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I’m still sipping my $17 hickory-smoked rum cocktail at Dram & Grain when the lights brighten like a movie theater after the credits roll. It’s only a little after 11 p.m. in the basement bar at Jack Rose Dining Saloon—far from last call on a Saturday night. But our two hours are up, and the lights are a not-so-subtle reminder that it’s time to go.
Granted, my drinking companion and I were warned when we made the reservation that seatings only last two hours (and that there’s a two-drink minimum). But had we been anywhere else, we would have stayed for another round and maybe ordered those fried Chesapeake oysters. Instead, we polished off our drinks, signed the check, and headed to another bar.
Your drink comes with a countdown at a handful of D.C.’s most serious cocktail bars (and at least one restaurant that doesn’t want you to get too blitzed on its $15 “bottomless” mimosa and bloody mary deal). Like Dram & Grain, high-end drinking dens Barmini, PX, and Columbia Room allot two hours for their patrons. With limited seats, highly curated menus, and often theatrical service, ever-popular places like these mean “let’s get drinks” is less about idling away the evening and more about staying for the show—complete with curtain call.
The irony is that establishments that encourage you to linger over a cocktail, rather than gulp it down like a frat pledge, can’t afford to have you to linger too long, or at least linger over too many drinks. “Intimate cocktail experience” translates to “not so many seats,” which the bars need to rotate to stay profitable. “In order to make a 10-seat bar work, it requires that you have more than one seating a night,” says Columbia Room owner Derek Brown. The cocktail bar inside the Passenger fits in four different seatings from 5 to 11 p.m., with two hours per guest. Its $69 tasting menu includes three cocktails and a snack.
But even bars that don’t offer prix-fixe menus aim to create a similar kind of uniformity through timed reservations. “For us, it’s about ensuring that every guest has the same experience there,” says Dram & Grain co-founder Trevor Frye.
When Dram & Grain first opened in February, it had three seatings at 7, 9, and 11 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays only, with guests allotted about an hour and a half. Frye admits that wasn’t enough time for people to enjoy the cocktails. It also didn’t leave enough time for staff to clean up for the next seating without rushing everyone out the door. So the bar switched to 6:30, 9, and 11:30 p.m. seatings with two-hour slots. “It sounded better: 7, 9, and 11,” Frye says. “But when you actually looked how that process went, it was much more enjoyable for the customers—and we’re getting really good feedback about it—to have a full two-hour seating.”
The time limit feels more apparent at Dram & Grain than some other places because everyone comes in and leaves at once. Each seating fits 20 people plus a few potential walk-ins. One by one, the host escorts each group past an “employees only” door, down a set of stairs, and through the unmarked sliding door that leads to the bar. On my recent visit, we were the last group brought downstairs, so we didn’t get seated until 20 minutes after the 9 p.m. reservation. Everyone gets a glass of punch as soon as they sit down—a smart move considering the bottleneck created by 20 people ordering cocktails from two bartenders at almost the same time. (Frye counters that they’re still less slammed than the bartenders at Jack Rose upstairs on weekends, but Dram & Grain’s drinks tend to be more time consuming to make.)
Two hours is generally the magic number. That’s how often tables turn in most restaurants. And typically, half an hour is more than enough time to enjoy one drink, Brown says. At Columbia Room, where guests are given three cocktails in two hours, Brown figured it was also the right amount of time to “leave you in a state where you’re euphoric, but not necessarily getting shit-drunk.”
In June, Level One in Dupont—which offers bottomless brunch cocktails—began limiting its brunch reservations to 90 minutes because patrons were getting, well, shit-drunk. “We noticed that some people were taking a little too much advantage of our bottomless and getting to a point of being a little too inebriated,” says general manager William Dennis. And because the restaurant was so popular on weekends, the management wanted to ensure that other people could get tables in a timely fashion. Cost wasn’t really a factor, Dennis says; the spirits aren’t exactly top-shelf, so even if people drank heavily, the deal wasn’t turning into a huge money-loser. “It was more for the safety of not only the customer, but also the safety of my servers, the safety of my business,” he says.
Why 90 minutes exactly? Dennis says most guests order and get their food within 20 to 25 minutes of being seated, and the restaurant found that just over an hour left them plenty of time to eat. The time limit is trickier for larger parties, because it takes the kitchen longer to prepare everything. Level One will extend the time for big parties just a little bit, but not by much, Dennis says.
While no one likes to be rushed, customers very rarely resist the limits outright. “Everyone’s super understanding,” Frye says of Dram & Grain’s policy. “They’re like ‘Absolutely,’ sometimes even apologetic, just like ‘We lost track of time.’”
PX owner Todd Thrasher says 80 percent of his customers are out within two hours unprompted, and most of the others are respectful and accommodating when they need a reminder. Only a few aren’t. “People just say, ‘Why do you do that? It’s unfair,’” says Thrasher. “Sorry, but you knew this when you made the reservation.”
All these businesses know that the best way to prevent outrage is to warn guests in advance—sometimes multiple times—about how much time they have. “It’s all about communication and setting expectations with your guests. If you do that properly, you never really should be flipping on the lights and putting on ‘Closing Time,’” Frye says. (No, he doesn’t actually play the Semisonic song.) Any time limit is spelled out clearly when guests make their reservations or walk in. Level One goes a step further, plastering signs with the policy on the host stand, in the restroom, and on the menu. If only two people in a party of four show up, the host will advise them to wait for the remaining guests; the 90 minutes starts as soon as they sit down.
Most bartenders or servers will offer a friendly reminder 15 to 20 minutes before the reservation is over. At the two-hour mark, don’t be surprised if you’re handed the check, whether you asked for it or not.
Columbia Room has experimented with different ways of communicating the time restriction, including a reminder when people first sit down. “We realized it was enough to tell them in the reservation and then from there give them a polite warning at the end,” Brown says. The only time it becomes contentious is when somebody shows up half an hour late or the bar is running behind. “If it’s our fault, we try to make every allowance for them,” Brown says. If it’s patrons’ fault, the bartender lets them know to expect a faster pace.
Columbia Room does have four extra seats at a table in the back for those who want to keep drinking after their reservation’s up. Worst comes to worst, they end up in the Passenger. “There’s no instance where we have to kick someone out of the building unless they’re drunk and unruly and jerks,” Brown says. Level One also has a bar where people can continue to purchase drinks after they’re done. And at Dram & Grain, guests are welcome to bring their drinks upstairs to Jack Rose.
But if you can, do it before they turn up the lights.
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Photo of Trevor Frye by Darrow Montgomery