If you had told me when I got a job as a hostess/busser at a small local restaurant in high school that 15 years later I would have made a career of working in restaurants, I would have laughed at you. And yet, here we are. From washing dishes to running the joint, I’ve done just about every food service job you can imagine that doesn’t involve cooking. (And there have been nights that if I’d known the recipes, I would have jumped on the line to help out!)
So there you have my credentials – I won’t pretend to be an expert, but I do like to think that I know a thing or two about what makes for a good bar experience for different kinds of people. And now that the Capital Fringe Festival has made its way down to The Wharf, you have a lot of shiny new options for your pre- and post-show food, drink, and revelry.
So where to? If you want my opinion, read on!
(Side note – in the course of researching your options for merrymaking, I discovered that many of the bartenders and servers with whom I spoke had no idea that their spot was offering a Fringe Button discount. Be sure to be clear about why you’re there and to check your bill before you pay to ensure that they remembered!)
400 E St SW
Fringe Discount: 10% off your check
We’ll start with CityBar because it is the Official Fringe Roof Top Bar. Tuesday through Thursday from 4-7 p.m., a member of the Fringe staff will be around to give you How to Fringe tips, and from 9 p.m. until close Friday through Sunday, a DJ brings you Roof Top Jams!
CityBar is located on the roof of the Hyatt and has a gorgeous view of the city, but is a little far from the Wharf to have a waterfront view. I spoke with bartender Franco, who told me that they make all of their syrups and bitters in-house. He recommended any of their variations on a Moscow Mule – made with homemade ginger syrup – or the Pink Fizz, a gin drink with lemon and homemade blueberry syrup. Every Thursday boasts a tap takeover, usually from a local brewery, but they only have four draft lines behind the bar.
Check it out if: You want the “official” Fringe experience. You love it when every aspect of your craft cocktail is made in-house. Or you’re hot and you’re dying for some Frosé, but you still want that rooftop life!
Skip it if: You’re a beer connoisseur. You’re hungry for more than high-priced snacks. Or you’re hot and you’re dying for some shade.
949 Wharf St SW
Fringe Discount: 10% off food and drinks
The Brighton is ostensibly a British pub-style restaurant, but the theme is barely discernible unless you know what you’re looking for. Casual and laid-back, bar manager Chris told us that they encourage a community atmosphere with communal tables. Freshly arrived in DC from Charleston, Chris created the entire cocktail menu himself, and he highly recommends the Good Day Sunshine or the Led Zeppelin. But buyer beware! They also encourage community by only serving carafes of their cocktails – you get about 4 glasses to an order.
Beyond the cocktails, there’s a little bit of everything on tap, including one British beer, and a sizable bourbon collection. During the early evening hours, Chris said that they consider themselves a bit of a sports bar, but at night you might find anything from Cartoon Network to a SyFy movie on the many TVs.
Check it out if: You and your friends want to share a cocktail pitcher! You want to watch the game while you hang out. Or you’re looking for reasonable drink prices.
Skip it if: You and you friends all like different cocktails and just want a glass of your own. You don’t want to rub elbows with a sports crowd. Or you’re looking for an intimate atmosphere.
960 Wharf St SW
Fringe Discount: 10% off your check, but only if you start a tab!
If you’ve lived in DC for more than one summer and have never gone to Cantina Marina, then I salute you. Though the full-sized restaurant is closed for the next two years while the Wharf continues to evolve, its baby sister Cantina Bambina has opened right down the street for all your party-on-the-water needs. First grab a snack from the 1st floor snack bar, ranging from a duck and brie quesadilla to a pack of gum, and then head upstairs for a drink.
Bartender Hannah recommends Cantina as your refreshing summer party spot. Grab a Dutch Lemonade for strawberry-agave and lemonade with Ketel One vodka, or a Grapefruit Whatever, which mixes Deep Eddy’s Grapefruit with the Stiegl Radler for an extra kick to your summer beer. But like any good party – it gets packed up there, so be ready to kick it with a crowd!
Check it out if: You’re ready for a PARTY! You want to feel like you’re out on the water. Or you’re looking for (relatively) cheap snacks and drinks.
Skip it if: You don’t want to be smushed into a mob. You want to get to know your bartender. Or you want to be guaranteed a seat.
751 Wharf St SW
Fringe Discount: Free dessert with the purchase of two entrees
We were fortunate that we wanted to sit at the bar to get the lowdown on drinks when we walked into Kaliwa at 8:40 on a Saturday night, because it was packed and hustling. Our bartender/server, Emilio, assured us that during the week it’s not quite so busy, but on the weekend he recommends making a reservation. Even so, he really took his time to walk through the menu with us.
Kaliwa is owned by a Filipino couple who wanted to pay homage to the culinary culture of their home, and also the Korean and Thai food cultures that influenced them. The drinks list at Kaliwa is full of fruit-forward cocktails, and Emilio recommended either their Frozen Mai Tai (homemade each morning!) or the Carmen, a vodka drink with mango, passion fruit, and bubbles. I opted for the Lasing though, because it’s hard to find a good lychee martini in this town! Your beer options are all SE Asian – mostly malt-forward lagers – and the wine list is extensive but also very expensive.
Check it out if: You love SE Asian food or want a new food experience. You like to be surrounded by the hustle of a popular new restaurant. Or you’re the type of person who remembers to make reservations.
Skip it if: You like a good traditional crust on your Bibimbap. You like dive bars. Or you want to get to know your bartender.
Kirwan’s On the Wharf
749 Wharf St SW
Fringe Discount: none
When I think Irish pub, I definitely don’t picture something as upscale as Kirwan’s, a comment that made bar manager Danni laugh. It turns out the owner is from Tipperary and takes the authentic nature of his establishment very seriously – all of the furniture was imported from Ireland, and everything from the bar to the knick-knacks on the walls are created by Irish carpenters.
The owner also worked for Guinness for 7 years, and hired the two bartenders who won the Best Guinness Pour contest. The head chef is Irish, and insists on traditional Irish cuisine in all of his dishes. The fish and chips are by far their most popular dish according to Danni. It’s cod which has been battered in-house with a homemade spritz and mushy peas – just like you’d get in the Emerald Isles.
Kirwan’s is definitely more of a restaurant option than a bar, though they do have a solid beer selection and a whiskey room in the back. And Thursday through Saturday starting at 9 pm, you can find live Irish music playing!
Check it out if: You want the best Guinness pour in the city! You love authentic Irish food. Or you want more of a restaurant atmosphere than a bar.
Skip it if: You hate it when people call beer ‘a pint.’ You want a chill bar atmosphere. Or you prefer your pubs more dingy than deluxe.
40 Pearl St SW
Fringe Discount: 10% off your check
Lupo Marino brings the authentic taste of Italy to the Wharf, but with a street side, casual in and out atmosphere. Manager Ahmed stressed that they wanted to make sure that they were a place for everyone from teens to a more mature clientele – in both menu options and prices. All 52 bottles of wine were imported from Italy, with glasses starting at $10, and they make their own limoncello in house. We tried the Rhubarb Negroni and found it very well-balanced, though he recommends their house cocktail, the Toto, a refreshing concoction of vodka, lemon, mandarin, and basil.
You really want to come to Lupo Marino for the food though. Everything is made in house, from bread to pasta to dessert. The Cacio e pepe is their signature pasta dish, and the pizza was out of this world. You could taste how fresh the dough was. The space is very small though, and Ahmed admitted that on evenings and weekends there was often a line out the door. They only take reservations for parties of 5 or more, so make sure you have some time to kill before giving it a try.
Check it out if: You want a delicious Italian dinner. You like your bread homemade and fresh from the oven. Or you have strong opinions about wine.
Skip it if: You have a big group. You aren’t into hour-long waits on the weekend. Or you don’t consider a $16 pizza to be “affordable for everyone.”
98 District Square SW
Fringe Discount: none
Mi Vida boasts a unique space that is equal parts cavernous and intimate. You’re greeted with an enormous tree behind the host stand, and you can choose from a table tucked underneath it, the large bar around the corner, or their small rooftop patio. It’s a Mexican restaurant with a cocktail-driven menu – half of which are margaritas (the house and the frozen are their best sellers) and half of which are craft cocktails (the beverage director recommended the Ponche de Lola, a vodka based drink with pink guava, mango, reposado tequila, ginger, and some bubbles to top it off.
The beer selection is a combination of Mexican brands and local brews, with 8 beers on tap and 8 in bottles, and though they have 60 bottles of wine, only 12 are offered by the glass. And they have over 120 tequilas and mezcals to choose from! PLUS they take reservations! So hop on to Open Table if you want to be guaranteed a spot for dinner in between your Fringe shows.
Check it out if: You want an amazing mezcal selection. You like a space with cool decor. Or you want to be guaranteed a place to eat between shows.
Skip it if: You don’t like Mexican food. You prefer your Mexican cuisine to be more street food and less fancy. Or you want a great beer selection.
Pearl St. Warehouse
33 Pearl St SW
Fringe Discount: 10% off drinks
The Pearl St. Warehouse is a music venue, so when the strains of blues, rockabilly, or bluegrass are being piped in from the concert floor, only the small front bar is open to the public. But when there isn’t a show, both of its bars are open. And either way, it has a nice little outdoor alley area with standing room and hightops so you can enjoy your drinks and the music in the open air.
Pearl St. has a diner look and a Texas feel, but that’s about where its dive bar appearance ends. Its menu is full of craft cocktails and they pour Prosecco on tap in addition to a beer list that has a little bit of everything – including Shiner Light Blonde, one of the few places in the city where you can find the light Texan beer. The food, though, lives up to dive bar diner expectations with burgers and tots that bartender Cory assured me are served quickly. She recommended the Hound Dog, a rye whiskey mule, or the Pimper’s Paradise, made with pineapple-infused rum.
Check it out if: You’re looking for an intimate space to relax that doesn’t get too crazy, but is still fun. You’re a fan of dive bars. Or you like some live music with your drinks and all-American grub.
Skip it if: You want a more refined food menu for your Fringe-ing meal. You want to be guaranteed a seat. Or you want a view of the water.
100 District Square SW
Fringe Discount: 10% off your check
Requin is “an upscale contemporary French concept from award-winning restaurateur Mike Isabella,” offering “a modern interpretation of classic French cuisine.” I’ll admit, guys – I didn’t even get past the host stand for this one. The prices aren’t on the menu, and I’m not a huge fan of celebrity chefs. It’s pretty and I’m sure the food is fantastic if it’s worth it to you to splurge on a fancy meal for the night.
The host was nice enough to go through the bar menu with me though. It’s primarily a wine and cocktail focused beverage program, with 300 bottles, 28 of which are offered by the glass. Their two most popular cocktails are the Allo Allo, a tequila and mezcal offering with agave, and the Rhubarb Fizz, which is made with Hendrick’s gin.
Check it out if: You love celebrity chefs. You want to splurge on a meal. Or if YOLO is how you live your life.
Skip it if: You probably know if this is the kind of place you want to skip.
1101 4th St SW
Fringe Discount: none
Station 4 is directly next to the Market SW where Fringe sets up their box office and is across the street from the Waterfront Metro. The website looks promising, offering a late-night patio happy hour with $5 drinks and discounted snacks, but the menu itself left a bit to be desired and the server who sat us looked highly unimpressed that we preferred cheap outdoor dining to the dining room inside.
There is a $35 pre-fixe meal for pre-theatre goers that I’m sure is designed for the Arena Stage crowd, but also provides a reasonable alternative to some of the pricier Wharf restaurants for the Fringe crowd. I’m sure that it’s a lovely spot for dinner or a drink, but unfortunately at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday, we didn’t seem to get the best first impression.
Check it out if: You were on your way to the metro when you realized you weren’t finished drinking. You’re more into $5 beverages than you are into craft beverages. Or a slice of pistachio cheesecake is right up your alley!
Skip it if: You want a server who is knowledgeable about the menu. You want a patio with a view. Or if you want something more unique than a generic ‘American fare’ restaurant experience.
975 7th St SW
Fringe Discount: none
The first step to enjoying a drink at Whiskey Charlie is to find the place. It isn’t well-advertised, and to get there you have to enter either the Hilton or Canopy and take the hotel elevator up to the penthouse level. It’s worth it though – the view is breathtaking. You can look out over the water or catch the top of the jumbo screen at Nats Park.
But in spite of being the rooftop bar on top of a hotel, bartender Mike let us know that it’s really more of a neighborhood bar, visited by regulars from the apartment buildings and the yacht slips. They call themselves a “friendly craft cocktail bar with a community atmosphere.” The cocktail menu is entirely bartender-made, and Mike’s was ‘Sundress Season,’ a mezcal and habanero tequila mixture with grapefruit. The beer menu has a little bit of everything, but is all in cans, and the food menu is what they call “Clever Finger Food,” and the lamb meatballs seemed to be a fan favorite.
Check it out if: You want to hang out at a bar with NO TVs!! You appreciate being able to get to know your bartender while discussing the drink he/she created. Or you appreciate a gorgeous view.
Skip it if: You want dinner. You only drink beer on tap. Or you’re traveling with a big group.