A Drink-by-Drink Tour of DC’s Most Historic Cocktail Bars

Swilling our way through plus-or-minus 250 years of representative democracy

September 17, 2021 1:30 pm
A bartender makes a cocktail at The Round Robin Bar at the Willard Intercontinental
The Round Robin Bar at the Willard Intercontinental
The Willard Intercontinental

George Washington is known for distilling whiskey in his backyard, Ike for his bathtub gin and FDR for his rum swizzles. “There’s liquid history” all over DC, says cocktail historian Derek Brown, owner of Columbia Room. “Whether it was JFK at Martin’s Tavern or Abraham Lincoln at the Willard, it’s just amazing the things that have happened, and you can tour DC drink by drink.” 

In the 51st state, you can propose at the tavern where JFK asked Jackie for her hand in marriage and drink Mint Juleps at the “Oval Office of bars.” And while there are plenty of hipster hangouts that offer headline-grabbing cocktails to reflect real-time politics — like, Swing State Spritz or Make America Grape Again — the District’s decades- and centuries-old haunts offer as fascinating a look at the city’s political life as its memorials and monuments. These restaurants and bars are “gold,” says Virginia Miller, a bar and food historian who has eaten and imbibed at more than 20,000 bars the world over. “When you have those bars still alive … you treasure it — you celebrate it because there is so little of that left.” 

Offer a hail to our chiefs and other political A-listers at these DC bars and saloons. 

The Pegu Dan cocktail from Monocle restaurant in DC
The Pegu Dan from Monocle
Monocle Restaurant/Facebook

The Monocle Restaurant
Capitol Hill 

Decorated with red carpet runners, white table cloths, and blue leather seats, “half of Congress” has eaten and imbibed at the house on “The Hill” that John Valanos’ parents opened in 1960. “It didn’t hurt that JFK and his wife would come in for dinner in the early days — and then, when he moved to the White House, would have his limo pick up his meals for him,” says Valanos, who has run the “bi-partisan restaurant” for more than 30 years. Autographed pictures of current and past politicians adorn the walls and quotes are etched in gold leaf on the beams. Try to find Ronald Reagan’s contribution — ”Washington is the only city where sound travels faster than light” — on the rafters.

107 D Street NE

A bartender serves a glass of rosé at the Old Ebitt Grill in DC
A number of former US presidents sat right here
Old Ebbitt Grill/Facebook

The Old Ebbitt Grill

Opening in 1856 as a boardinghouse, the Old Ebbitt Grill calls itself “the oldest saloon in DC.” Lore has it that President William McKinley lived at Ebbitt’s while a member of Congress in the 1880s. Since then, a slew of his fellow presidents have stopped by to kick back a few here, including Grant, Johnson, Cleveland, Harding and Teddy Roosevelt. 

675 15th Street NW

A Manhattan at Martin's Tavern
A Manhattan at Martin’s Tavern
Walter Rachel/Martin’s

Martin’s Tavern

The “oohs” and “ahhs” begin when you walk into this Georgetown institution that opened in 1933, nine-months before Prohibition was repealed. At Martin’s you can sit “in the same booth where JFK proposed to Jackie,” says third generation owner Billy Martin of Booth #3, a booth so popular that the restaurant gets two to three proposals in that booth each week. Patrons can reserve Booth #1, where JFK sipped on a Heineken and wrote the first draft of his presidential inauguration speech. Booth #2 is where President Richard Nixon drank Bacardi and Coke in the 1950s, while a member of Congress. There’s also President Harry Truman’s booth and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s, too, all adorned with plaques. “Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright once told me over dinner that she thinks of Martin’s as an extension of her living room,” says Martin. If you are looking to mend political differences with a friend, consider ordering up a bi-partisan dinner at Martin’s: Start with JFK’s favorite soup, New England clam chowder, followed by Nixon’s fave meatloaf and mashed potatoes and reach across the aisle on the menu.

1264 Wisconsin Ave NW

The circular Round Robin Bar at the Willard Intercontinental
This inimitable circular bar is a DC landmark
The Willard Intercontinental

Round Robin Bar at The Willard InterContinental

Even before The Willard became a popular haunt for President Ulysses Grant to relax with a brandy and cigar (and get “lobbied” by petitioners), US Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky introduced the Mint Julep to DC at the hotel’s Round Robin bar. (It’s since earned the title “The Oval Office of Bars.”) During the bar’s monthly “History Happy Hours,” guests can order the Round Robin’s signature drink and listen to “intriguing stories of yesteryear” by authors and political pundits as well as legendary bartender and entertainer, Jim Hewes — whom you’ll find inside the namesake round, polished mahogany bar.

1401 Pennsylvania Ave NW

The Vault at the Quadrant Bar at the Ritz Carlton DC houses the rarest whiskeys and spirits on offer
Inside the Vault, where the Quadrant houses its rarest tipples
Quadrant at the Ritz

Quadrant Bar & Lounge at The Ritz-Carlton
West End/Georgetown

With leather club chairs and plush couches, this Georgetown-adjacent lounge sports a menu that’s a history lesson in presidential preferences. Twenty pages of the 89-page drink menu lists the favorite alcoholic (and non-alcoholic) beverages of all 45 (soon to be updated) US presidents. There’s Hard Cider, a breakfast drink enjoyed by John Adams, and “The McKinley Delight,” made with rye whiskey, sweet vermouth, cherry brandy, and a hint of absinthe.

1401 Pennsylvania Ave NW


Join America's Fastest Growing Spirits Newsletter THE SPILL. Unlock all the reviews, recipes and revelry — and get 15% off award-winning La Tierra de Acre Mezcal.