For a newspaperman, and in particular for a lowly copy editor, being assigned a feature covering Capitol Hill’s luxe bar scene is about as good as it gets. Exotic drinks? I can dig it. The rare opportunity to dress up? Hey, if you insist. Heck, just the opportunity to get away from my desk and out onto the town is a thrilling prospect, especially after a long day of poring over other people’s prose.
It’s after just such a harried workday that a colleague and I light out for the Hill and hit Pennsylvania Avenue’s Sonoma, the type of joint whose soothing ambiance ought to ease even the most frazzled of nerves.
Stylish austerity — that’s the name of the game, and Sonoma plays it perfectly, the lambent lighting and exposed-brick walls endowing the first-floor bistro with an effortless elegance. Clear-glass dining tables are adorned only with napkin, fork and knife. Business-casual mid-40s types slather expensive-looking cheeses onto expensive-looking crackers, absorbed in hushed, pleasant-sounding conversation.
Behind the bar, running its full length, is an eye-catching backlit encasement of the wines Sonoma keeps on temperature-controlled tap. They are many, more than 40 in all, divided by the menu into both region (Old World and New World: Chiantis from Tuscany, Merlots from Napa Valley) and character (“soft, fruit forward reds,” “medium, round finish whites”). An additional 160 varieties are available by the bottle.
Oh, God, the wine. For some reason, ignoring completely the fact that there is literally a wall of wine bottles in front of me, I ask the bartender if there might be a signature cocktail I can try. “We’re really more of a wine bar,” she says, and in her reply there is a note of exasperation at having to state the obvious.
It’s also revealing of the pride that Sonoma’s employees seem to take in the restaurant. When my colleague and I express befuddlement at the peach truffles — which arrive at our place at the bar looking like giant olives — our server is more than happy to explain not only what they are (edible fungi, essentially) but where they grow (underground, Italy) and how they’re harvested (specially trained hounds). “Very decadent,” he says. He ain’t lying.
A few minutes later and it’s up to Sonoma’s second-story lounge, a space that — with its long white couches, hardwood floors, and romantic tables-for-two — is even more spare and refined than the downstairs eatery. It’s here that I make by far the best decision I’ve made all afternoon, which is to order up two glasses of Zardetto Prosecco.
A crisp, sparkling Italian white (and one that, tellingly, stands apart from all other varieties on the restaurant’s wine list), the stuff is an absolutely perfect complement to the sun setting on a late-summer day — and a fitting finale to our time at the restaurant.
Sonoma had gone pretty well, all things considered, and I’d come to look on my time there as a tune-up for what I considered to be the granddaddy of all fine Hill establishments: Charlie Palmer Steak. Where I’d gotten this impression I’m not quite sure, but every time I pictured what Charlie Palmer would look like on the inside, I conjured images of industry captains and legislative heavyweights (bald pates, sharp suits) tearing ravenously into barely cooked cuts of Kobe beef in a dim, crowded dining room thick with cigar smoke.
So consider my surprise when, at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, the place is more or less deserted. No complaints here, obviously; for starters, the relative dearth of other human beings makes locating a seat at the bar no problem, and since my colleague and I comprise fully one-third of the patrons there, we’ve got the bartenders’ undivided attention.
And what bartenders! Playful, upbeat and graciously accommodating, the two — a fellow in his late 30s called Brad and a younger woman, Heather — are quick to shatter my preconception of Charlie Palmer as an unwelcoming institution. They’re also supremely knowledgeable of the spirits under their command, which is a tall task when you consider that wine director Nadine Brown’s award-winning, all-American assortment is 10,000 bottles strong. Though she claims ignorance when my colleague inquires about the Pomegranate Fizz, a specialty cocktail she’s heard about, Heather doesn’t hesitate to whip up a mixture of fruit juice, vodka and champagne. The resulting concoction is good enough that I suspend my rule about purple drinks and order one for myself.
An incident later on makes me wonder if perhaps the bartenders here aren’t a little too good. Glancing up from a margarita I haven’t yet sampled to take in my surroundings, I decide that, given its sheer, stylish modernism — its functionalist furniture and utter lack of gaudy, eye-popping colors — this is the sort of bar where James Bond would be proud to do his drinking. It is at this precise moment that Brad asks what I think of the margarita, which, it turns out, is a creation of citywide renown.
I take a long pull on the straw. The drink is about as close to perfectly mixed as I’ve ever had, not too cloyingly sweet but not too heavy on the tequila, either. “That’s really nice,” I say. I ask what kind of tequila he used.
Brad shows me the bottle — Corzo. I’ve never heard of it.
“Really smooth,” he says. “Can’t you just picture James Bond drinking this stuff?”
Diligent reviewer that I am, I decide that I need to make a second trip to Charlie Palmer, one that’ll take me there for the much-ballyhooed Thursday rooftop happy hour. So away we go, another colleague and I — only to discover that the place has undergone a fundamental change. Where before there had been just a handful of other folks at the bar downstairs, all of them past their mid-30s, now the room is teeming with young professionals. The rooftop bar, too, is jam-packed. A place to get away from it all on the weekend, Charlie Palmer is, at this hour, the place to be.
And while the rooftop view is exquisite — offering an unbeatable panoramic look at the Capitol — this colleague and I have just finished a grueling workweek, which means we’re more in the mood to get a table somewhere and hash out all our recent trials and tribulations. Because I’ve got a train to catch back to Baltimore, my colleague suggests we head over to Bistro Bis on E Street, a stone’s throw from Union Station.
This, it turns out, is a fantastic idea. Bistro Bis, located in The Hotel George, is certainly classy; that much is clear from the menu and wine list. But there’s something decidedly … homier about this place. Perhaps it’s the wood paneling, soothing orange-yellow lighting scheme or open spaces between tables; perhaps it’s the TV cantilevering over the bar proper — an arrangement that might seem déclassé in a place like Charlie Palmer. In any event, Bistro Bis sets the mind at ease.
Of course, the mixed drinks on offer don’t hurt. On this particular night, the bar is out of blueberry-infused vodka, so I take the waiter up on his proposal to make the Blueberry Tart into a Raspberry Tart. My colleague settles on a Bellini. Hers is better — it’s crisp and refreshing, a good choice after a short stroll. Mine is mostly just strong. Maybe raspberries just aren’t as adept as blueberries at masking the vodka kick.
Before leaving we decide to sample the French 75, a lethal-sounding combination of Hennessy, Grand Marnier, citrus juice and champagne. Incredibly, this doesn’t taste as potent as it sounds. The standout flavor belongs to the cognac, but the French 75, my colleague and I agree, is a surprisingly well-blended and heady delight.
It’s only upon standing, and then staggering over to the station, that I realize just how heady it is. No matter, I think. Surely there’ll be some less potent intoxicants, some National Bohemians and Natural Lights, waiting for me at home.