or maybe you’ll just hear someone gassing on about European Union import tariffs. In any event, if you’re not the barstool type, grab a table facing it. You’ll drink in the vibe, the scene, and all the very Washington-ness of it all.
1. Off The Record
Where Washington Is A Caricature
If you shot a nerf gun from the White House front gate hard enough to penetrate the walls of a stone building (I do not recommend this), the projectile might very well drop right into someone’s Manhattan at this long-tenured bar.
Off the Record is the house watering hole of the esteemed Hay-Adams Hotel, located directly across Lafayette Park from the White House. It’s a perfect duck away if you’ve been strolling the promenade on Pennsylvania Avenue, taking in the beauty of the President’s home and stepping briskly past the inevitable bands of protesters hollering at the fence.
Accessible via a downstairs passageway you won’t find without the help of the crisply-attired lobby sentries, Off the Record feels like a well-behaved speakeasy. And it nearly vibrates with its own sense of Washington significance. As one of the few restaurant-bars within walking distance of the White House complex, it fills with executive branch staff at lunch, happy hour, and especially in the evening (those folks work late).
The walls are lined with caricatures and photos of political and cultural prominentos. The big circular bar commands the room, and when you order a drink, it will be served up on a coaster bearing another political caricature. On my last visit, the barkeep offered me a choice: a joint portrait of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer, Florida Governor Ron deSantis, or California Governor Gavin Newsome. I asked if he had any moderates back there. He smiled uncomfortably.
The drinks, I have to say, are pretty good. I had the Smoking Mirrors — an Old Fashioned made with 10-year Whistlepig rye infused with cherrywood smoke via a very crafty ritual of flame. I should have looked at the price: $32. Hey, at least it had a piece of bacon as garnish. Most drinks on the menu are more reasonable, as are the beers and wines.
Pro Tip: Snag the coasters as souvenirs and you’ll have a good story to tell your friends back home.
2. The Vue
Looking Down At The White House
This rooftop extravagance, lined with full windows facing three compass points, offers the most spectacular views of monumental Washington available to the public.
From the Vue, you can see the Washington Monument up close and personal, with the Jefferson Memorial tucked among the trees behind it. To the southwest, you’ll glimpse the top of the Lincoln Memorial, and in the distance, you’ll see the little-known Air Force Memorial — three enormous sculptural contrails that leap from the horizon.
But most significantly, you get one of the very few — often said to be the only — close-up views of the White House from above. Your view is across the east side of the mansion, home of ceremonial rooms and the First Lady’s offices.
To be fair, the White House view is significantly obstructed by the Treasury Building, but as a bonus, you can peer at the residence roof, which has long been said to harbor an installation of defensive weapons, but who knows? It looks like there’s also a walk-out balcony. (Hey, didn’t I see that on House of Cards?). The White House is framed by the florid Second Empire hulk of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Fun fact: That’s where most of the President’s staff works.
Bar tables fill the snazzily-decorated room, or you can grab a rail seat that puts you nose-to-glass. But don’t sit at the bar: Your back will be to all the views.
Pro Tip: The drinks and food are forgettable. After a quick sip and a look around, head across G Street to The Hamilton, a sprawling, popular restaurant that, with its live music and high-class vibe, has an almost supper-club feel.
3. The Round Robin
Stand Me A Drink
The historic Willard Hotel dates to the early 19th century and still reigns as temporary D.C. quarters for the potentates of the world — from Louisiana oil lobbyists to royals from the Arabian Peninsula and blue-suited supplicants hoping to land federal contracts to some very well-heeled recreational visitors. It’s the hotel of choice for donors around inauguration time and its public rooms are magnificent.
The Round Robin bar is a period recreation of what it might have looked like in Willard’s youth when it was the hostelry for 19th-century swells. (Mark Twain wrote two books there; Buffalo Bill stayed overnight.) As advertised, the bar is round, occupying the room like an antique libatory command center, the sun cutting through a tower of cocktail glassware.
When the restored Willard reopened in the 1980s, the Round Robin fully recreated the 1880s experience by providing no chairs at the bar. Well, that didn’t last long. Now there are about 20 comfortable bar stools, maybe a dozen tables, and more wayback Washington portraiture.
Pro Tip: The Round Robin’s signature cocktail is the Mint Julep, marking the bar’s role in introducing the southern favorite to Washington in the 1840s. On my last visit, I had the Last Word, an 1880s classic, equal parts gin, green chartreuse, maraschino liqueur, and lime juice.
4. Cafe Milano
Pretend You’re A Someone
And now we head to Georgetown, once the center of Washington’s social life but now a churning retail hub packed with national chains, cupcakeries, noodle shops, and a small number of one-off specialty stores and restaurants.
A few blocks from the center of the madness, you’ll find Cafe Milano where Washington’s bold-faced names gather — Congress members, cabinet officials, ambassadors, hot-shot journalists, sports stars, and Hollywood actors. An armada of black Chevy Suburbans usually idles out front. To drop just a few names: Barack and Michelle Obama, Michael Jordan, Senator Joe Manchin, Bradley Cooper, the queen of Jordan, Ivanka Trump, Jennifer Lawrence, Serena Williams — you get the idea.
And you can go there too! My lovely wife and I stopped in late one Saturday afternoon. I wore jeans and a henley. She arrived on a bike and her hair was wild. We were treated with great hospitality by the hostess and the folks behind the bar. They probably thought we were the sort of people who are so rich they don’t have to care about what others think. If only they knew! We still left a good tip, of course.
The restaurant is bright and contemporary; the bar generous and well-stocked with an alarming selection of beverages that can gut your wallet with one misjudgment. But you can enjoy a fine shared contemporary Italian-ish meal without pain, and wine and drinks are hardly more than you’ll pay at most upmarket bistros.
Pro Tip: Cafe Milano has the best food and drinks of any of the places featured, so if you have one big meal out during your visit, make a reservation.
5. Martin’s Tavern
Where You Can Know Jack
Our last stop on the capital bar crawl is a small corner tavern in Georgetown that’s been in the hands of the same family for four generations. Let me be plain: The place puts the “shabby” in “shabby charm.” In my visits, the food has been unremarkable, the drinks undistinguished. The quarters are cramped, cut-up, and unrestored. When you walk up to the restroom you have to duck your head.
But there’s this: Martin’s Tavern is the place where neighborhood resident John F. Kennedy proposed to his girlfriend, Jackie Bouvier, in 1959. The well-beaten booth is marked with a plaque.
There is only one city where Jack Kennedy lived as a U.S. Senator, only one neighborhood restaurant where he was a regular, and only one booth that he proposed in. And you can be there. For one night, you can raise your own romantic toast at Martin’s Tavern.
Pro Tip: Everybody wants to reserve the Kennedy table. Good luck with that. Maybe you’ll have a chance if you tell them you’re going to propose yourself, or at least renew your vows. You would not be the first person in Washington to tell a useful lie.