Mount Vernon Square
A (resurrected) mainstay that’s still got it
Bars come and go, but when the original Passenger closed at the end of 2014, it felt like losing a loved one -- or, at least like that time in the third grade when your best friend moved to Iowa. Thankfully, the endearingly unpretentious cocktail joint returned in 2016 with a new location not too far up Seventh Street. The better news? Despite the new address, not much has changed inside. The Passenger still encourages patrons to chat with bartenders about what flavors, spirits, or ingredients they’re in the mood to drink, and then let the experts take it from there. The space retains its worn-in vibe with carryovers from the old Passenger (church pew booths, a Steve McQueen mural) and vestiges from other DC nightspots (Liv’s old disco ball, leopard-print chairs from the defunct Millie and Al's). It’s still the bar that sells tallboys of Schlitz and makes world-class cocktails, but now it has Chartreuse on tap and a stage upstairs, too.
A Basque country bar producing their own cider
This cidery and pintxos bar inspired by French and Spanish Basque country changed the cider game in DC when it opened last year. The space is stunning, and there’s no way you can miss the 660-gallon Mastro Battaio barrel sitting near the entrance upon arrival, -- that’s where ANXO allows yeast to naturally transform fresh-pressed apple juice to cider, and you can be damn sure they’re going to show it off. Save some room for those pintxos, like the salt-cod fritters and short rib montadito. The team recently expanded with a new cidery and tasting room in Brightwood Park.
Locally-sourced small plates and cocktails
A pioneer of the 14th Street restaurant boom, Bar Pilar has never tried to be hip. Named after Ernest Hemingway’s boat, the comfortable two-level space is divided between a downstairs bar that fills up quickly on the weekends, and a relatively relaxed upstairs, where Jesse Miller's outstanding small plates take center stage. The 20 or so beers on the menu are well chosen, but you’re better off opting for a cocktail, concocted with house-made sodas and poured with a heavy hand. Or if you’re feeling a little frisky, Bar Pilar is responsible for some of the city’s best adult slushies.
Mezcal mecca showcasing Oaxacan cuisine
If you’re going to put "mezcaleria" (literal translation: a mezcal factory) in the name of your restaurant, you better back it up with a whole lot of distilled agave. In this regard, no one can accuse Espita Mezcaleria of falling short. The Oaxaca-inspired hotspot carries over 90 varieties of small-batch mezcal, all part of a program overseen by first-time restaurateur -- and certified master mezcalier -- Josh Phillips. Dive into the world of the sometimes smoky, sometimes not spirit with curated flights of three different mezcales. Or, if that sounds a little intense, start with a Mayahuel, the tangy and savory house margarita... made with mezcal, of course. Don’t forget to look around while you’re there, too. The bright and colorful space is graced with murals by Yescka, a politically active Oaxacan street artist with a cult following south of the border.
A massive whiskey collection few can rival
Let’s start with the obvious: Jack Rose’s whiskey selection is absolutely bonkers. At almost 2,700 bottles and counting, it’s one of the largest collections of the spirit on this side of the Atlantic. The visual of all these glass vessels lining the walls of the spacious first-floor dining room -- and the bookshelf ladders required to reach them -- is a sight to behold. But what’s most remarkable about Jack Rose is the attention it gives to almost everything else, too. The beer program is excellent, and there’s also the open-air terrace, which alternates between hot sips in the winter and tiki drinks in the summer. If moonlight and crowds aren’t your thing, make a reservation at Dram & Grain, the intimate, leather-clad cocktail lounge in the basement.
German brews and brats in Shaw
Grab a 33-ounce glass boot of crisp Sion Kölsch and a brat with beer kraut and camp out in the city’s premier beer garden. Equally popular with millennials, older folks, and canines, this dog-friendly space attracts big crowds. The former parking lot has steadily improved as a destination over its four years in business, most notably having undergone a significant expansion of its kitchen, increasing the number of beers on tap, and adding spaces to stretch out in.
Expertly executed cocktails beneath Doi Moi
Once a week, 2 Birds 1 Stone bar director Adam Bernbach literally draws up a menu for his 14th Street bar. These vibrant but simple flyers provide a tidy metaphor for the concoctions they advertise: The flavors might pop, but the ingredient list can be distilled down to a few words, because not all high-end cocktails need a short story affixed to them. Of course, the devil is in the details, and this veteran of Bar Pilar (and current bar director of Estadio, Doi Moi, and Proof) doesn’t include anything in a recipe -- be it house-made ginger beer or elderflower vinegar -- that isn’t perfect. These drinks take a while to make, but that doesn’t deter big crowds on the weekends, nor does the fact that the basement bar is minimally marked. Once inside, though, the 60-seat lounge is refreshingly bright with white walls and ceilings... and plenty of birds, naturally.
Quirky cocktails in a former church
At the only member of the Hank’s family explicitly dedicated to mixology, cocktails come first -- before the modest beer and wine selection, before the delectable small plates, before the casual occult décor. The church-turned-bar is here to stay, and it’s kept patrons coming back with a rotating selection of seasonal, chef-inspired drinks with playful names, made by barkeep Jessica Weinstein, who came over from one of owner Jamie Leeds’ other restaurants, Hank’s Pasta Bar.
Explore hundreds of beers curated by flavor profile
ChurchKey is more than a beer bar -- it’s an institution. The best breweries from around the country send their finest ales and lagers to the slick Logan Circle establishment, and often only there, at least locally. Of course, not many other bars have the bandwidth to accommodate over 30 offerings from Bell’s at one time, but with 50 taps, five casks, and a selection over 500 bottles, it’s just another night at ChurchKey. The majority of beers come priced north of $7 and are served in 10 to 14 oz pours. For craft aficionados, it’s worth the splurge for a sublime swig of a rare brew.
Innovative cocktails served in regal surroundings
Derek Brown's Columbia Room is a little like a Wes Anderson film: whimsical, playfully ornate, and crafted with an attention to detail. In its previous life down the street, Columbia Room was an unassuming, snug 10-seat bar in the back of The Passenger. Since the concept reopened in Blagden Alley, it’s become something much grander. Namely, it’s expanded to not just three spaces, but also three different concepts: The Punch Garden, an outside deck that offers bottled cocktails and punches; the Spirits Library, a regal room rich with leather chairs, woodwork, and antique cocktails; and the Tasting Room, which offers visitors a prix-fixe menu of three or five cocktails, plus snacks, for $85 and $115, respectively. On New Year’s Eve, there will be a five-course dinner with vintage Champagne and luxe cocktails in the Tasting Room, plus a party in the Spirits Library with cocktails, Champagne, and hors d’oeuvres.
Classic cocktails made accessible
Copycat Company is hardly a bright and cheery sight. The wood is dark, and whatever light leaks in from the half-crescent window at the front of the bar is filtered by a green-tinged screen. The one place where illumination appears to be a priority lies behind the bar, where two big chalkboards break down cocktails with thoughtful details (and pie charts!) well beyond just the ingredient lists. Sometimes that means a bitterness scale, sometimes it’s a geographic map, sometimes it’s a history lesson. Copycat Company's offerings vary slightly every day depending on who’s behind the bar, but shifts are posted four or five days in advance on its website if someone makes your favorite Negroni.
Of all the gin joints... you want this one
DC’s obsession with whiskey probably makes gin feel like Jan Brady, but the clear, aromatic spirit has a hell of a champion on Capitol Hill. With over 100 options, this "cocktail parlour" boasts the largest collection of gin for many, many miles. Sip it in the house favorite cocktail Eminent Domaine (Bluecoat, ginger cognac, amaro, and pressed apple) or a choose-your-own-adventure martini, which the menu lovingly provides a how-to guide for ordering. And while they have every other spirit for your pleasure (including plenty of absinthe), the menu also will kindly remind you of one universal truth: "The only real martini is a gin martini."
Rum cocktails that are (basically) NASA-approved
This craft rum distillery near Union Market is equipped with a bar focused on cocktails made with the star spirit. Cotton and Reed was created by two former NASA strategists, and their spirits are delightfully quirky, with striking sugarcane notes in the white rum and a completely unique blend of botanicals, from bitter gentian to sweet fenugreek, in the dry spiced rum. They recently debuted an allspice dram, and new seasonal releases are always in the pipeline. Enjoy the Redbeard, made with rum, campari, ginger, and lemon, while admiring the wooden bartop graced with laser-etched flora and fauna.
U Street Corridor
Cocktails and fried chicken in a cozy spot
As the name implies, Service Bar aims to please. This cocktail and fried chicken joint has everything from inexpensive classic drinks to innovative seasonal concoctions. They also have a rotating regional menu that spotlights drinks from varying geographic areas. If you go with a group, definitely reserve the Snug Room, a private tasting nook with set menus that can be tailored to your preferences. Whether you’re in the exclusive hideaway or the main bar area, you’ll be well taken care of by the bar’s proprietors, Chris Willoughby, Chad Spangler, and Glendon Hartley.
The place to spend hours in a velvet chair with a stiff martini
Truxton Inn comes from the team behind McClellan’s Retreat. Designed to feel like an old hotel bar, this cocktail spot in Bloomingdale has an intimate library vibe, with antique furniture and knick knack-adorned bookshelves. The menu is divided into two parts: "Suggestions," which are no-frills traditional cocktails, and "Recommendations," which are riffs on those classics. There’s also a small menu for nibbling, with cheese boards, seasoned popcorn, and snack mix.
U Street Corridor
Craft spirits distilled on site, paired with comfort food
Rare is a distillery that puts as much emphasis on the food as they do the spirits. Enter District Distilling, the first of its kind in the city. The U Street kitchen and bar populates a series of 19th-century rowhouses with German copper pot stills, a 42-plate twin copper column system, a tasting room, and a sprawling dining area. Head distiller Matthew Strickland oversees production of bourbon and rye whiskeys, American dry gin and Western-style gin featuring wild juniper, vodka distilled from barley and rye, colonial-style white rum, and small-batch international specialties. They also offer a bottle-your-own experience for personalized gift-giving. In the kitchen, chef Justin Bittner channels his farming roots into the seasonal American menu.
A wine bar by a French expat
La Jambe’s owner, Anastasia Mori, says she opened the wine bar because she couldn’t find the perfect spot in DC that reminded her of home. It may not have the same nostalgic memories for everyone, but this unpretentious Shaw gathering place will still feel as comforting as an old friend. It’s also a great place to get an education in French wine, cheese, and charcuterie without any pretension. Pair a glass from the extensive French-only wine list with one of the curated meat or cheese boards and prepare to have your horizons expanded.
U Street Corridor
Affordable Cuban cocktails, coffee, and sandwiches
Mixology showman Juan Coronado and his team put a spotlight on Cuban culture this year by opening the second location of Colada Shop in the city. The bright, zippy cocktails here are a great escape from the depths of winter, and their $8 price tag is a welcome change of pace around these parts. The urban outpost -- modeled after Miami's ventanitas -- is right in the middle of the hustle and bustle of the U Street and 14th Street corridors, but it’s a perfectly chic hang to refuel with seriously strong coffee, flaky pastelitos, stuffed empanadas, Cuban sandwiches, and plantain chips.
U Street Corridor
Musically inclined spot named after a song by The Doors
The menu at Trevor Frye’s new bar is called the set list, which perfectly sums up what Five to One is all about. Designed as an homage to its neighbor, the 9:30 Club, it’s all about music and booze in perfect harmony. The cocktails fit into four categories: "originals" are house creations; "covers" are riffs on drinks from other bartenders; "throwbacks" are classics; and "freestyles" are staff choices. There are frequent changes to the set list depending on who is playing at the 9:30. Frye didn’t want to leave out those who prefer beer or wine, so there’s a carefully curated selection of both.
Culinary cousins (literally) put the horse before the cart
Nick and David Wiseman, the pair of cousins behind DGS Delicatessen, Whaley’s, and Little Sesame, have created another easy-going neighborhood spot -- with an equestrian twist. Seriously, the bar’s namesake is a Preakness-winning stud, and the setting is a restored carriage house with a courtyard in the back. The menu is straightforward and easy on the wallet, with classic drinks, seasonal specials, and beer and wine, all averaging $8 to $12. Snack options are sourced from local favorites like Gordy’s and Red Apron. On Friday and Saturday nights, a DJ spins throwback, golden era, and feel-good jams.
A variety of wine varietals that won't intimidate anyone
Three somms walk into a bar... and turn it into one of the hippest spots for wine in the city. Grape guru Brent Kroll teamed up with two like-wined friends, Daniel Runnerstrom and Niki Lang, to create a wine bar that’s playful yet educational. They manage to provide a space to really get into the vines -- er, weeds -- and learn about wine, from temperature to terroir, without being stuffy. There’s even a chalkboard bartop for taking notes (or doodling) about the 50 by-the-glass wines and the more than 500 bottles. Each month, the glass list is governed by a different theme, like global blends or mountain-grown grapes, plus a rotating selection put together by all three partners. Cocktails, craft beer, and small plates are also on offer.
French wine and bistro classics in a stylish space
Husband and wife duo Sebastian Zutant, former partner and beverage director of Red Hen and All Purpose, and Lauren Winter of Edit Lab brought a piece of Paris to Brookland with the opening of Primrose. The wine bar is a warm and romantic space featuring feather chandeliers and a patterned ceiling. Vin is the focus, with 15 by-the-glass selections and 75 bottles, sourced primarily from small and natural producers in France and Virginia, where Zutant makes his own wine at Early Mountain Vineyards. Chef Nathan Beauchamp is in charge of the cuisine, with a menu of French bistro classics like coq au vin, steak frites, beef bourguignon, and French onion soup. You can also expect charcuterie and cheese plates, bien sûr.