Most Americans have their unpleasant memories of Washington, DC: the long car-ride into the city, squabbling with siblings in the back seat of the family’s old station wagon, the long lines for the museums, the stifling summer heat in front of boring stone monuments. It’s an annual rite for millions of American families and students. But DC has changed in the past five years; no longer just a haven for bureaucrats and a tourist trap for provencials, the city has become energized with a tremendous housing and job boom bringing thousands to its picturesque neighborhoods and outlying suburbs.
With the influx has arrived a sharp increase in the number of bars, restaurants and clubs throughout the city, and nowhere has the influence been felt more strongly than in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood. The area, wedged between the National Zoo and the city’s thriving U Street corridor, packs in dozens of hip nightspots for dancing, drinking and–most importantly–socializing. So forget those awful childhood rememberances of posing for pictures in front of Honest Abe and head on over to D.C.’s version of the East Village and Bourbon Street, all packed into one convenient neighborhood.
Getting to Adams-Morgan is easy. Situated just north of downtown, the area’s epicenter sits at 18th Street and Columbia Road NW. 18th Street serves as the main drag, and on a Friday or Saturday night the street is positively packed with rowdy revelers. Traffic on the two-lane street slows to a crawl as throngs of people mill about on the crowded sidewalks and traipse between cars. Parking is virtually non-existant (and a pain, what with the District’s barbaric parking enforcement) so public transportation is the best option. Catch the Metro’s Red Line to Dupont Circle and walk up 18th Street or go one stop further to Woodley Park Station and walk east on Calvert Street NW.
While safer than in recent years, note that the area isn’t very family-friendly after dark. This is the spot for serious drinking, and people come out in masses to do just that. In addition, most of the establishments skew towards a younger demographic, and most clientele of the bars and lounges are between 21 and 35. Underage drinking is no laughing matter in Washington, and every bar will card you at the door. Be sure to bring your ID or passport.
On 18th Street, if you’re early enough, immediately head for The Reef (2446 18th St. NW) and its rooftop deck. It’s a great place to catch terrific views of the madness below and the city’s stunning downtown. Washington is a wonderfully leafy, urban city; standing with a pint of one of the many microbrews on tap is a great way to take in a summer’s evening. The inside portion downstairs is also pleasant, with cool blue lighting and a generally laid-back, mingling scene. It does get loud, though. The key to enjoying The Reef is getting there early–by 9 PM the line stretches down the sidewalk.
For a more intimate experience, cross the street and hit up Pharmacy Bar (2337 18th St. NW). Tucked into–you guessed it–a former neighborhood drug store, this cozy-but-crowded hotspot attracts crowds of college students, indie rockers and intellectual types. The tiny bar lacks many seats, but standing and chatting with strangers amid the loud soundtrack of the bartender’s iPod always results in an interesting experience. If you can, snag a seat by the bay window and watch the hordes of partiers stumble past.
Further up the street, and sloping slightly towards the punk rock/metalhead set is Asylum (2471 18th St. NW) whose larger interior will let you stretch out a bit more. The music is mainly late 70s and early 80s punk, but the servers are anything but antisocial. Depending on the night, DJs spin terrific sets and the place gets crowded but not suffocating. Downstairs are pool tables and a cavernous collection of booths perfect for spending the wee hours with friends over pints and shots.
A trip to Adams-Morgan just wouldn’t be complete without a stop into the legendary Madam’s Organ (2461 18th St. NW), prominently holding court at it’s longtime location in the middle of the neighborhood. The place is a real Washingtonian gem, with a bevy of musical acts performing each week, ranging from Folk to Blues to everything inbetween. Expect eccentric types, down-to-earth tourists and office workers, as well as longtime regulars. The vibe is fun and eclectic without being pretentious or pigeonholing itself into attracting a singular type of customer.
Finally, for a more laidback vibe and a retreat from the noise of 18th Street, wind away the evening at Mantis (1847 Columbia Rd. NW). Washington has had an unspoken rivalry with New York City for years, but one thing the District’s nightlife does best is taking the NYC lounge atmosphere and conforming it to DC’s genteel urban standard. Here you’ll find the same sleek and seductive decor popular up north, but with a staff and patrons devoid of the trendier-than-thou attitude. In the lounge’s basement level, DJs spin pulsating sets late into the night, making it the perfect place to unwind and decompress after a day’s worth of sightseeing.
After all that drinking, you’ll probably feel tempted to purchase a jumbo pizza slice from one of the many purveyors packed between the bars. It’s a relatively recent addition to the street scene, young men and women wobbling through the crowds with huge wedges of grease and dough on paper plates. It’s also a sign of the neighborhood’s surging popularity. As Adams-Morgan continues to grow, Washington continues to transform itself from a seemingly conservative capital into a neck-and-neck competitor with New York and Miami for the most electric epicenter for after-dark entertainment.