Time and again, imbibers across the District are confronted with the same drinking-related decisions: what to wear, when to go out, whether to cab or Metro; but, most importantly, where to go to avoid the drunken masses, where communicating with a companion doesn’t require screaming, where pushing through a throng of rambunctious boozers isn’t a necessary evil of acquiring a cocktail.
At some point, such is every Washingtonian’s plight. Sure, some evenings call for loud DJs and crowded clubs, bottle service and long lines out front. But what about when you want to reminisce over a stiff chardonnay? Or a date with someone you’d like to get to know? A more serene setting is essential. They may be few and far between, but there are perfect hideaways amid the city’s busiest nightlife neighborhoods. Calm surroundings can be found at almost any hotel bar, but if you want real character, there are other options.
One establishment keeps things so low-key that when I walk in and start asking questions, the bartender tells me they “don’t like advertising.” I promise I’ll just list the name of the establishment, with hints as to its location. It’s called Saloon, and it’s buried in a basement down the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl. Don’t linger too long in front of that gorgeous mural that snakes along the Metro tunnel’s curves — you want to get here relatively early to get a seat, since “no standing” is one of the pub’s notorious rules. Staffers have been known to ask many an upright patron to take a seat and loud talkers to kindly quiet down. With the watering hole’s lack of TVs and abundance of policies, Saloon focuses on the art of conversation, and it works — three new people introduce themselves over sips of stout beer.
These beers aren’t your average Budweisers — the accommodating server tells me Saloon doesn’t carry standard brands, and claims it’s the only place in the U.S. where one can find Austria’s Urbock 23. Follow the wine-drinker’s custom of swishing before swallowing and savor its layered taste. The strange brew slides gently down the throat with a pleasant viscosity, and, although it’s sweet, the first few sips beg for further consumption. Only one six-ounce serving per customer may seem meager, but the lager’s strength becomes evident upon standing, as a slight dizziness ensues, with a warmth that’s more akin to tequila than beer.
Adams Morgan may be the last place one considers when searching for civilized drinking, but surprises lie in store. Although the name Bourbon may remind some of the New Orleans street that’s host to wild nights of debauchery, this homey spot of the same name is anything but. The music is gentle and relaxed; “Dazed and Confused” plays muted with closed captioning on one of the corner televisions. The décor is beautiful and warm, with exposed brick and rich brown furnishings. It doesn’t scream sophistication, but instead bespeaks a muted elegance. Tattooed bartenders in plaid shirts provide friendly service against the backdrop of 140 bourbons displayed beneath soft lights, while a wine keeper drizzles the nectar of the gods from small taps.
The staff proves helpful and knowledgeable. A tumbler of A.H. Hirsch Reserve is the bourbon of choice, with its complex aromas wafting up, rocks on the side as avid drinkers swear it should be served. There’s a one-per-customer limit, as the distillery that produced it closed in 1988 and the fountain will one day run dry.
But to enjoy one’s favorite whiskey in peace, the real nook to see is Bourbon’s charming patio. Candlelit and awash with subdued conversation, equipped with plenty of ashtrays, it can become crowded on a Saturday night. But by and large, it’s a safe bet for an after-dinner drink and, as an added bonus, glows with a romantic atmosphere that’s uncharacteristic of the raucous neighborhood.
Another tranquil dwelling lies just around the corner from the Woodley Park Metro. Open City Café has wines on tap and serves creative cocktails in a casual setting peppered with patrons drinking and dining alone with newspapers and laptops. The sinuous marble-top bar winds along the corners of the venue, which maintains a coffeehouse feel. A different kind of calm hums through the large café, with a laid-back vibe and an eclectic collection of music playing not too loudly over the hushed chatter.
Flavored vodka spikes the rich and cold Black Cherry Soda, a throwback to youth with a grown-up twist. It’s garnished with a generous serving of maraschino cherries that anticipate consumption at the bottom of the glass and color the drink with an extra oomph. The Watermelon Cooler, a refreshing blend of lemonade, watermelon and vodka, proves perfect for a hot midsummer night.
So the formula for a civilized night out seems to be this — wines on tap, unique beverages and locations that aren’t too far off the beaten path — just tuck them into the basements and corners of the bustling boroughs. There’s no tried-and-true equation for creating a quiet hideaway, but these establishments have set the bar.