Words By Jonny Grave, Photos By Nicholas Karlin
Nick Wiseman isn’t new at this. With Dupont’s DGS Delicatessen under his belt, and standing proud as a fourth-generation Washingtonian, he’s been at this awhile. When walking into H st.’s Hill Prince, Wiseman’s newest bar, there’s confidence abound. There’s a profoundly respectable yet modest selection of whiskies behind the bar, there’s a tried-and-true yet pared-down menu, and exactly one piece of art on the walls. He and his team assure us their confidence is not misplaced, though. This is not an outside impostor moving in; this is a lifelong local, just trying to do right by his neighborhood.
In our days of perpetual excess, Hill Prince is a welcome reprieve from the non-stop sensory overload. It really is, without pretense or pretending, just a bar.
To be sure, the bar has a few garnishes, but all are in good taste. Exposed bricks and tungsten bulbs line the walls of the main floor’s bar, looking not unlike a 14th st. Eric Hilton bar. A knotty pine floor, stained in the same shade as the bricks, features a few holes and cracks beneath in between the floorboards. The staff here intentionally left them in, and turned the basement kitchen’s lights up bright, creating little pinpricks of light under the drinkers’ feet. Even the menu here features only a handful of cocktails, all of them classic standbys. Is this bar derivative? Sure. Does that take away from the experience? Absolutely not.
From behind the bar, Tony Lawson explains the bar’s desire to keep things simple, especially in the preliminary days of opening to the public. He’s keeping a diary behind the bar, full of cocktail recipes, and notes on how patrons react to the drink. Every week, he tells us, he intends to go through the list of cocktails, keep the ones that stick, and toss the ones that don’t. This is a crucial facet of what Hill Prince has set out to do: give their customers what they like most.
Wiseman, Lawson, and company are unique in this approach. Most new bars in the District march into their new space, throw their doors open, and proudly proclaim “WE ARE HERE TO ONLY SERVE THE COCKTAILS WE CHOOSE TO MAKE, AND THE CUSTOMER’S PALETTE COUNTS FOR POSITIVELY DICK.” The staff at Hill Prince has chosen to listen. H Street might be better for it, too.
This is a perfect bar for quietly drinking with friends. Even sidled up to the bar, pressed between two other patrons, one can still carry on a conversation without shouting. The Aviation cocktail steals the show for the best cocktail on the menu. However, with classic craft cocktails at less than $10, it’s worth trying several.
This bar is an exercise in simplicity and value. It will likely be a standby in the burgeoning new iteration of H Street’s development.
Hill Prince, 1337 H St. NE, opens today, March 10.