What Is a Basement Bar?
There are some people who want to spend the evening outdoors, on an elegant patio, or a lofty rooftop, under fairy lights or strung-up bulbs, to drink and socialize al fresco, with a rosé in one hand, a cigarette in the other, the breeze in their hair, and the setting sun on their face, chatting madly about their weekend trips to wineries in Virginia.
I’d rather be in the basement, in the dark, under a couple dim bulbs, where the low hum of televisions and the repetitive drone of the jukebox mix in with the conversations about fights, dreams, being broke, or being lost. Underground, everyone is on the same playing field. It doesn’t matter if the person sitting next to you is a congressman or a bum. You’re both underground for the same reason.
My personal affinity for basement bars goes back to my formative years in Silver Spring. Jackie Greenbaum (owner of Bar Charley, El Chucho, Slash Run, and some new Italian joint she won’t talk about) ran the Quarry House Tavern when I came of age. While Silver Spring changed faster than anyone living there could understand, Quarry House held fast to its speakeasy history. Yes, the menu boasted one of the most impressive whiskey lists in the area. And, yes, the burgers and wings were unbelievable. But the Quarry House Tavern never tried to be something it wasn’t. That bar taught me a valuable lesson in honesty, and is directly responsible for the means by which I judge every other bar I’ve visited.
A basement bar doesn’t provide escape– that’s what vacations at wineries are for. A basement bar provides a reminder that, on an intrinsic and human level, we are all the same. Low lights and tight corners make us appreciate the people we’re drinking with, rather than get distracted by the place we’re drinking in. Where a bar like Donovan House Rooftop might give the public a chance to peacock, a basement bar gives us community, camaraderie, and the knowledge that we are all, whether we like it or not, in this together.
The rooftop is dead. Long live the basement.
Opened in 1993, Atomic is Bedrock’s second addition to its fleet of DC bars. In their bars, you’ll notice a few recurring themes, enough to notice they’re all owned by the same folks, but not so much it’s obvious. This is the tasteful difference between a cluster of locally-owned spots like Tryst, and the big-box behemoths like Friday’s/ Atomic hits the Bedrock sweet spot for me: Pool tables, craft beer, and board games, but without the over-the-top aspects of Rocket Bar, Iron Horse, or Penn Social. Atomic is still, in many ways, just a neighborhood bar, which is exactly what makes it perfect.
The Big Hunt is a mixed bag. It’s not quite a dive, in that it’s located in one of the busiest neighborhoods for a Friday or Saturday night. It’s not quite a neighborhood bar, in that the people who drink there don’t live within a five-block radius of the front door. The Big Hunt simply is a hodge-podge, and has successfully survived as such for several decades. However, with all conflicted establishments, there’s something happening in the basement. Devil’s Kitchen bar is a welcome reprieve from Dupont’s nightlife scene. Underground Comedy has a regular open mic downstairs, and the beer prices are reasonable. This is a stark contrast to Café St. Ex, whose basement is usually overrun with a frantic dance party. The basement bar at Big Hunt is there to provide entertainment, but with enough quiet to hear yourself think. There’s not much need to stay until last call, though. The streets outside get ugly after 2 a.m.
As memory serves, my father told me this is where White House staffers would drink in the 80’s and 90’s after work. This bar has not changed much since its 1979 opening. The decent food, average selection of beers, and reasonably comfy barstools all make for an otherwise unremarkable bar. However, what sets this place apart from the rest of the bars on the block is the hospitality. The staff at Bottom Line will make you feel at home, or at least like you belong there.
Some people like to drink at certain bars because they’re institutions. That’s fine. If you like the idea of sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with tourists at Old Ebbitt because it’s the same bar where Teddy Roosevelt drank, go with god. Capitol Lounge, for better or for worse, attracts that kind of drinker. They must have read about it in a Pelecanos novel, or a Dave Barry memoir, or something. It doesn’t matter, for the most part, because those folks tend to stay upstairs. Cap Lounge has a basement, complete with a tiny bar, pool table, low ceilings, and a chance to talk to people who’ve lived in the neighborhood for years. The bar itself is worthy of medium praise. The basement, however, is worth regular visits.
Sometimes you need a cocktail immediately after getting out of a tourist-stuffed José Andrés venture. Sometimes, you need a fancy, pretty, elaborate, but completely beautiful cocktail after watching a monster truck rally at Verizon. Sometimes, you need a drink to clear your head after you heard a mom from Tennessee tell her child, “Well, no, Lincoln wasn’t a bad president; he just freed the slaves, which made life harder for the South.” For each of these scenarios, I would humbly point you toward Denson, located across from the behemoth Green Turtle and the exercise in mediocrity that is Fuel Pizza. The bar in the basement is one of the smallest in the District, but also has some of the best cocktail bartenders in the trade. If it’s busy, order from the menu, say “please,” and tip big. If it’s slow, don’t even touch the menu, and just tell your bartender what kinds of flavors you like. Their menu is fine, but the bar shines when their staff improvises new drinks.
This bar is an exercise in Zen-like simplicity. The only distractions in this bar are the four or five flatscreens, and a popcorn machine. No goofy boardgames, no pool tables, no shuffleboard, no skeeball. This is a simple bar, with a sizable number of taps, a handful of craft cocktails, and some barstools. This is still a Bedrock bar, but it’s significantly different from the others in the flock. In here, the lack of distractions has managed the impossible; it’s made people turn toward each other and actually have a conversation. The noise in here doesn’t come from the game on TV, or the jukebox. It’s discourse and dialogue. It’s just people drinking and talking, the way we all should.
The only reason this bar was not included in the original roundup of basement bars is that it simply wasn’t built yet. Kingfisher’s staff comes from the Bedrock family of bars (Bedrock, Atomic, Iron Horse, etc.), and had a vision for their underground bar on 14th: keep it simple, and don’t fuck with it. A year in, and it seems to be working. Tight corners, hidden booths and nooks, minimal light (none of which is natural), and a remarkably respectable craft beer list. It’s the perfect bar for late-night conversation. When you show up with your conversation partner, just make sure it’s not your first date. This bar is small, and you might wind up bumping into your date again. It’s a small city.
There’s something wonderfully egalitarian about the Pint, and their offerings to the community. While you can tuck into a $22 duck breast entrée, you can also play pool for free, while drinking a $4 Narragansett. At Meridian Pint, there are 24 beer taps, twice as many bottles, a very respectable selection of wines and liquors, and an impressive selection of dishes from the kitchen, all of them changing with the seasons. This varies slightly from the Pint’s Adams Morgan-based sister/basement bar, Smoke & Barrel. Smoke & Barrel has a tried-and-true menu, comprised mostly of barbecue. At the Pint, things are always in flux. The bar itself doesn’t stray from competently serving its neighborhood, though. All are welcome here. This is something that many bars, in DC and abroad, basement or otherwise, cannot claim.
You might think you’re at the end of a gruesome and harrowing Tarantino flick when walking through the long hallway, into the bar beneath the Red Lion Hotel. Don’t be afraid. Just keep walking. There’s beer ahead. Recessions is a bar located in the bottom-most level of a hotel at the corner of 18th and L, and it looks exactly like what you’d imagine. Still, its charm comes from the friendly staff, and the no-nonsense decor. While the K Street crowd pours into the streets after work, earbuds stuffed into their skulls, eyes stuck to a smartphone, hopping into an Uber to somewhere, anywhere else, Recessions continues to greet strangers like friends, and friends like family. This bar feels different from Sotto, or Denson, both of which are superior bars in the District, incredibly popular, and as a result, usually over-crowded. When a bar is packed to the gills, it’s impossible to buy a drink. I realize that a popular and populated bar is excellent for business, but it comes at the price of customer service and interaction. I go to bars to relax, not to compete for a drink. Recessions provides ample space for stretching out, and taking it easy with a beer. Come here after work, and leave your phone in your bag. It won’t work in the basement, anyway.
Kamal Jahanbien isn’t so much an over-achiever as he just happens to live by his principles the best way he knows how. The best part of the Saloon is how his principles are evident in his work. Halfway between 13th and 12th streets on U, the Saloon serves Belgian beer unavailable anywhere else in the city. The money you pay for the beer in your glass goes in part to the bar’s overhead, but also to an amazing cause Jahanbien has taken up: he’s building schools in developing nations. His bar comes with rules, though. There’s no standing allowed, for one. He believes the rule might encourage strangers to talk to one another. I wish more bars operated with the same conviction.
The 1600-block of 14th St. NW is dotted with everything I try to avoid about the bar scene. It’s patio after patio, full of people who clearly want to be seen by the general public. How can we tell they want to be seen? Because it’s 95 degrees outside, absolutely no one is inside any of the main dining areas of the restaurants, and the patios are choked with people in seersucker and rompers, drinking rosé, blathering on about absolutely nothing. However, if you listen close, you can hear something coming from downstairs. Slip between Pearl Dive and Ghibellina, and you’ll find the stairs that lead down into the basement, and into one of the best jazz clubs in the city. At Sotto, you’ll hear tunes from locals, or licks from a touring act. The drinks aren’t cheap, and the seating is a little cramped, but the music makes up for it. It almost completely drowns out the patio crowd upstairs.
48 years of Stan’s has taught the District, or at least those who’ve been downstairs, that wings and shrimp should be ordered by the half-pound, and enjoyed with friends. This place is small, and every available corner is taken up with a chair, or booth, or stool, or table. It’s refined, but not exclusive in the same way as Jack Rose’s Dram & Grain. The cocktails aren’t nearly as complex as Jack Rose’s, either. There’s a lot of whiskey-ginger being poured here. This is more of a secret club, whose drinkers have more important things to discuss than what kind of shrub goes best with their gin. (The answer, obviously, is rhubarb-ginger. Lukas Smith and the rest of the staff at Jack Rose would likely agree)
Cathy, current owner, and employee of the bar for more than twenty years, met me at the door when I stopped by. She was curious about my interest in basement bars, and why someone with a giant camera would want to take pictures of her bar. I explained my theory on the inherent egalitarianism of basement bars, and that I thought it was worth sharing with our readers. She asked “Wouldn’t they all rather be on a rooftop, though?” I pointed out how much I had already sweat through my shirt, and kindly told her “not in this fucking heat, thank you, ma’am.”