Downtown Washington, DC is electric. Sidewalks teem with worker bees and visitors, alike. Cabs, tour buses, and limos shuttling important people flow through the oddly angled streets. But keep within walking distance of your cushy hotel and you’ll only know brochure DC.
The good news is one need not stray too far to find nightlife adventure beyond the posh K Street clubs. Venture to any of these ‘hoods via a quick bus, train, or cab ride and be rewarded with a more eclectic taste of the town.
This northwest DC neighborhood belongs on everyone’s travel itinerary. To be fair, Adams Morgan is every bit as gentrified as Uptown, but without the one-note nightlife scene or character sacrifices. Elegant rooftop dining (Mintwood Place) hasn’t eradicated punk-leaning record shops (Smash) or beloved dives like the mix-your-own-drink spot Dan’s Cafe. Beer fans would do well to visit the Black Squirrel, a stealthy three-level joint with a solid tap list and a basement bar that feels like Grandmaster Flash’s secret beer cave. Stroll two blocks south to one of the nation’s premier whiskey bars, Jack Rose Dining Saloon, which boasts a jaw-dropping 2,700 bottles. If whiskey’s not your thing, pop upstairs to the hip rooftop patio where a robust tap list and a side-room tiki bar awaits.
Between iconic clubs (9:30, Howard Theatre), world-class sour brewpub Right Proper, and an endless smattering of cool bars and restaurants along 14th Street Northwest, we could spend an entire weekend without leaving DC’s hottest neighborhood. It’d be easy to nibble and tipple a day away in Blagden Alley alone. Stroll down the nondescript alley around the corner from Espita Mezcaleria – a modern mezcal bar and killer brunch spot – to a hip coffee shop, quirky beer bar Lost & Found, and DC’s premier cocktail joint the Columbia Room. The latter’s regal main room is a tiny libation library where sophisticated highballs and a selection of remixed old-fashioneds enhance the space’s handsome-casual charm.
Just a short bus ride east from downtown, the H Street Corridor cutting through this diverse neighborhood is a rapidly growing hotbed of bars and restaurants. Before drinks at Copycat Co. or on H Street Country Club’s rooftop deck, consider starting the night at quintessential DC ramen spot Toki Underground – ironically a bohemian loft above hole-in-the-wall bar The Pug. While Toki’s still in good hands, these days founding chef Erik Bruner-Yang holds court down the street at his ambitious Maketto, a red-hot Cambodian/Taiwanese-inspired restaurant, coffee shop, and boutique next to the Rock and Roll Hotel. Try to snag one of the few seats in the open kitchen across the courtyard during Sunday’s popular dim sum brunch. Sip a smoky, savory mezcal Bloody Mary while scouting the rice noodle crepes, pork shumai, and indulgent custard-bun French toast firing out of the kitchen. If you can’t resist the deftly crispy Taiwanese fried chicken (we can’t blame you), order it for the table with a sampling of Maketto’s craveable small bites.
Nestled along the Potomac River just west of downtown, this bustling commercial neighborhood feels like Excelsior on steroids. Prestigious Georgetown University students and upper crusters pound the brick sidewalks lined with big-name shops and places to buy expensive soap. For a more soulful experience, duck into the timeless Martin’s Tavern – a lovable cross between an Irish pub and hunting lodge where supposedly JFK proposed to Jackie. It’s a Guinness kind of place, all right. But we say go with local favorite The Public ale, a rich, caramel-y pale ale from DC Brau. While you’re in the area, slink down a surreptitious alley next to an Abercrombie to Belgian beer paradise The Sovereign. Run by the ChurchKey team, the upstairs beer hall offers Game of Thrones vibes and a stellar arsenal of imported beers. Ask about the daily kriek selection from its bountiful cellar. It’s $12 for a healthy six-ounce pour, but was worth every penny on our visit.
Nestled outside the southeast corner of downtown, Capitol Hill finds the middle ground between tourist-y and neighborhood-y. By day, the Eastern Market draws locals and visitors alike and as the sunlight fades, the bars and restaurants along vibrant 8th Street Southeast fill with a crowd more subdued and mature than the younger Adams Morgan/Shaw sects. The truly patient (or downright lucky) might grab a spot at DC’s buzziest restaurant, Rose’s Luxury. Since the small eatery doesn’t take reservations, lines stretch mercilessly down the block a half hour before the experimental American restaurant opens. If that sounds too intense, wander up to old-school pub Tune Inn. Armed to the (bear) teeth with taxidermy beasts and antique rifles, the onetime speakeasy has an endearing grandpa swagger. But considering the NRA sign above the entryway, checking politics at the door might be wise.
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