Political ogling and bantering are a sport in the District’s bars and restaurants, especially in an election year.
The excitement ramps up during debate season when a mix of old-guard haunts and trendy new bars host game nights and create cheekily named cocktails to ring in the presidential sparring. Nerdy politicos, hotshot lobbyists, and average voters come together to cheer and jeer, creating a not-to-be-missed cultural experience that happens only in the nation’s capital.
Visitors, you’d be wise to heed these insider tips for debate-watching like a local at some of D.C.’s quintessential watering holes for the politically minded:
1. DO NOT block the TV(s), even though crowds may make that nearly impossible.
Even at one of Washington’s most fun pseudo-frat houses, The Ugly Mug, which has 13 televisions, this can be challenging. (What can we say? The debates are a big deal for Washingtonians.) But it’s worth braving the crowds for the quick-fire political trivia with liquid prizes, which begins at 7 p.m., followed at 8 p.m. by political bingo hosted by D.C. comedian Lamont King. Specials include $4 bottles of Fat Tire, Magic Hat, and Dogfish. Despite the low-brow party atmosphere, debate-goers are well-heeled, so dress the same if you want to fit in.
2. Get there early. Really early. Drinkers hoping to get a good view of one of three televisions at Teddy and the Bully Bar in D.C.’s established Dupont Circle neighborhood should arrive by 6 p.m. Bonus: An early arrival gives you plenty of time to try both “The Trump Tower,” a twist on the classic Negroni, or the “Hillary’s Inbox,” a simple mix of vodka and lime—and to cast your vote. In 2012, the cocktail tally successfully predicted the election outcome.
3. Buy a stranger a bourbon to show you’re a good sport and a good person to know. (This is a whiskey town, after all.) Opt for something rare and unapologetically American, like the Very Old Barton or Old Pogue Master’s Select (both bourbons from Bardstown, Kentucky) at the Jack Rose Dining Saloon. Located in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood, the restaurant/bar boasts several thousand bottles of whiskey—the largest collection in the western hemisphere—which line the walls of the large downstairs bar. To watch the debate in a more intimate atmosphere, head up to the heated, glass-enclosed rooftop bar with four large flat-screen TVs.
4. Keep your wits about you and your business cards at the ready. You never know which mover and shaker you might be standing next to in a District bar. But that’s especially true at the Off The Record bar in the Hay-Adams Hotel, an iconic watering hole for Washington’s political and media elite that’s just steps from the White House. It will offer four election-themed cocktails on debate night, including “Hillary’s Last Word” (Bombay Sapphire, lime juice, green chartreuse, Luxardo, and grenadine, garnished with a Maraschino cherry and lime zest) and “Pence’s Tea Party” (Laphroaig 10-year-old whiskey, Oban 14-year-old whiskey, Amaretto Disaronno, Bénédictine, orange juice, ginger syrup, and vanilla extract, garnished with crispy bacon and an orange peel). All drinks will be served on coasters created by the political cartoonists Kevin “KAL” Kallaugher and Matt Wuerker, which feature the presidential and vice-presidential candidates (and which can be taken home after your evening at this sultry, subterranean bar ends).
5. It’s rude to be partisan in a drinking establishment, so be nice! Washington has become a pretty young town, and millennials are so. over. the drama. Can’t we all drink and be merry? At Black Jack, young hipsters will gather for debate-watching in front of a gigantic projection screen while drinking cocktails like the “Mexican Pancake” (jalapeño tequila, Aperol, lime, sugar, and bitters). Happy hour specials start at 4 p.m. The rule here is, “Watch, but don’t get too emotional about your presidential pick.” Dress casually for a fun—rather than contentious—affair, and to fit in with the more relaxed crowd, just a couple of miles away from the real action on Capitol Hill.