City Paper is not for tourists
Depending on your viewpoint, a bar is either at its best or worst at last call. These spaces reveal their true selves in the minutes before a manager flicks on the lights and recites Semisonic lyrics, reminding patrons “you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.” Last call is when throngs of people who entered as well kempt strangers leave as sweaty friends with runny mascara. City Paper sent reporters to capture the waning moments of service at six D.C. bars and restaurants as night inched toward morning. —Laura Hayes
331 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; (202) 543-2725
At one end of the dimly lit L-shaped bar at Tune Inn in Capitol Hill, an older African American man wearing an American Legion sweatshirt and a Navy veteran cap nurses a Scotch and soda and engages in a good-natured discussion with two white millennials—a man and a woman—about many subjects. A mixture of contemporary, classic rock, and R&B blasts from the bar’s sound system.
As the millennials nurse their cans of Natty Boh, the conversation bounces from Pete Buttigieg’s relationship with the black community in South Bend and whether he can connect with African American voters nationwide to the oddity of the Los Angeles Dodgers playing their first four years in a football stadium. That leads to a broader back-and-forth on multi-sport stadiums.
On the other end of the bar, two men and a woman arrive around 2 a.m., about an hour before the bar will close. Manager and bartender Stephanie Hulbert hugs the woman and fist bumps one of the men. She serves fist-bump guy a chardonnay. The woman gets a Miller Lite and a shot of Jameson, and the other guy drinks a classic Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Unlike many newer bars in the neighborhood, the long-tenured haunt has an unpretentious vibe.
Located on Pennsylvania Avenue SE three blocks from the Capitol, Tune Inn is one of the oldest neighborhood hangs on the Hill. It opened in 1947, and the family that launched it still owns it. Stuffed deer and boar heads, foxes, and faux marlins adorn the walls, as do framed news articles about the bar. On this warm night, two of the four TVs show highlights from the Baltimore Ravens’ loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Tonight, Hulbert knows most of the patrons, which means she’s confident she won’t get any pushback at closing time. On New Year’s Eve, a Tuesday night, when the bar closed at 2 a.m., Hulbert turned away a woman dressed in flapper outfit who showed up near closing time. The woman, who wasn’t a regular, said she was cold. Hulbert advised her to wear a coat.
“Rubberband Man” by The Spinners fades out, and at 2:47 a.m. the lights come up. Thirteen minutes to closing time.
“And now, the end is near,” the man in the American Legion sweatshirt booms, leading his new acquaintances and Hulbert in an impromptu sing-along of “My Way.” With his wire-rimmed glasses, the regular customer named Preston resembles James Earl Jones.
At 2:58 a.m., Hulbert reminds patrons the bar will close in two minutes.
Preston and his millennial bar mates say goodnight. They’d talked like they were old friends, but they weren’t. “Good to meet you,” the man and woman say before they head out. —Ruben Castaneda
1029 Vermont Ave. NW; (202) 347-4488; stansdc.com
It’s too noisy in the dining room to hear who’s singing in the background, but one voice breaks through. “We’ve been coming here for 20 years!” a patron named Rusty shouts at strangers. He calls himself an evangelist of the restaurant founded by World War II veteran Stan Gimble. Ownership has changed hands over the decades, but Stan’s has operated at the same subterranean address since 1987.
Rusty comes for the anatomically generous fried chicken wings, unless he’s with his wife. On those visits, he orders baked wings to assuage her dietary concerns. “A lot of people don’t know about it,” he says of the underground spot. Stan’s is the kind of place people want credit for discovering and introducing to others. Regulars are the norm here. That’s why you see so many patrons hugging their servers. “If you come to D.C., you gotta go to Stan’s,” Rusty insists.
People also gravitate to Stan’s for the cocktails, the antithesis of the tiny and delicate drinks commonly mixed on 14th Street NW. “This is your liquor, this is your mixer,” a server explains, gesturing to two glasses. He provides this tutorial because at Stan’s, the proportions of a classic mixed drink are reversed. The restaurant serves four ounces of liquor with the mixer on the side. It costs the same as a fancy take on an Old Fashioned that contains closer to two ounces of alcohol, but tastes like a better value. More of a wino? Stan’s fills glasses to the brim.
Despite the heavy-handed pours, the diverse crowd is relatively tame. On this night, many tables are occupied by women wearing Zeta Phi Beta jackets. The sorority, founded on Jan. 16, 1920 at Howard University, is celebrating its centennial anniversary. Old friends reunite over platters of comfort food and occasionally let out a Zeta call, a piercing sound that would definitely help someone find her sisters in a crowd.
Staff don’t just create the welcoming atmosphere at Stan’s—they’re part of it. When their shifts are winding down, servers slip into empty tables to enjoy a quick dinner. That’s where a server named Joaquin is sitting. He’s worked at the restaurant since 1987 and recommends the burger.
A few minutes before 10:30 p.m. the last two dinner patrons descend the stairs in search of supper. They get their orders in just before the kitchen closes. One orders a cream of mushroom soup that seems to replenish itself. At 11:15 p.m. the lights come on. No one wants to leave because it’s so easy to stan Stan’s. —Laura Hayes
1221 Connecticut Ave. NW; (202) 331-3733; luckybardc.com
The incessant “wump-wump-wump” of techno kicks in as the Dupont Circle dinner crowd departs. Trance-inducing baselines blare from the dueling dance clubs that hug Connecticut Avenue NW.
By 10 p.m. dozens of people have lined up to shake their moneymakers at the retro-themed haunt Decades. Come 11 p.m., a sea of humanity pours out from circling Ubers—the new arrivals quickly clog the doorways of Sauf Haus, Rosebar, and Eighteenth Street Lounge.
Thankfully, the path to Lucky Bar remains clear. The neighborhood standby that’s big with European soccer fans put down roots at the start of the Clinton administration and has kept locals entertained ever since.
Weekend nights can be hit-or-miss for fun seekers. Some evenings, regulars and club kids fleeing sweatier environs cohabitate while tossing back Jameson shots. On others, close friends might have the whole place—including the coin-operated pool table and glowing Golden Tee machine—all to themselves.
This particular Friday there’s a definite lull. “It’s super busy tonight, as you can see,” jokes a bubbly blonde bartender as she waves toward all the open seats. A guy two stools over is mauling a basket of Buffalo wings, chasing the messy snack with gulps of cold beer. Around the corner three retirees are giggling.
Outside, tempers are flaring. “Hey baldy! HEY baldy! HEY BALDY!” one ready-to-rumble bro taunts a follicly challenged foe he hoped would follow him down the street and away from Public Bar Live’s security guards.
No such drama at Lucky Bar. Just perfectly chill people unwinding.
For some, that means nursing martinis while viral country-trap song “Old Town Road” echoes through the second floor lounge. Others take solace in frosty local beers, televised hockey games, or the golden brown empanadas they smuggled in from Julia’s Empanadas next door once Lucky Bar’s kitchen closed.
In fact, the only eruption occurs when someone brings up one of the most hated men in town. “Fuck Snyder!” proclaims a heartbroken fan of the local football team. —Warren Rojas
915 U St. NW; (202) 462-3213; velvetloungedc.com
Nine years ago, I was standing in the middle of the downstairs bar at Velvet Lounge. DJs Alvin Risk and Tittsworth were shooting the video for the moombahton classic “Pendejas.” The walls were soaked in tequila and National Bohemian beer. Tittsworth, who may be as tall as the room is wide, crowd surfed. Though typically reticent, Risk also stage-dove from the venue’s DJ booth. None of that happened at the now 22-year-old Velvet Lounge on a recent Saturday night.
“Old hipsters, Howard University art kids, and U Street regulars dancing to funk, four decades of throwbacks, and trap,” says DJ Harry Hotter, surveying the crowd. He DJs there monthly “out of a desire to, not because I need to play there.”
The venue’s manager, Juice Jones, who Hotter describes as “a teddy bear of a man,” says, “We’ve done a great job of surviving. We’re a mom-and-pop establishment in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle of very well funded establishments [like] Nellie’s, Brixton, and El Rey.”
One subset of Velvet Lounge regulars chart a well traveled course this Saturday night. They exit the bar, re-enter smelling of weed, then place their order for Jameson shots. Kendrick Lamar only encourages them with his “Turn Me Up” lyrics. Watching giddy young adults enjoying a taste of nightlife in the nation’s capital makes me nostalgic for past nights at Velvet, and amused by the fact that the present, though different, is no less fun.
Through the neighborhood’s changes, Velvet Lounge retains its pull. “We have regulars who are banned from the venue for their behavior who oftentimes stumble back in, just to honestly say hello,” Jones says. “People love coming here for the nostalgia, good times, or they just want a hug from me at the door. I check the IDs here. I give great hugs.” —Marcus K. Dowling
Eighteenth Street Lounge
1212 18th St. NW; (202) 466-3922; 18thstlounge.com
It’s well past midnight on a Saturday but Santana, a bouncer at Eighteenth Street Lounge, says the night has just begun. Eighteenth Street Lounge will turn 25 this year, but that doesn’t stop people from queuing outside and coughing up a cover charge to get in.
Eighteenth Street Lounge is a come-as-you-are, drink-what-you-like, do-what-you-want kind of place. Older couples arrive fresh from dinner to chat on the faded couches as R&B plays overhead and girls in short skirts and high heels make a beeline to the patio where EDM plays. Although a server says this night is slow since only two of the venue’s five bars are open, you still have to elbow your way through the dance floor.
In the dark-panelled lounge, couples sip Moscow Mules and rail liquor. The scene retains a PG-rating until about 2 a.m. That’s when a few couples move into each others’ laps and make out while a particularly frantic duo in black tie attire swing dances much to the horror of onlookers.
Outside on the patio, where Santana says you can find the best DJ, people like to keep things buzzing until last call. A crowd diverse in ages and levels of sobriety makes sure of it as they smoke cigarettes and drink out of plastic cups.
At 2:30 a.m. a fight breaks out on the dance floor between two 20-something men. They only get in a punch each before bouncers swarm in and kick them out. Santanta says it was over something stupid. “A girl, you know,” he says. “You’re always causing fights, right?” Right.
Fight aside, when the lights flash on at 3 a.m., people seem reluctant to leave. On a dark couch in the corner a woman is straddling her date, oblivious to the servers loudly clinking glasses around them. The remaining crowd slowly stumbles up the metal stairway to the coatroom and a group of friends take a final round of shots before Santana shoos them out.
The server who said the night was a slow one reappears: “Tonight was like a Tuesday night,” she pouts. “Come back when the live jazz room is open! Then you’ll get the real experience.” —Chelsea Cirruzzo
Dew Drop Inn
2801 8th St NE; (202) 791-0909; dewdropinndc.com
The Dew Drop Inn is an island. The bar sits a few feet from the Metropolitan Branch Trail and is surrounded by nothing but the Franklin Street NE bridge, a massive storage center, and railroad tracks. It’s about a 10 minute walk from both the Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood and Brookland-CUA Metro stops. The shark tooth-shaped, stone-covered building dates back to 1917 and still has the second-floor hoist from its time as a stone-cutting workshop.
Previously occupied by Chocolate City Beer Brewery, the owners of The Wonderland Ballroom transformed the property into the Dew Drop Inn in 2015. The diverse calendar of weeknight events, including burlesque, trivia, music, comedy, and an open mic night, is a valiant effort to keep a cheap bar afloat in D.C. in 2020. Through this programming, the bar appeals to a diverse crowd—Catholic University undergrads, young professionals, hipsters, and neighbors.
On a recent Saturday night, orange LED lights glow warmly on the semi-ironically curated thrift-store decor—a CBGB reunion show poster, a map of the Tube, a Trainspotting movie poster. Hip-hop plays on the stereo to a sparse, mostly white crowd arranged in small groups at tables, drinking beer or mixed drinks and chatting. “We’re not a cocktail bar,” says Trevor Sutton, a D.C. native and Dew Drop Inn bartender of five months. “Our swizzle sticks are in the back.”
Before things wind down around 2:30 a.m., two men argue loudly about the finer points of Russian electoral politics. Some patrons, looking so painfully cool you wonder where they can afford to live, smoke by the open back door as rain pours. A tipsy woman in a baseball cap, white jeans, and a large tweed sport coat, dances by herself. According to Sutton, she ordered a green tea shot made with Irish whiskey, peach schnapps, sour mix, and lemon-lime soda.
Sutton’s favorite late-night story took place during one of the bar’s twice-monthly indie karaoke nights. A woman, who had arrived with her male partner in tow, had “too, too much to drink,” according to Sutton. Throughout the night, she danced with another man while her partner stayed silent. Later, Sutton went outside and overhead the couple arguing.
“I leave and you’re kissing him,” the man alleged. “I thought it was you,” the woman replied. Her assertion was undercut by the fact that her partner was white, and the man she had been kissing was about five inches taller and black. “It’s OK, he’s not a good kisser,” she added. —Josh Kramer