Sometimes you don’t want a full dinner, but need more sustenance than the shrubbery in your cocktail. That’s when you turn to this guide - our round-up of the best places for food-fueled Happy Hours, catching up with friends, or the “I’m not sure if I’m ready to commit a real meal to this person I just matched with on the internet” date. Every place on this list is ideal for a quick drink, but also great for a longer hangout if things go well. Fingers crossed your time with “Sarah who likes dogs” ends up falling into the second category.
You have a few options for drinks and a light bite in Clarendon, but most aren’t going to impress a date. Baba is the exception, which means it’s where you should go for a one-on-one if you’re in the area. It’s a classy-but-not-stuffy underground cocktail bar with a fireplace, an upstairs lounge area, a bunch of artwork on the walls, and food like crispy shrimp and pork sliders. They have a Happy Hour worth leaving work early for ($6 cocktails, $5 glasses of wine), and if you’re still hungry after a few snacks here you can always head to their sister restaurant, Ambar, next door.
Look for the giant shipping containers along U Street to find El Rey, a nice place to grab some drinks and tacos. On the weekends, it’s full of recent graduates still testing the limits of their livers, but the spacious bar and patio, equipped with a retractable roof (who thought those were only for billion-dollar NFL stadiums?), are ideal spots for post-work hangs during the week. Grab a high-top table and order a margarita pitcher, as well as some guacamole and tacos. It’s good for a late night bite, too - the kitchen stays open until 2am.
Ruta Del Vino isn’t just a place to kill time during your two-hour wait for Himitsu. This Argentinian spot on Upshur Street has hundreds of Latin American wines, as well as excellent small plates like grilled cheese (not the sandwich - just cheese on its own that’s been grilled), empanadas, and ceviche. It’s on the quiet side, which makes it ideal for getting to know someone or going with your significant other and staring at your phones in peaceful solitude. The patio is a nice place to sit, and they open the big windows when it’s nice out.
If you’re looking for a place in Georgetown that isn’t full of Hoya Saxa bros, The Sovereign is your spot. It’s a Belgian pub with medieval-style chandeliers, long wooden tables, and a general Game of Thrones feel. The beer list is massive, with around 50 Belgian options on draft and hundreds of other bottles available. Food options like charcuterie, mussels, and frites are all ideal for sharing. Post up at one of the high-top tables, and if it’s going well, move to a booth for a full meal.
Calico is the kind of place you’d take an out-of-towner post-Blagden Alley photo opp, but it’s also where to turn when you want a great patio in Shaw. You can even enjoy it when it gets cold - the space includes a big deck complete with an old greenhouse, string lights, and heat lamps. (There’s plenty of seating inside, too, in case the weather is truly bad.) You can get cocktails in Capri Sun-style pouches, and the small menu has shareable options like mac and cheese and fried clams.
For a spot on 14th Street that doesn’t feel like it’s on 14th Street, check out the underground cocktail and jazz lounge Sotto. It’s hidden in plain sight on a busy block - look for the door next to Pearl Oyster Dive, then take a short walk downstairs to this cool, deep basement bar. It’s a good bet for an interesting date (live music every night of the week is a solid fallback if you exhaust the “can’t believe we have mutual friends!!” conversation). As for food, we endorse the cheeseboard and pork belly.
Birch & Barley likes to advertise that there are 550 bottles of beer on its menu, but there’s more to this place than an unnecessarily large number of drinks. The food holds its own, albeit in smaller quantities (talk to us when you have 550 types of flatbread). It’s a good place to fill up a table with plates and share everything with a group - we recommend getting a couple of their pastas to pass around. If you want to continue the night with just drinks, head upstairs to their sister bar, Churchkey.
The best thing about Roofers Union is that there are floor-to-ceiling windows that give you a perfect view of all the kids (and possibly your roommate) stumbling into Madam’s Organ below. Even though this place is in the middle of typical Adams Morgan drunken debauchery, it has a solid drinks list and a variety of food, from wings and fries to burrata and a lamb merguez burger. Each level of the three-floor bar serves food, and the middle floor is a huge, open room that typically has live music and plenty of open tables. There’s also an enclosed patio where you can hang out rain or shine.
Clare and Don’s is a pretty terrible pun on Clarendon, but we forgive it because the nice patio, surfboards on the wall, and live music almost every night make us feel like we’re spending our Happy Hour in a (mildly cheesy) tiki hut. Come here for a casual date or to escape from the city with some fruity drinks and fried seafood. And for those who saw “Falls Church” and immediately lost interest - it’s only a few minutes outside Arlington.
At Pepita, there are more than 30 cocktails to go with your guacamole and shrimp tacos. They have names like El Chapo and Angry Elf, and they’re some of the best drinks in the area. The outdoor patio doesn’t have the best views unless you love watching construction of the Ballston Mall, but it’s a comfortable place to kick back with some Mexican food and an after-work drink.
Colada Shop is a small Cuban cafe right off 14th Street that serves coffee, cocktails, and small bites like croquetas and empanadas. The food won’t change your life, but when you pair it with a piña colada or Cuba Libre and find a seat on the patio, you’ll be pretty content with your decision to come here. When the weather’s nice, they open up the garage-style doors.
Drinking at Garden District feels like hanging out on your laidback friend’s patio, which is probably why it’s always crowded. But even though it can take a few minutes to find a spot at the communal picnic tables, it’s a reliable option for some beers and barbecue (it’s up for debate whether pulled pork sandwiches and hush puppies qualify as “light”) with a small group. They close up shop in the winter, so check it out when the weather’s nice.
If someone asked you for eating/drinking advice in Arlington and you weren’t paying attention, you could pretty confidently answer “Lyon Hall” anyway. The main level here is a great group Happy Hour spot, with a handful of high-top tables and $5 beer and wine. Upstairs, there’s a quieter dining room that’s better suited for a date. The German menu has solid options whether you’re looking for a few small plates or a full meal. We can vouch for a pot of their mussels, their giant Bavarian pretzels, and the sausage platter.
A cynic might say that the inside of Cuba Libre looks like something you’d come across at Epcot, but hear us out. Sure, the full-on “streets of Havana” theme (complete with salsa dancers, fake terraces, and lampposts) is a little over the top. But by the time you’re on your third mojito, you’ll be nodding your head to the salsa music, and by your fourth, you might even join the dancers. Bottom line, it’s fun. Take a date for cocktails and Cuban food at the bar if you’re looking for something a little different from the everyday Italian spot.