Washington, DC is a town with a past. Arguably, some of the city’s most enduring landmarks are bars – and throughout the years, the city’s watering holes have seen it all – with tight-lipped bartenders pouring libations for presidents, paupers, and everyone in between. These 10 historic bars are still popular because they’ve managed to keep up with the times while staying true to their roots.
800 16th Street NW
The name pretty much says it all. A stone’s throw from the White House, tucked away in the basement of the historic Hay-Adams Hotel, red velvet-adorned Off the Record feels like the perfect top-shelf backdrop for discreet political wheeling and dealing. Although the bar may have a lot of history (the Hay-Adams opened in 1928), the place has a hip modern vibe. They feature an inventive food menu (from artisanal cheese plates and charcuterie to crystal shrimp dumplings to braised short ribs) and a colorful list of cocktails, offering drinks like the Long Hello (apple brandy, elderflower liqueur, and barrel aged bitters), the Second Ward (bourbon, Meyer lemons, bitters and ruby port), or the Marquis Sangria (Blanco tequila, pomegranate liqueur, and Earl Grey syrup).
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Just off the stunningly ornate lobby of the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, Round Robin & Scotch Bar is one of the city’s oldest watering holes – the place has been pouring drinks since 1850, catering to some of the country’s most powerful politicians. The establishment is perhaps most famous as the birthplace of the Mint Julep as we now know it– made with bourbon, southern-style — at the insistence of Kentucky Senator Henry Clay. In addition to a selection of locally seasonally-inspired cocktails, Round Robin also offers a menu of polished bar food (heavy on the small bites and sharable plates).
674 15th Street NW
Declared to be the first saloon in the nation’s capital, the original Old Ebbitt Grill opened in 1856, a few blocks from the current location — part of proprietor William Ebbitt’s high-profile boarding house. The historic establishment was once nicknamed the ‘Saloon for Presidents’ — known for serving some impressive bar flies including William McKinley, Ulysses Grant, and Teddy Roosevelt. Today, in addition to a ridiculous beer and wine list (and extensive late-night menu), the Old Ebbitt Grill has also earned the rightful place as one of the city’s most popular oyster joints. Warning: the proximity to the White House and the establishment’s storied past also make the venue a beacon for tourists (especially during the spring and summer).
331 Pennsylvania Avenue SE
At the Tune Inn, alcohol is the great equalizer – and drinkers from all walks of life (and both sides of the political aisle) rub shoulders at this down-to-earth bar. A Capitol Hill staple since 1947 (even rebuilding in 2011 after a devastating fire), the taxidermy-draped bar is a dying breed in DC, where dive bars have gone the way of the dinosaur. In addition to the down-to-earth atmosphere, Tune Inn also has an unpretentious food menu — specializing in burgers, sandwiches and baskets of fried things, offering some of the most reasonably priced fare in the city.
1739 N Street NW
Housed in a set of interconnected Victorian-era townhouses, the British inspired Tabard Inn opened in 1924, the brainchild of owner and admitted Anglophile Marie Willoughby Rogers (the establishment’s name is a nod to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales). Today, in addition to functioning as a historic hotel, the Tabard Inn also features a cozy lounge (with live jazz on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday nights), an elegant restaurant offering seasonally-inspired, surf-and-turf dominated menu, and an ivy covered courtyard patio.
1264 Wisconsin Avenue NW
A Georgetown institution since 1933, Martin’s Tavern is perhaps most famous for being beloved by JFK (among other political notables), to the extent that as a young senator, Kennedy reportedly proposed to Jacqueline Bouvier in a booth at the tavern (now known as the ‘engagement booth’). The hearty cuisine is classic Irish-inspired American food: steaks, chops and seafood. The cocktail list is a mix of traditional drinks like hot toddies and brandy cocktails, and more trendy fusions, like the Tuscan Mule (Tuaca, ginger beer, and lime juice) or the champagne cocktail (champagne and wild hibiscus flower).
10801 MacArthur Blvd, Potomac, MD
Just steps from the C & O Canal Towpath, the Old Angler’s Inn the perfect place for a post-hike digestif. This famous retreat has been catering to patrons detouring from the riverside trail since 1860 – from merchants heading to Georgetown, to wealthy Washingtonians escaping the city, and even Teddy Roosevelt, after fishing trips on the Potomac. Today, the place is a mixed bag with a formal dining room, a cozy stone-framed bar (with happy hour from 6:30-8:30, Monday-Friday), and a roomy, low-key outdoor patio. The dining menu presents an elegant take on classic comfort and bar-food favorites. The list of libations includes signature fusions like the Cucumber Salty Dog (vodka, cucumber, fresh grapefruit and simple syrup) or the Raspberry and Tarragon Smash (gin, raspberries, tarragon and simple syrup).
138 N Royal St, Alexandria, VA
Just across the river in historic Alexandria, Virginia; Gadsby’s tavern began as an English-style public house, believed to have opened as early as 1785. As a waterfront port, Alexandria was a bustling commerce hub, and Gadsby’s Tavern consistently served a prestigious clientele including the likes of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams. The tavern still has a colonial-charm – and the place has so much history. In addition to the elegant restaurant, there is also an onsite museum.
1226 36th Street NW
Nestled at the edge of the Georgetown University campus, the crowd at the Tombs might be young, but the bar has a lot of history. Located in a federal-style townhouse built in the mid-19th century, the building was named for a T.S. Eliot poem (‘Bustopher Jones: The Cat about Town’). When the Tombs opened in 1962, the bar was intended as a place inquiring minds could meet over a drink. Expect all the perks of a beloved college bar – ample choice at happy hour (including $3 craft beers), a lengthy and very affordable late-night menu, and a slate of weekly food specials.
6119 Tulane Ave, Glen Echo, MD
The Irish Inn at Glen Echo has seen it all – starting with tragedy. The property was originally home of the Moxley family, and was destroyed by a fire in 1930 (the place is alleged to still be haunted by the family). The location first opened as a tavern the following year, at the end of Prohibition in 1931, and has since been everything from a neighborhood pub, to a notoriously rowdy biker bar, to a fine dining restaurant. Today, the Irish Inn as actually three establishments in one – a white-linen restaurant, a low-key patio (covered and heated), and of course, a traditional pub. In addition to serving standard Irish-American cuisine, the Irish Inn has some serious happy hour deals — including $5 small plates and $1 local oysters (Chincoteague salts) – and, not surprisingly, a healthy selection of Irish whiskies and scotches.
This post originally appeared in December 2015.
[Featured Image: Courtesy of The Hay Adams]