Bar Quest

In Search of the Perfect Martini Bar

The martini’s iconic status has elevated it almost to the point of cliché. Sean Connery made “shaken, not stirred” 007′s very identity. Lauren Bacall never budged without one. And perhaps most impressively, the martini prompted the creation of its very own drinking milieu.

Though it may not be easy to pin down exactly what makes a martini bar, it’s an unmistakable combination of stylish flair, elegance and class. All walks of life have embraced the martini, from the suits to the drunks to the haughty artistes, which means that no matter what sort of drinker you are, there’s a watering hole out there for you. In a labor of love, we scouted, sampled and stumbled through twelve of the best, in search of the chicest, hippest, swankiest, strongest martini D.C. has to offer.

18th and U Duplex Diner

The Drink: Horsebucket-sized glassware filled to the brim with smooth, tasty martini and topped with giant “Big Queen” olives. Indeed.

The Service: Easy going and amicable. The bar draws a three-deep crowd at night, so for the most attentive service, get there early.

The Atmosphere: The casual feel of a diner with the stylish sensibility of a martini bar. Kitchy 1950s icons stacked behind the bar and plenty of natural light.

The Crowd: Some call Duplex the Gay Power Center. Barney, Andrew, Cornelius, Lorri…it’s a regular haunt for the commanders-in-chief.

Rating:

30 Degrees

The Drink: Dry as a British sitcom, so ask for extra vermouth if you prefer it wet. They mix for strength, but a good rapport with the bartender will ensure things are made even stiffer.

The Service: A little slow, especially at peak times, but with some of the most swoon-worthy bartenders on 17th Street, you won’t want them to rush.

The Atmosphere: Designed with Pottery Barn sensibility. Great views of 17th Street and a classy décor make this a great spot to see and be seen. Lose some of the beige, add a few more sofas and armchairs and it would be flawless.

The Crowd: The sophisticated ambiance draws a mature crowd, with spatterings of D.C.’s A-list. Local gay politicos and media-types are regularly seen here. A good spot for young ladder-climbers looking to meet older power players and network.

Rating:

Bar Rouge

The Drink: An apple martini with a bite that certainly won’t keep the doctor away, served in a cavernous frosted glass. The regular martini comes with olives roughly the size of golf balls.

The Service: Top notch. Bartenders treat you like royalty, even if you’re blatantly far from it. The staff is fully integrated into the ambiance with bellbottoms, butterfly collars and Pussy Galore knee-highs.

The Atmosphere: Straight out of a Bond film, and they run Sixties flicks on the flat screen behind the bar just in case you missed it. Retro-European, but in a snooty-free way. Rouge is so swank it’s shwank. Drink up, dahh-ling.

The Crowd: Varies according to hour and day. There’s the inevitable power-tie bombast, but also a good deal of wealthy eccentrics. Across from us, an old woman in a polka dot sundress was sucking down a stogie. ‘Nuff said.

Rating:

Cities

The Drink: If you want it dirty, hit that point. Not bad, but you’d think the olive juice was plutonium the way they begrudgingly dole it out.

The Service: Conscientious, but Cities gets packed on a Saturday night, so be prepared to queue up for awhile.

The Atmosphere: Creative décor, interesting architecture, low lighting and a trendy chic. Lots of exposed lightbulbs and varnished wood. We prefer it during off-peak hours.

The Crowd: It’s Adams Morgan’s trendiest bar, so anyone in black ass-pants and platform shoes who’s in the neighborhood is probably here.

Rating:

Felix

The Drink: Can you say vermouth? Felix can, and they slobber it all over your drink. Way, way too wet for our taste. Like drinking a fourth-place science fair project.

The Service: A hell of a lot better than what they’re serving. A tad on the slow side, but friendly enough.

The Atmosphere: Not quite sure what they’re going for here. Art Deco Manhattan skyline motif over the bar, Sixties spy movies on the tube.

The Crowd: Too many Rachels. As in Rachel from Friends, with the long cardigan sweaters that hang down to her knees and tie in the front just over her chest. Too much of that in here. Prep school jocks with perfect skin accompany them.

Rating:

Four Seasons Hotel

The Drink: These cosmos ain’t for no pansies. Strong stuff, but inconsistent, sizewise. Our first visit earned us a trough of liquor. Second time around, not even enough to fill a petri dish.

The Service: Again, inconsistent. One moment you’re the Queen of England, and the next you’re just some creaky old tart who drinks too much and skimps on the tip.

The Atmosphere: Loooove the natural light. The abundant potted flora and huge windows overlooking the canal make for a tranquil and serene milieu for getting tanked.

The Crowd: High class, but no pressure. Casual and relaxed, though we got one “who invited the riffraff?” glance. Resenting the insinuation that we weren’t classy enough, we beaned him with an olive and looked the other way.

Rating:

Gabriel

The Drink: The pear-flavored martini made with real pear juice and egg whites is heavenly, and a meal in itself.

The Service: A bartender with an instinct for when to get chatty and when to leave you to your swilling. Chef Greggory even emerged from the kitchen to personally make sure our whistles were being properly wetted.

The Atmosphere: Couldn’t be better for an anxious first date. Relaxed and secluded, elegant but not stuffy. The good lighting will allow you a decent first look at your PlanetOut date sans airbrushing.

The Crowd: Lovers on trysts, second honeymooners, and usually one or two breakups-in-progress.

Rating:

Gazuza

The Drink: On the watery side and not nearly dirty enough, despite our repeated emphasis. Their own Black Martini, however, is like electroshock therapy for your liver — in a good way.

The Service: Depends who you get. Our waitress, Melissa, was down to earth, charming and chill. But we’ve been on the butt end of borderline snideness via bouncer and bartender at times in the past.

The Atmosphere: You’re here to be seen, not be comfortable. The benches lining the walls may not be perfect for lounging, but they’re the swankest we’ve seen. Ultra-low lighting keeps the space intimate, and a second-floor patio overlooking Connecticut Avenue makes for great cruising.

The Crowd: This assortment of personas will have you peeling that “Celebrate Diversity” bumper sticker off your Kia as soon as you get home. Straight thirtysomethings assume yuppie posturing, while the style queens roll their eyes at the edgy club kids. An anthropological study in lameness.

Rating:

Mimi’s American Bistro

The Drink: Check out the double-oh-seven martini: Bacardi O, OJ and 7-Up. And don’t pull some James Bond line when you order it. You’re not being witty and the bartender’s heard it before.

The Service: Judy dumped out our first one because, in her opinion, it wasn’t perfect. Points for exceptional effort.

The Atmosphere: The waiters sing showtunes. As in on stage with a microphone. You need to know this because it dominates the ambiance. A good place to bring out-of-towners if you want to show them how fun and wacky Washingtonians are.

The Crowd: Did you not hear us? The waiters sing showtunes. The crowd is gayer than a South Beach tanning salon.

Rating:

Politiki

The Drink: A little slice of heaven, and we do mean little. With martinis made this well, the lack of girth is doubly disappointing.

The Service: The classy swank of the ambiance might make you think snooty service would follow. Think again. Warm, friendly bartenders slosh your Stoli with a smile.

The Atmosphere: Three levels, three wildly divergent personalities. The top floor contains the martini bar, a veritable Senator’s parlor and smoking lounge. Plush velvet couches, a crimson-colored billiard table, even lamp shades with those little tassels hanging off the edge.

The Crowd: Young Republicans, upwardly-mobile congressional interns, Georgetown grad students and byproducts of suburbia. Spawn of the upper-middle class now coming of age and rocketing toward inevitable success. They don’t mind that the martinis are small because the allowance their parents still give them is paying for it.

Rating:

Solé

The Drink: Scrumdiddliumptious. The bartender even administers a taste test before serving so that you know you’re getting the good stuff.

The Service: Cordial? Sure. Amicable? You bet. But more smile than service, and even if you’re lounging on the sofas you’ll be getting your own drinks at the bar, thank you very much.

The Atmosphere: Very Euro in a pre-EU sort of way. Ultrasuede sofas, mirrored tables and a working fireplace. Like a ski lodge in the Swiss Alps. We half expected to see a Saint Bernard with a little barrel under its chin. Now that would be cool.

The Crowd: Matches the ambiance. Next to us, two Europeans strummed matching acoustic guitars and sang ballads. A little weird, but we could get used to it.

Rating:

Spezie

The Drink: Good cosmopolitans, but the sour apple martini is a little too saccharine for our taste.

The Service: Want to wax philosophic on early 20th century art history? Want to discuss sound and lighting techniques in postmodern theater? Want to bitch about the Miami bar scene? In all three cases, ask for Jessica. She’s a conversation dynamo, just as a bartender should be.

The Atmosphere: Business-casual, whatever that is. You probably wouldn’t come here to get tanked, nor would you bring a date. More geared toward schmoozing clients from work than recreational activity.

The Crowd: Mid-level federal types. Deputy Assistants to the Assistant Managers. Associate Aides to the Vice Presidents of Regional Operations. The people who work for the people who work for the big wigs.

Rating:

Topaz

The Drink: A Blue Nirvana martini, their signature, is a tangy, bubbly Skyy vodka and champagne mixture that goes down way too easily. The Blondie also comes highly recommended for anyone seeking a citrus rush.

The Service: We were eventually kicked to the curb to make way for a private party…but with “free drink” coupons in hand. No complaints here.

The Atmosphere: Posh chairs and couches are erratically placed, making traffic flow spotty and finding a seat next to impossible. Lights shift periodically, from fuchsia to yellow to tangerine. The leopard print and neon feels a bit circa 1986, but it seems to be intentional. Retro’s far out, man.

The Crowd: Straight and slutty. Make no mistake, no one’s here to make a lifelong friend. Microskirts and haltertops abound. Anorexic nymphomaniac Lolitas and the men who love them.

Rating:

Town and Country (The Renaissance Mayflower Hotel)

The Drink: Lightweights beware. These martinis should only be consumed by the seasoned drinker. Ferocious, enormous, and the waiter will leave you the shaker. One hundred and one varieties to choose from. You’ve been warned.

The Service: Fast, professional, but never impolite. The servers are cool and witty, but don’t expect to be doted on.

The Atmosphere: Somewhere between black-tie and kegger. Totally classy, but free of pretensions. Be opulent, cultured, garish, or unruly — just have fun doing it, and you’ll fit in perfectly.

The Crowd: It may be in a hotel, but this is an unmistakable stomping ground for diehard Washingtonians. People bum smokes from each other and move about the room. Conducive to large, loud parties.

Rating:

The Willard Inter-Continental Hotel

The Drink: Beautiful cosmos. Unfortunately, despite the outrageous prices, they’re small enough to be served in an eyedropper.

The Service: Polite but thoroughly ungregarious. The cold, formal service is supposed to make you feel important, but has the disquieting effect of making you feel like a plantation master.

The Atmosphere: Same as the service. Paintings of our forefathers cast scolding gazes from the walls. Formidable lighting. This bar demands low talking and icy formalities. We drank fast and got out.

The Crowd: Decaying, mink-coated widows using cigarette holders and blowing their inheritance on what could very well be their last gimlet. Forgotten Truman-era senators still sitting pretty on decades of laundered campaign funds. Very J.D. Rockefeller. These are the last of a literally dying breed.

Rating:


WHERE WE WENT:

18th and U Duplex Diner

2004 18th Street NW
202-265-9599

30 Degrees
1639 R Street NW
202-462-6569

Bar Rouge
1315 16th Street NW
202-232-8000

Cities
2424 18th Street NW
202-328-2100

Felix
2406 18th Street NW
202-483-3549

Four Seasons
2800 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
202-342-0444

Gabriel
2121 P Street NW
202-956-6690

Gazuza
1629 Connecticut Avenue NW
202-667-5500

Mimi’s American Bistro
2120 P Street NW
202-464-6464

Politiki
319 Pennsylvania Avenue SE
202-546-1001

Sole
3050 K Street NW 202-625-7653

Spezie
1736 L Street NW
202-467-0777

Topaz
1733 N Street NW
202-393-3000

Town and Country
1127 Connecticut Avenue NW
202-347-3000

Willard Inter-Continental Hotel
1401 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
202-628-9100