Get the Inside Scoop at The Hill’s Many Bars

Take a Tour of House- and Senate-Side Watering Holes

Posted April 26, 2004 at 11:13am

For the overworked, underpaid, twenty-something Capitol Hill staffer, a night of bar hopping on the Hill usually begins after a long day of constituent phone calls or legislative rewrites and someone around the office wearily saying, “I need a drink.”

And while 10 years from now that might mean a $12 glass of wine at a high-class and high-priced martini bar, the typical Hill intern and post-collegiate staffer is more likely just looking for a place with cheap beer and a happy hour special. But depending on your party affiliation, or whether you work on the House or Senate side, the popular “staffer bars” of Capitol Hill each have their own different appeal.

On a recent Thursday evening a group of House Democratic staffers met up at the Hawk n’ Dove (329 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) to blow off some steam over $4 Bud Ice pitchers.

They were trading stories about office politics and the antics of their particular Members even before they made it in the door.

Like many of those who venture out to the Capitol Hill bar scene, the staffers didn’t want to go on the record with a reporter while out drinking pitchers of beer, but you can be sure a night out at bars with young Congressional staffers is the quickest and best way to learn about the side of office politics that won’t be found in a press release.

The House Side

Although a bit dark inside, the Hawk ‘n’ Dove is lit up by numerous TVs over and behind the bar — old meets new here, with flat-screen TVs hanging on the aging wood-paneled walls that seem to date back to the hawks and doves of the Kennedy administration.

After a few pitchers, two of the staffers opened up about how the Hawk ‘n’ Dove used to be the easiest place to get into back when they were under-age interns and searching for a way into bars.

“You can always tell they are interns because they always wear their IDs out,” one staffer said.

And while Hawk ‘n’ Dove sits toward the far end of Pennsylvania Avenue on the House side, the cheap beer and food specials also draw staffers who work on the Capitol’s north side. But when a Senate staffer joined the table, the underlying distinctions that separate the two houses of government could be seen simply by checking out the differing attire — the Senate staffer was decked out in a full suit and tie while the House staffers wore khakis, collared shirts and no neckware.

Just down from the Hawk ‘n’ Dove stands the Pour House (319 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) — actually a combination of three different bars on three floors. The Pour House is perhaps better known to Hill veterans as Politiki — its old designation before recent renovations.

With some 35 TVs, three pool tables, Golden Tee video games and a loud jukebox, the Pour House fashions itself the ultimate sports bar. It’s also well-known among staffers for Quizzo trivia on Tuesdays.

On this particular night, there are fewer people sitting down at the Pour House and a little louder music than at the Hawk ‘n’ Dove. Most patrons are enjoying the Thursday $1 Bud and Bud Light bottle special. The crowd is also on the younger side — which one might be able to tell by the Greek fraternity and sorority letters carved and written on the walls of the unisex bathroom. A group of Marines takes up two of the tables in the front of the bar and cheer each other on as Starship’s “We Built This City” plays on the jukebox. The Marines, who are stationed at the Marine Barracks on Eighth Street Southeast, say they come on Thursday nights for cheap drinks and to cut loose.

“You’re money around here if you’re a man in uniform,” one says, nodding to some of the women around the bar.

And the Marine contingent might be in the right spot because, according to at least one Republican female staffer, the singles scene on Capitol Hill can be a bit predictable at times.

“It’s ridiculous,” she said. “Throwing cards is how all the [Capitol Hill] guys try to pick up girls.”

If the main floor of the Pour House is too crowded for your taste, you can head downstairs to the darker — and a bit smokier — Politiki, or upstairs to the plush couches and leather chairs of Top of the Hill.

With a martini menu, unique chandeliers and large mirrors, Top of the Hill is more upscale than its downstairs counterparts. It seats 60 and is often a venue for private parties put on by Hill lobbyists.

When asked about the political leaning of the venue on most nights, one mid-20s paralegal at a D.C. firm said, “this is much more of a Republican bar up here.”

For Hillites a few more years out of college, the Capitol Lounge (231 Pennsylvania Ave. SE) is the next “staffer” bar down Pennsylvania Avenue.

With a martini and cigar bar in the basement, staffers who are feeling wealthy after a few cheap pitchers upstairs can head downstairs to sip top-shelf drinks and sit on plush couches. The Capitol Lounge is also well loved among staffers for its “Hill Happy Hour,” with 10 cent chicken wings on Tuesdays and 25 cent tacos, a favorite on Wednesdays.

From walking around the bar, one can tell that the Capitol Lounge tries to reach out to both sides of the political spectrum, with various campaign posters and paraphernalia from the Rev. Jesse Jackson to Ronald Reagan and former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to George Wallace. And even the waitresses seem politically neutral.

“I don’t pay much attention to politics,” said one waitress who seemed more interested in the international soccer game that was playing on the TV over the bar. Despite residing in the very heart of D.C.’s political scene, the Capitol Lounge has also evolved into a popular gathering spot for D.C. United fan club members, and numerous international soccer scarves decorate the bar area.

Another popular Hill bar on the House side might be one of the only staffer bars where the food is as big as a draw as the drinking — well, almost.

With its close proximity to House offices, Tortilla Coast (400 First St. SE) is a popular lunch-time hangout for Hillites — especially when Congress is out of session and Members head back to their districts. However, the relatively cheap Tex Mex food is also a popular way to satisfy the late-night bar-hopping munchies.

Here, frozen margaritas and sangria are as popular as bottled beers. Because of its location, “we get a lot of Members coming and hanging out with their staffs,” said one bartender who stood beneath a sign counting down the days to Cinco de Mayo. “During the Medicare vote we had like 20 to 25 Republican [Members] hanging out here.”

The Senate Side

A 10-minute stumble or $5 cab ride will take the thirsty staffer over to the “other side” — the world of Senate bars. Popular staffer hangouts on the Capitol’s north side include Red River Grill, Lounge 201, Capitol City Brewery and the Irish pub duo, The Dubliner and Kellys’ Irish Times.

On the east side of Union Station along Massachusetts Avenue sit Lounge 201 and the Red River Grill (201 Massachusetts Ave. NE). Although both are owned by the same people, Red River Grill is the cheaper of the two venues and gets a bit of a younger crowd.

With a Tex Mex menu and large patio, Red River Grill is a good location to sit and people-watch during nice weather. One can also waste away the night while sipping pitchers of the bar’s popular margaritas.

The friendly bartenders are also more than willing to chat about the politics of the day if you get them going.

“I go home to New York and no one talks politics, but that’s all they talk about around here,” said one bartender. “We get more conservatives because the Heritage Foundation is right across the street,” he said, referring to the conservative think tank on Massachusetts Avenue.

“We don’t get too many interns but I’ve seen [Sen. Conrad] Burns [R-Mont.], [Sen. Tom] Daschle [D-S.D.] and [Sen. Jim] Jeffords [I-Vt.] over here.”

When asked about his personal political leanings the bartender cracked, “I’m in the service industry, what do you think?”

Right next door, with its red plush couches and large martini menu, Lounge 201 sits on the high end of “staffer” bars.

“We get the happy hour crowd and we get staffers that think they can afford a $10 drink,” one waitress said.

But she added that a higher-priced drink doesn’t change what people talk about. “People only talk politics and it gets boring. They just spout off the same old things all the time. And no matter how much they believe in their bosses, they all have problems with what their bosses are doing.”

Lounge 201 considers itself Washington’s premier cocktail lounge, and its executive private room and billiard room can be rented out for parties of upwards of 100 people. A strong Manhattan or one of several types of top-shelf martinis are some of Lounge 201’s most popular drinks.

To the west side of Union Station, arguably the most popular “staffer” bar is Kellys’ Irish Times (14 F St. NW). While next door the Dubliner draws an older crowd, patrons at the Times can mix with the Georgetown Law School students who find their way down F Street. Its decor and large bar area give the pub a true Irish feeling. And like every other bar on Capitol Hill, the bartenders are open with their views about politics and the Capitol Hill bar culture.

“You can’t really be a Democrat or a Republican when you run a bar around here,” said Kevin Malleck, a day bartender at the Irish Times. “We’re always asked which one is the better tipper, but to be honest it kind of equals out.”

And Malleck explained that one trend he’s noticed in all his years of bartending on the Hill is that even though Hillites are always changing jobs and switching offices to move up the Capitol Hill ladder, most stay loyal to their drinking tastes.

“Like all the places on Capitol Hill, we have a lot of regulars,” he said.