Welcome to Washington D.C.: one of the fastest-rising food and drink scenes in the country in the last few years. Don’t believe it? Have you been back lately?
On the food front, our nation’s capital was long known for its steakhouses and power lunch spots. Despite diverse demographics, D.C. wasn’t exactly a place of culinary or drink innovation. The last few years have changed all that. Don’t misunderstand: power lunches are still the norm—and you won’t have any problem finding a steakhouse. But the norm is also exciting menus in an array of cuisine categories as well as bars showcasing the best in spirits and cocktails.
From getting their first round of Michelin stars in 2016—with a short but vibrant list of 12 restaurants awarded one to two Michelin stars—to deep coverage of D.C.’s “scene” by food critic Tom Sietsema of The Washington Post (who has been covering the city since 2000), it’s easy to track the growth—and to taste it—in D.C.’s restaurants and bars.
Even with short cocktail menus, many of the top restaurants, like Maketto or Masseria, focus on creative drinks, while a few bars specialize in deep spirits selections in one category, like sherry at Mockingbird Hill (which has been closed for a remodel) and whisk(e)y at the always impressive Jack Rose.
Craft distilling has likewise been exploding with a number of distilleries opening within city limits, many of them offering options beyond straight spirits tastings. Jos. A. Magnus & Co. (http://josephmagnus.com) has a popular, hidden bar inside their distillery (with a view into the distilling room), while the striking, multiroom space at District Distilling (www.district-distilling.com) houses an upstairs restaurant and bar. In Penn Quarter, Farmers & Distillers (http://farmersanddistillers.com) is a forward-thinking collaboration between farmers and the distillery and restaurant, housed together in one space.
Republic Restoratives is impressively 100% women-owned and also known to be the largest crowd-funded distillery up to this point. New Columbia Distillery’s Green Hat Gin (http://greenhatgin.com) is popular at bars around the city, and One Eight Distilling (www.oneeightdistilling.com) names their spirits after D.C. locales. Rum is the star at Cotton & Reed (www.cottonandreed.com), which also houses a cocktail bar and tasting room.
One of the most exciting local distilleries—one where they buy their spirit base (distilled from their own recipe) and macerate in-house with herbs and botanicals both locally sourced and grown in their own garden—is Don Ciccio & Figli (http://donciccioefigli.com). Founder/distiller Francesco Amodeo and his family of wine and liqueur producers hail from Italy’s Amalfi coast, and he produces Italian-inspired but U.S.-centric amari and aperitif liqueurs.
Of course, the region’s most famed distillery is about 15 miles outside the city: George Washington’s Mount Vernon (www.mountvernon.org) houses the original, Washington’s own still where he began distilling in the 1790s. The distillery and gristmill are open to visitors from April through October.
In spite of the current political climate, when it comes to food and drink, there has never been a better time to eat and drink in our nation’s capital. Here are 10 of the city’s best bars—in restaurants or stand-alone—covering the gamut from robust spirits collections to top-notch cocktails.
Opened in October 2016 on the edge of D.C.’s U Street and Shaw neighborhoods, Service Bar (http://servicebardc.com) quickly became an industry favorite and a source for crushable-but-thoughtful cocktails served in a low-key way, thanks to industry vets Chad Spangler, Glendon Hartley and Chris Willoughby. They serve a playful fried chicken menu (like chicken tenders in a savory waffle cone) with cocktails. There is a “snug” or intimate, green-lit private room for rent with a group of friends, with a window offering direct access to the bartender.
What to Drink: Look for plenty of rum and brandies, as well as elegant but easy cocktails across spirit categories. Early standouts in the ever-changing menu were drinks like Raisin d’etre, a surprisingly dry, balanced blend of Armagnac, lemon, cinnamon, serrano peppers and golden raisin, or a Baked Apple and Pear Gin & Tonic featuring a house tonic made from three varieties of pear and three varieties of apple.
It’s almost impossible to discuss D.C.’s bar scene with any spirits lover and not talk about Jack Rose (http://jackrosediningsaloon.com) which is one of the country’s—and the world’s—greatest whisk(e)y bars. Housing multiple rooms, including a wood-paneled whisk(e)y cellar and open-air patio, as well as the intimate cocktail bar Dram and Grain (www.facebook.com/DramandGrain), Jack Rose is home to over 2,700 whiskies and whiskeys, including hundreds of rarities, collectors bottles and options that will make any whisk(e)y aficionado essentially lose it.
What to Drink: Alongside food and house cocktails, you’ll find whiskeys from India to Belgium, American whiskeys of every stripe (including decades-old Stitzel Weller bottlings) and Scotch Malt Whisky Society rarities from many decades. If you like, pair that dram with a cigar.
Easily the sacred cocktail temple of D.C., Columbia Room (http://columbiaroomdc.com) is another (along with Mockingbird Hill, Eat the Rich, Southern Efficiency) Derek Brown-created bar, this one about showcasing the elevated techniques and lore of cocktails with meticulous care in an upstairs space that houses a tasting room, spirits library and punch garden. The hidden tasting room is ticketed and by reservation with three- or five-course cocktail menus paired with bites. The room’s long bar recalls Japan, where Brown got much of his inspiration for Columbia Room, while curtained booths allow for privacy with friends and dates. The spirits library, with its comfy leather chairs, serves à la carte cocktails while the punch garden focuses on punches and bottled cocktails.
What to Drink In the spirits library, look for featured highballs, Old Fashioneds and cocktails like This is Not a Rosé served in a wine glass and looking very much like rosé—combining mezcal, grapefruit oil and Cocchi Rosa infused with lapsang souchong tea and red bell pepper. On the seasonal tasting menus, you might be served a drink in a flask hidden inside a book, as with In Search of Time Past on the Fall 2016 menu. The drink was a mix of Armagnac, Vintage PX sherry, a musty tincture meant to recall “old book” smell, porcini cordial and eucalyptus paired with a chocolate shiso leaf.
Any city with a notable bar scene should have at least one great tiki bar, and Archipelago (http://archipelagobardc.com) is easily D.C.’s tiki/rum haven, opened in March 2016. The kitschy, welcoming space is lined with bamboo and tropical paraphernalia, showing old-school surfer movies on a screen above the main room and serving cheeky bites, like Nashville hot chicken steam buns.
What to Drink: Archipelago serves balanced, not-too-sweet tiki drinks garnished with orchids or bananas cut into dolphins. The Jungle Room Experience is a vivid, icy blue from Blue Curaçao, with a grassy-fresh base of cachaça and rhum agricole tempered by soursop, apricot and lemon juices. Their irresistible take on a banana daiquiri—Banana Daiquiri Take No. 653—showcases aged rum, banana two ways (fresh and liqueur), blackstrap bitters and lime juice.
One of the trio of Derek Brown’s beloved bars in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood (including neighboring Eat the Rich and Mockingbird Hill), Southern Efficiency (www.whiskeyhome.com) is your bar source for bourbons, ryes, wheat and all manner of American whiskeys paired with Frito pie or pimiento grilled cheese sandwiches. The cocktail menu is spearheaded by senior bar manager Paul Taylor.
What to Drink: Alongside older and modern-day classics like a Toronto or Penicillin cocktail, house drinks are often a twist on a classic, like a variation on a bourbon milk punch. Fulton County Cocktail is a creamy blend of bourbon, Giffard Banana de Brasil, falernum, milk, toasted coconut syrup, fresh grated cinnamon and drops of a salt/saline solution to tie it together.
Eat the Rich
Another in the neighboring Derek Brown threesome of bars/restaurants on the same block (next to Mockingbird Hill and Southern Efficiency), Eat the Rich (www.etrbar.com) is an oyster/raw bar that blasts hair-metal bands in an industrial-cool space lined with oyster cages and serving seafood-friendly cocktails from senior bar manager Paul Taylor and team.
What to Drink: Notable drinks on the changing menu include delights like a Celery Gimlet, gin and tonics on draft or a Salted Pisco Sour, a pisco sour given nuanced layers from La Guita manzanilla sherry and local Don Ciccio & Figli Finocchietto (fennel liqueur), balanced by lime, sugar, egg white and a saline/salt solution.
2 Birds 1 Stone
Hidden in the basement of modern Southeast Asian restaurant Doi Moi, 2 Birds 1 Stone (http://2birds1stonedc.com) is part of a larger restaurant group (including Estadio and Proof) with the beverage side run by bar director Adam Bernbach. The underground space is centered by a spacious, glowing white bar and alcoves for lingering. The bar features a weekly-changing, hand-drawn menu of cocktails often highlighting unique house sodas like a carrot soda or a robust house ginger beer.
What to Drink: Menus are ever-changing but look for cocktails featuring pickle brine from local pickling favorite, Gordy’s Pickle Jar (www.gordyspicklejar.com ), or drinks like Outtie 5000 with its peaty Islay Scotch and Green Chartreuse base enlivened by the spicy, vibrant house ginger beer.
Copycat & Co.
One of D.C.’s coolest hangouts, Copycat & Co. (www.copycatcompany.com) is a bar hidden upstairs from a dumpling, bao and pot sticker shop in the H Street Corridor. You can bring your Northern Chinese street food upstairs to pair with quality cocktails served without pretension. The sexy-but-chill upstairs getaway is set to soothing tones of jade green and black with lighting inspired by bird cages and Chinese lanterns and a backdrop of a huge window gazing down over H Street below.
What to Drink: Menus change regularly and are artfully written on big chalkboards behind the bar, with sections running from martinis to smashes, gimlets to daiquiris. Look for brambles and toddies or special offerings like Hawaiian cocktails and sherry Mai Tais.
Set to colorful murals by Oaxacan street artist, Yescka, and one long bar, Espita Mezcaleria (http://espitadc.com) is a hip, modern Mexican restaurant in Shaw. Executive chef Alexis Samayoa and senior sous chef Benito Garcia do right by ceviche, tortillas made from heirloom corn, a range of salsas and Oaxacan specialties like tlayudas and seven styles of mole. Bar manager Megan Barnes and GM/house mezcalier Josh Phillips share their love of mezcal in flights and lovely agave spirit cocktails.
What to Drink: Next to mezcal highballs and a lush mezcal Cynar flip, the Mezonte cocktail, cocktails highlights include the likes of Colibri, a cocktail showcasing historic Jaliscan agave spirit raicilla (specifically La Venenosa Black Label Raicilla) with Carpano Antica and small-batch Fernet Francisco from San Francisco in a bracing, spirituous cocktail.
Since opening in 2015 from Tom Brown (also behind D.C.’s Hogo and The Passenger bars), Left Door (www.leftdoordc.com) quickly became an industry favorite for classic cocktails and house originals served in vintage glassware in a space that feels like a hidden Victorian parlor strung with holiday lights, with an antique Maker’s Mark coatrack at the top of the stairs. Early hours, the space is mellow and chill, while it can get bustling and full on weekends.
What to Drink: The menu runs about half classics (like Vespers, Manhattans and their famed French 95, a pricy French 75 decadently using vintage Champagne) and half changing house drinks, like The Outlaw: mezcal, pear liqueur, Cocchi Americano, lime juice and chocolate bitters. There are also a few Champagne/sparkling wines on offer.