Historic Hotel Bars

Hospitality and highballs

DC is chock-full of fascinating history. It’s found in every building, along every street and around every corner. But of course, it’s also found in many of its hotel bars. These ancient gems prove once and for all that history doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, history can be downright intoxicating.

Round Robin & Scotch Bar
It doesn’t get much more historic than the Round Robin Bar. It may very well be one of the oldest operating bars in DC, dating back to 1850. Yep, that’s right, 1850. Just think: that’s pre-Civil War. Imagine sitting at the same bar as Abraham Lincoln once did. Or Mark Twain. Or Walt Whitman. The list goes on and on …

The Scene: As the name implies, the Round Robin is, well, round. The dark wood detail and black leather furnishings give the room a very intimate and cozy feel. And along its green velvety walls, you’ll find drawings of the most famous of its patrons. Can you guess who they are? If not, ask your bowtie-wearing bartender. Chances are he’s been there for decades and knows the history like the back of his hand. Be prepared to be on your best behavior – this bar attracts an elite crowd mostly wearing suits and ties.

Insider Info: Try the mint julep. U.S Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced the drink to Washington, DC in the early 1800s and his very own recipe is still used at Round Robin today. The secret? Clay insisted a mint julep must be made with bourbon, rather than gin or rum or brandy.

Round Robin Bar at The Willard Intercontinental Hotel, 1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, 202-628-9100

Old Ebbitt Grill
Old Ebbitt Grill could’ve been called the Saloon of Presidents. Since opening in 1856, many frequented the stand-around bar once stationed in the Ebbitt House hotel including Presidents William McKinley, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Warren Harding. Add in some famous statesmen, naval and military heroes, and it became the place to see and be seen. Even though it’s changed locations multiple times, it still manages to attract crowds, every night, all year long – especially since its current location is next door to the White House. Make a reservation if you hope to get a table here.

The Scene: Old Ebbitt is a favorite listing among travel guide books. So, expect to see lots of tourists here of all ages. It’s a big place and it’s a busy place. But if you look past the customers waiting for a table, you’ll discover a beautiful Victorian-era interior filled with priceless antiques and custom art. Don’t miss the antique beer steins above the mahogany bar; the animal heads reputedly bagged by Teddy Roosevelt himself; the wooden bears said to have been imported by Alexander Hamilton; and the original antique clock over the revolving door. The foot-worn marble steps leading to the private dining room downstairs tell a story all their own.

Insider Info: If the Old Bar at the Grill’s entrance is full, try the restaurant’s three other full service bars, which few are aware exist. The famous Oyster bar is around the corner from the Old Bar, specializing in fresh New England oysters seven days a week, as well as wine pairings. Up the marble steps to the left of the foyer is the Corner Bar with its cozy, waterfowl hunter-themed interior; and at the back of the restaurant near the Atrium is Grant’s Bar with its quiet, private feel and beautiful ceiling murals.
Old Ebbitt Grill, 675 15th Street NW, 202-347-4800

Off the Record
This place is so off the record that the only entrance is through the hotel lobby of the Hay-Adams Hotel and down set of unmarked stairs to the basement. The passageway leads to a seemingly private, present-day speakeasy where wheeling and dealing politicos unwind and you may think you’re not part of the inner circle. The trick here is to enter with an air of confidence. Find your seat at the central bar or in one of the private alcoves surrounding it. The red velvety walls and dark furnishings enhance the intrigue of this place, but it’s all offset by the political caricatures adorning the walls. These works, by cartoonists Matt Wuerker, Art Wood and Richard Thompson, lessen the intensity of this place and add a welcome sense of humor.

The Scene: As one of the closest bars to the White House, plan on running into a lot of White House staffers, some political personalities, a few congressmen and women, lobbyists and several journalists. Since they’re all wearing business attire, you’ll be able to distinguish the hotel guests on vacation from the government workers immediately. This is a high-end bar with expensive, hand-crafted cocktails alongside plenty of gossip and insider secrets. But don’t expect to uncover a scandal. The theme here is, after all, “a place to be seen and not heard.”

Insider Info: If you really want the dirt on who comes into this place, get to know bartender John Boswell. This DC native has been a staple at Off The Record for more than 15 years. He’s so well known that he’s been profiled in the media several times. People know him on a first-name basis. He’s a charming guy with a wealth of knowledge, but a lot of discretion. Challenge him to a game of Guess Who and see if he can name all of the famous people in the caricatures.

Off The Record Bar at Hay Adams Hotel, 800 16th Street NW, 202-942-7599

Like the hotel that houses it, Quill is inspired by all things Thomas Jefferson. It’s in the finest details: the parquet flooring is the same design as the flooring in Jefferson’s Monticello home; the Book Room is inspired by Jefferson’s own book room at Monticello; 18th-century maps adorn the walls tracking Jefferson’s travels through the wine regions of France, Germany and Italy. There are portraits of Presidents on the walls. It’s cozy. Relax to the tunes of a live jazz pianist or savor a cigar and cognac on the outdoor patio.

The Scene: It’s classy. It’s sophisticated. It’s dimly lit. Think: cloth cocktail napkins; artistic hand-crafted cocktails; tapas. Quill is continuously on the list of the city’s best bars. And by continuously, we mean always. Don’t forget that The Jefferson Hotel was the White House’s venue of choice when President Obama hosted Republican Senators for a goodwill dinner recently. We needn’t say more about the type of people you’re likely to run into here.  

Insider Info: Order a cocktail here. Not sure which one to try? Ask the bartender to choose for you or make something special off-the-menu. Chances are he or she will mix something perfectly suitable to your personality. There are seasonal cocktails like Ichabod’s Bane made with pumpkin-infused bourbon, lemon juice and egg whites, or the Gila Monster made with jalapeno-infused tequila, raspberries and lime juice. Otherwise, look to the stars and sup a special Zodiac cocktail to celebrate your birthday.

Quill at The Jefferson Hotel, 1200 16th Street NW, 202-448-2300