Thriving bar scene offers unicorns, mussels and a trim all within a few blocks
By JEREMY EGNER
On any random Tuesday night, our average Washingtonian could expect to head home after work or school, wolf down a quick dinner and collapse on the couch, remote control in hand.
Drop the same Washingtonian on H Street N.E. on that same Tuesday night and, if he scheduled it right, he could wolf down some mussels or top-notch sweet potato fries, sample an impressive array of Belgian beers, get his hair cut with a shot thrown in for fun, check out an up-and-coming indie rock band, and peer into the vacant eye sockets of a two-faced sheep. (Not a duplicitous sheep — an actual two-faced sheep.) All within a few hours and a few blocks.
H Street’s themed bars offer carny artifacts, haircuts and beer-fueled parlor games in addition to cocktails and eclectic cuisine. Pictured: A “unicorn” at the Palace of Wonders.
(Photo by JEREMY EGNER for the Observer)
The rebirth of the H Street Corridor has received plenty of coverage and its progress is often ex- aggerated. The once- thriving commercial hub still sports plenty of shuttered storefronts and lower end retailers, many of which provide important services but don’t exactly scream “economic revitalization.”
It remains to be seen whether the bars and clubs that opened in the blocks surrounding the beautiful Atlas Performing Arts Center will kick-start a genuine renaissance. But at the very least they offer nighthawks of every feather — from PBR-swilling hip- sters to urban-chic martini-philes — a diverse array of agreeable, cleverly-themed spots to roost.
H Street still scares some people, if the nervous frat-types I saw piling out of cabs on a recent night are any indication. But with the free Atlas Courtesy shuttle (call (202) 906-0697) running every Friday and Saturday night between Union Station and the district, even the most knock-kneed Georgetowner has no excuse to stay away.
(Full disclosure: I stretched my H Street bar crawl over two nights because, frankly, I’m not the man I used to be. My wife says this is a good thing.)
The Argonaut Tavern
1433 H St. N.E.
This dark, corner spot sports some nautical themes, with ship’s wheels, model schooners and the like, but the overall vibe is more of an inviting neighborhood tavern. There are cozy bars on both floors, flat screens showing sports and a foosball table upstairs. That said, the low ceiling and angular, corner lot dimensions make the small, dimly lit dining room feel a bit like the inside of a ship’s hull, which is neat. The food is great — the menu includes unconventional options such as a garlicky hangar steak and a fried green tomato BLT, as well as the usual calamari and burgers. Argonaut Booty Beer seems to be the unofficial house beverage, but there’s a decent beer selection as well as a full bar. “Booty Beer” is actually Red Hook IPA, which is kind of great if you think about it, because it means that it actually has been pirated in a sense.
Why’ll you go back: The food, especially the catfish and sweet potato fries, is terrific.
Why you might not: Its spot at the easternmost tip of the H Street corridor can feel like the edge of the world.
Dr. Granville Moore’s
1238 H St. N.E.
This dark, shabby-chic gastro-pub (no more hyphenates, promise) manages to feel both hip and homey. It offers more than 50 Belgian beers and a straightforward Belgian menu with plenty of mussels and frites. It’s named for the physician who used to practice in the narrow space, which now features some small tables along one wall and a long, rustic wood bar on the other. There’s another bar upstairs and each floor has a back patio, in case if you prefer to sip your Wittekerke or Petrus Blond out in the elements (though said elements admittedly aren’t all that conducive to outdoor boozing these days).
Why’ll you go back: Great, great beer selection. Belgian-inspired cuisine such as mussels and Belgian fries looked and smelled great, though we skipped it since we’d already eaten.
Why you might not: Top-notch Belgian beers don’t come cheap. Expect to drop close to $20 for a couple of the better ones and a tip.
H Street Martini Lounge
1236 H St. N.E.
The Lounge is a well-lit, agreeable place with a granite bar and a notebook full of martinis — more than 60 altogether — and other cocktails. There’s what appears to be better-than-average bar food largely named after jazz greats (Louis Armstrong wraps, Sarah Vaughn Shrimp Skewers, et al.). We didn’t try any because we’d already eaten — or maybe my wife wanted to try something but I just couldn’t understand her over the slow jams that were playing at ear-splitting volumes. The upstairs bar hosts karaoke on Tuesdays and local jazz and R&B bands other nights.
Why’ll you go back: If you’re a martini fan, the Lounge has you covered. If you’re a karaoke fan, the Lounge has you covered on Tuesdays.
Why you might not: Slow jams at ear-splitting volumes.
Palace of Wonders
1210 H St. N.E.
Palace of Wonders bills itself as the “only dedicated vaudeville stage, museum-of-oddities and full bar in the world.” It is home to the skull of the previously mentioned two-faced sheep, as well as what appeared to be giant calliope pipes behind the bar, acres of vintage sideshow and vaudeville posters decorating the walls and a poor horn-laden, stuffed goat that was once passed off as a unicorn. The artifacts come courtesy of James Taylor, a self-described “carny and curator” who ran the American Dime Museum in Baltimore until it closed in February. He moved part of his vast collection of 19th-century sideshow relics to H Street, giving Washingtonians the enviable opportunity to, according to the bar’s Web site, “sit and have a drink next to the freakiest stuff in the world!” The bar includes a museum upstairs and hosts regular vaudeville- and carny-inspired events ranging from burlesque shows to sword-swallowing and “pierced weight lifting” exhibitions. Circle Jan. 25 on your calendar: that’s when the Lizardman, “one of the single most complete sideshow entertainers in history,” returns to town.
Why’ll you go back/Why you might not: Depending on your inclination, the incredible model of Joseph “The Elephant Man” Merrick is either a total buzz-kill or makes the Palace one of greatest bars in the world.
1234 H St. N.E.
The boxing-themed Pug may look like a sports bar, with games on the TVs and old boxing posters and memorabilia on the wall, but it’s actually just a neighborhood pub that happens to have some boxing gloves laying around. The Pug felt the friendliest of any on the street, and a recent crowded Friday night found the bartenders still greeting nearly half of the patrons by name.
Why’ll you go back: Good prices, lots of room at the bar.
Why you might not: Too bright inside—a typical D.C. bar problem. Felt almost like last call at 9:30 p.m. on a Friday.
The Red and the Black
1212 H St. N.W.
The Red and the Black is a cozy, vaguely New Orleans-themed bar that offers live music most nights and haircuts on Tuesdays. Say wha—? Just go with it. For $12, you can get a trim from Santos, the stylist who was there last week, or one of his cohorts. You also get a shot of liquor, though everyone emerged from the chair looking sharp so the shot’s not intended to blind you to a low-rent cut, as I suspected. I say the bar is “vaguely New Orleans-themed” because it doesn’t overdo it, which is appreciated by anyone who finds forced Big Easy glee and pounds of novelty beads tiresome (read: me). The Red and the Black covers the basics: Abita in a bottle, decent, if somewhat mild, gumbo and some other Crescent City standards that I didn’t try. Santos, whose main gig is at Daniel’s Salon on M Street N.W., says to get to the bar early on Tuesdays if you want a haircut — he was booked by the time I showed up. “Come see me at the salon. I’ll take care of you,” he said, nodding at my unruly mop. “That looks like it will take a lot of work.”
Why’ll you go back: Free red beans and rice on Mondays (two-drink minimum); $12 is hard to beat for a quality cut.
Why you might not: The night I was there the service was lackadaisical at best.
Rock and Roll Hotel
1353 H St. N.E.
Since it opened last year, the Rock and Roll Hotel has established itself as a viable third option to the local bookings duopoly the 9:30 Club and The Black Cat had on touring indie acts. Acts play the main stage downstairs adjacent to the “Lobby Bar,” and the upstairs “Hotel Bar” remains open and free during shows. Also upstairs: three private suites you can rent for private parties, a pool table, piano, DJ booth and digital jukebox. Wednesday nights the Hotel offers “Drunken Jnga,” during which players play an alcohol-fueled version of the tower-building game. (I assume the alt-spelling is a copyright thing.)
Why’ll you go back: Drunken Jnga; top-notch bookings; winged electric guitars dangle from the ceiling in the upstairs bar, which never stops being awesome.
Why you might not: Can get reeeeaally crowded on the weekends, especially upstairs.