Crawling Down H Street

A good bar crawl requires connections, careful planning, and alcoholic fortitude – possessing none of said attributes myself, I was thrilled when a friend stepped forward last weekend armed with all of those plus a handy map and suggested we all head out to the new/hot/buzzed nightlife area – H Street NE, otherwise known as the Atlas District.

Our destinations were The Red & The Black, The Argonaut, and The Palace of Wonders. This libational exploration was a fascinating glimpse into a neighborhood in search of an identity after years of neglect (or one whose former identity is rapidly being overtaken by the new). Urban philosophical musings aside, it also was a damn good time. Those of us who’ve lived in DC for years got hit by a good dose of deja vu as we crawled down the strip.

Hitting The Red & The Black first, we were immediately greeted with a friendly round of free whiskey shots (surprise, one of our more humble crawlers designed their sign!). The bar is decorated with an crazy abundance of French prints, doors, and empty frames, painted a lurid, ah, red and black, with obligatory tin ceiling and low lighting going for a very French Quarter feel. No flaming absinthe shots as yet, but a selection of bottled beers (to be expanded soon), vats of jambalaya and gumbo behind the bar, and comfy booths to relax in. The jambalaya sure packed a sweaty eyebrows punch. There’s also an upstairs for concerts and dance parties – several crawlers commented that it seemed “very DC9 East,” which makes perfect sense as it’s the product of the same mind, bar impresario Joe Englert.

Next we headed over to The Argonaut. It’s like a literal anchor of the district, a classic neighborhood joint situated on a corner lot with an inclusive and residential clientele hanging out. Settling into the heavy furnishings worthy of an old salty captain’s quarters, some crawlers couldn’t pass up the pulled pork sandwiches and truly addicting sweet potato fries. Their signature drink is the “Dark n’ Stormy” – a very tasty and very dangerous concoction of ginger beer and rum. After a few of these (and a drunken game of Battleship) we remembered “oh yeah, bar crawl” and off we went to The Palace of Wonders.

The ghosts of DC Nightlife Past seemed to follow us there. I’m not exactly sure why, but the whole spirit of the place made me feel I could easily walk outside and be in another part of the city in another time. Perhaps the deja vu really hit hard here as several crawlers remembered past Englert bars like 15 Minutes, Insect Club, pre-Lucky Bar Planet Fred (hmmm, does bar nostalgia mean we’re old? and yet we still got carded. go ahead, love to hate us). With its tall ceilings, brick walls washed in circus lights, and various eerie paraphernalia like a life-sized John Merrick mannequin, it had the strongest personality of the bars we crawled. You can sense it may also have the longest shelf-life if its promised freak and burlesque stage acts prove popular. It certainly is worth a return trek. The upstairs bar in particular with its intimate tables and creepy full-length display cases of abnormalia merits an alcoholic night of devious musings (not that I have tendencies in that direction or anything). The grand opening celebrations are Friday and Saturday nights (July 7 and 8) with some intriguing acts worth checking out.

Englert and others plan more bars on H Street, the Atlas Center for the Arts and the H Street Playhouse are in full swing, and eventually the city plans a streetcar to link the district to Union Station, as it used to have back in the day (no, I don’t remember that day). For now the only transportation options are car, bus, or cab, one downside to the area that U Street didn’t have when it started to experience that kind of revitalization. And wait a minute, didn’t Englert also have a hand in that with places like Andalusian Dog, State of the Union, etc?

Good grief, I need to get into a different line of work. I wonder how you transition from bar crawler to bar impresario…

6 Comments so far

  1. Tom Bridge (unregistered) on July 6th, 2006 @ 9:35 am

    Take me with you! Seriously, this sounds like an awesome time, Jenn, I’m feeling the need for a dark ‘n stormy soon.

  2. D.C. Music Gal (unregistered) on July 6th, 2006 @ 12:55 pm

    Awesome!! I can’t wait to check out The Red & The Black this weekend. They are having (another) grand opening Saturday. The Argonaut looks cool too. There’s nothing like bars and board games.

  3. A. Ault (unregistered) on July 6th, 2006 @ 1:53 pm

    Hmmm, I’m wondering what night you made this crawl? I was out Wednesday night at Palace of Wonders and Red & Black from about 8-10pm and found both places seriously lacking — mostly in the hospitality department. Wonders has a long, long way to go. Having only been open 3 weeks, I’m willing to cut it some slack, but not much when the bartenders can’t be bothered to put music on the jukebox and would prefer to have their sole customers (6 people) sit in dead silence. The food (or what is billed as “food”)was horrific. A quick pop into the Red & Black was met with a sullen bartender who, again, couldn’t be bothered to ask if we wanted to have a drink, aka, spend money, in the establishment. Perhaps we were the wrong demographic, eg, over 35. But I have no doubt that Englert et al (and I was around DC for his very first club, 15 minutes, at 15th & L) have made at the very least a prescient real estate move.

  4. Jenn L (unregistered) on July 6th, 2006 @ 2:03 pm

    Hey A., the night we crawled was Friday.

    There was music playing at Wonders, and also at Red & Black where they have an internet jukebox downstairs.

    I thought the bartenders were fine both places and as for the demographics, definitely mixed ages (crawlers all mid-thirties).

    They have both just opened, so certainly there are kinks still to be worked out. I’d be curious to see you give it another shot later on…

  5. A. Ault (unregistered) on July 7th, 2006 @ 9:10 am

    Jenn, I’m sure you’ve seen today’s Style section. Good flak job by either Englert or Jim Taylor. I directly asked the bartender the other night about the Dime Museum and he mumbled but didn’t make it clear that this basically was the Dime Museum. Yep, they’ve got kinks to work out. I’ll check it out again eventually.

  6. Billy (unregistered) on July 7th, 2006 @ 2:24 pm

    I would never be able to write the full story of a bar crawl outside of the first and maybe second pub visited … for this, I applaud you.

    Today, I pledge to embark on the H Street (NE) bar crawl in 2006. I will not let age discrimination or lack of a comprehensive dime museum to put off this trek. I also vow never to eat whilst engaged in a pub crawl.

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