DC Nightlife: 13 of the Capital’s Best Bars and Venues

In Washington DC, presidential debates, snow days, and major news events call for booze—and lots of it. Residents guzzle more alcohol per capita than residents of any other state except New Hampshire—they work hard and party harder. As a result, the city’s nightlife centers around bars: cocktail bars, wine bars, beer gardens, posh hotel lounges, and historic bars, where lobbyists and staffers grease the wheels among the ghosts of presidents and policymakers past. DC nightlife includes a little bit of everything, from dance clubs and music venues to craft cocktails and perfectly dingy dives.

Whatever your party preference, there’s a good time to be had in the capital. Here are our top choices for a night out on the town.

panoramic view from the watergate rooftop bar
Top of the Gate at The Watergate Hotel. Photo © Ron Blunt.

Best Rooftop Bar

This one is a tie. Take your pick between POV, a swanky bar on the covered roof of the W Hotel where a chic crowd enjoys cocktails, bites, and bottle service with a view of the White House, and Top of the Gate, the sprawling, open-air rooftop bar at the Watergate Hotel, with 360-degree views of downtown, Georgetown, and Virginia.

Most Historic Venue

Round Robin Bar at the Willard InterContinental has witnessed a lot of history since it was established in 1850. Famous customers have included Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, and presidents such as Lincoln, Coolidge, Wilson, and Taft. It’s also where Senator Henry Clay introduced DC’s first mint julep with Kentucky bourbon in 1851—it remains the bar’s signature drink to this day.

Quintessential DC Dive

Tune Inn is one of DC’s last remaining true dive bars, and it’s been serving Capitol Hill’s bigwigs and residents since 1947. The funky spot filled with memorabilia and taxidermy is still a local favorite for cheap pitchers of beer and fried everything, including fried pickles, fried mushrooms, and a beer-battered burger.

Most Influential Venue

Since opening in a hidden spot above a mattress store in 1995, Dupont Circle’s Eighteenth Street Lounge changed the city’s nightlife scene. Even today, just a small plaque marks the spot, and it remains the place to drink cocktails on vintage velvet banquettes in what feels more like a cool house party than a bar.

Best Gay Bar

Located in the heart of Dupont Circle, DC’s historic gay neighborhood, JR’s Bar is always packed with a lively crowd for happy hour specials like all-you-can-drink for $15, showtunes nights, and live cabaret. If you’re headed to the city in June, check out the bar’s large covered patio—it’s the rainbow-covered place to be during DC Pride.

front entrance of JR's bar in Washington DC
JR’s hosts a great happy hour. Photo © Samantha Sault.

Unique Cocktail Experience

For a creative new spin on the cocktail experience, try the three- or five-course cocktail tasting menu at Columbia Room (don’t worry, there are snack pairings). For those interested, they also offer mixology classes. If you prefer à la carte, sip riffs on the classics from a comfy leather chair in the bar’s Spirits Library or bottled cocktails in the outdoor Punch Garden.

Best Chance to Dance All Night

Since 1993, Black Cat has been one of the best places to dance the night away. The 7,000-square-foot main stage has hosted Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, The Killers, and more, while a smaller stage and bar is open most nights for local bands and DJs. Don’t miss out on the theme parties like Eighties Mayhem and The Cure vs The Smiths, and remember to bring cash: you’ll need it for both the venue cover and the bar.

Best Live Music Venue

Even Rolling Stone and Billboard agree that 9:30 Club is, simply put, an institution. It opened in a tiny Chinatown building in 1980, and despite a capacity of 200, welcomed acts like Nirvana, R.E.M., and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Today they’ve moved to a decidedly larger location, but the sold-out shows for local bands like Thievery Corporation still feel wonderfully intimate.

Sunday Funday

Okay, it doesn’t technically qualify as nightlife—but the all-you-can-eat drag brunch is one of the biggest draws at Nellie’s Sports Bar, a local favorite named after the owner’s great grandmother and great-great grandmother. After brunch, soak up the sun into the evening on the expansive rooftop.

whiskey cellar at Jack Rose in DC
Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Photo © Shauna Alexander.

Best for Whiskey Lovers

Jack Rose Dining Saloon is a multi-level bar and restaurant that has more than 2,500 bottles of whiskey and Scotch from around the world. Saddle up to the main wooden bar in the saloon for flights, cocktails, and hearty American fare, or decamp to the speakeasy-style whiskey cellar, which serves whiskey on tap and rare bottles by reservation only. When the weather’s nice, head to the open-air terrace and separate tiki bar for fun, seasonal libations.

Best for People-Watching

Come for the extensive cocktail menu and dimly lit bar, stay for the people-watching: you never know who you’ll meet at The Lounge at Bourbon Steak, a favorite of celebrities and socialites. If you get hungry, the burgers are good, or you can make your way to the namesake restaurant, a pricey steakhouse by Michael Mina.

Samantha Sault

Samantha Sault

About the Author

Samantha Sault has covered the intersection of politics and culture for more than a decade. She began her career on the low rungs of the mastheads of policy journals, including The Weekly Standard, where she wrote about national politics as well as fashion and pop culture. For nearly three years, she wrote a weekly column for The Washington Times with her arts, culture, and nightlife picks for locals. She has covered international fashion weeks in New York, London, and Hong Kong and has also managed communications for the organization that lobbies on behalf of American fashion brands and retailers.

After growing up in the metropolitan DC area, Samantha has a deep understanding of both how Washington works and has evolved, and a genuine love for the swamp. She learned how to use the Metro from a young age, first to visit Smithsonian museums as a child, and later to attend concerts and break curfew as a teenager. After graduating from the University of Maryland, College Park, with a BA in government and politics, she moved to Dupont Circle, where she has lived for more than 10 years.

In addition to The Weekly Standard and The Washington Times, Samantha’s writing has appeared in Washington Life magazine and Independent Journal Review. Her work can also be found at http://www.samanthasault.com.

Learn more about this author

Pin For Later

DC Nightlife Pinterest graphic