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The longtime showcase for established names—as well as some prominent local talent—Blues Alley (1073 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-337-4141; bluesalley.com) bills itself as a jazz supper club. If you and your date are jazz fans and haven’t been there yet, you’re missing a treat. The New Orleans–style cuisine, full bar, and clubby setting by themselves are a hit; add in some of the best jazz around and you’re in for a good evening.
The normally stately Kennedy Center (2700 F St., NW; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org) likes to present jazz “up close and personal . . . the way jazz was meant to be,” as the center puts it. On Friday and Saturday nights, the upstairs Terrace Gallery dresses down cabaret style, with lamp-lit tables and a jazz act. Drinks and light fare are available. The only thing missing is the smoke.
HR-57 (1610 14th St., NW; 202-667-3700; hr57.org) takes its name from an act of Congress that declared jazz a national treasure, but the club takes its cues from New York jazz joints circa 1950. There are no fancy signs or marquees on the outside, and there are a lot of low-slung couches and chairs looking past their prime on the inside. Maybe someone takes your drink order, maybe not. Not quite Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, but you get the idea. For some of the area’s best jazz and jam sessions, this is the place.
The State Theatre (220 N. Washington St., Falls Church; 703-237-0300; thestatetheatre.com) books a variety of performers, but you can bank on good classic rock and blues bands coming through regularly. Tables can be reserved on the main level, but most of the space is wide open for standing, with bars on both sides. Blues legends Johnny Winter and John Mayall have played the State, as have longtime rockers like Dave Mason. Local bands usually open. Both food and drink are available for purchase.
“Where the beautiful people go to get ugly” is the motto at Madam’s Organ (2461 18th St., NW; 202-667-5370; madamsorgan.com). Blues bands are a staple in this dark club that puns on its DC neighborhood, Adams Morgan. Bluegrass and old-school R&B are also regulars, but if you and your date are into the blues and you like it “real”—i.e., a crowded dance floor in a rowdy rowhouse full of fans of the 12-bar tune—you can’t go wrong here, where ugly can be a lot of fun.
While Thai food and American blues may not have an obvious connection, Bangkok Blues (926 W. Broad St., Falls Church; 703-534-0095; bangkokblues.com) books terrific local and regional players. Some play rock, but most play blues. You enter through the bar, and if you’re not bellying up, you can sit in the adjoining dining/music room—its walls are adorned with images of greats including Muddy Waters and Stevie Ray Vaughan. Authentic Thai cooking spices things up.
With its excellent acoustics, comfortable seats, and honey-toned lighting, a visit to the five-year-old Music Center at Strathmore (5301 Tuckerman La., North Bethesda; 301-581-5100; strathmore.org) can be as soothing as a trip to the spa. The 2,000-seat concert hall is home to the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, led by the vivacious and chatty Marin Alsop. Lineups tend to be eclectic—they’ve included everything from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony to the Decemberists and Ray LaMontagne. This month, violin masters Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman stop by.
If you want to catch acts that are right on the verge of becoming big or acts that are already big but like to play in a cozy club, there’s no better place than the Black Cat (1811 14th St., NW; 202-667-4490; blackcatdc.com). With its low ceiling and black-and-white tile floor, the Cat hosts great rock shows almost every night. You can start with a pint in the downstairs Red Room—a great bar all its own—then make your way upstairs to hear the band.
Have a hard-to-impress date? Sign up for the e-mail list for the 9:30 Club (815 V St., NW; 202-265-0930; 930.com) and the weekly messages will alert you to shows long before the rest of the public hears about them, making it easier to snag tickets to a hot act before it sells out. The club offers a variety of music, from rock and indie acts to Top 40 to rappers, so there’s a show for everybody.
For an edgier night, hit a show at the Rock & Roll Hotel (1353 H St., NE; 202-388-7625; rockandrollhoteldc.com), where good indie acts are always coming through (check out the über-buzzed-about Cymbals Eat Guitars on March 6). The space may be tiny, but that ensures you’ll be cozying up by the end of the night.
Head to a show at the Sixth & I Historic Synagogue (600 I St., NW; 202-408-3100; sixthandi.org) and you might just start taking all your dates there. The space features vaulted ceilings, rows of wooden pews, and wonderful acts, often folky and low-key.
If your date would rather throw back a couple of PBRs and catch a rock show than dine at Citronelle, the Velvet Lounge (915 U St., NW; 202-462-3213; velvetloungedc.com) might be just the spot. This U Street bar and music venue is small, dark, and even a bit grungy. But that’s why some people love it. Sit and drink at the crowded downstairs bar or venture upstairs to catch an under-the-radar band.
Tickets for most concerts at the Kennedy Center (2700 F St., NW; 202-467-4600; kennedy-center.org) are pricey, but the Millennium Stage features free music every day. Head there by 6 pm and you can catch everything from National Symphony Orchestra talent to flamenco guitarists to local folk acts. A small bar sells drinks and snacks. Check online for the schedule.
With 16 years of open-mike nights under its belt, Iota Club and Café (2832 Wilson Blvd., Arlington; 703-522-8340; iotaclubandcafe.com) is serious about showcasing local talent. Starting every Wednesday at 8, the open mike features singers and musicians who sometimes are on their way to something much bigger. Better yet: There’s no cover charge. If you want to impress your date by getting onstage, sign up at either 7:30 or 10.
A flagship on the area music scene, the Birchmere (3701 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria; 703-549-7500; birchmere.com) books a variety of bands and performers (blues legend Buddy Guy often plays here). But you could argue that its roots are in, well, roots/country/folk, with an emphasis on national acts. For often-great music in an informal setting—in the grand old music hall, long tables are shared—this is the place. It’s first-come, first-seated, so arrive early to get a good spot. Drinks and sandwiches, pizzas, b
urgers, and other fare are available from an attentive waitstaff.
Rams Head Tavern (33 West St., Annapolis; 410-268-4545; ramsheadtavern.com/annapolis), a multi-room restaurant with several spinoff locations, features a full menu along with acts such as Lyle Lovett, Aaron Neville, and many others. The music space—a dining area called On Stage—seats about 300 people at tables either private or shared. Lots of brick, wood paneling, and other touches with an 18th-century flair adorn the inside. Bands play on a raised stage that’s part of the dining room, creating an intimate atmosphere between audience and performer.
JV’s (6666 Arlington Blvd., Falls Church; 703-241-9504; jvsrestaurant.com), a genuine hole in the wall, has specialized in brew, burgers, and music for most of its 60-plus years. Think of it as a roadhouse stuck in a strip mall along Route 50. Pride in both country and country music is always in the air. But while tribute bands to Merle, Waylon, and other stars are on the bill, don’t be surprised if good old fashioned rock ’n’ roll lights up the joint once in a while. The space is narrow and tight, and the decor consists of signs like beer is the reason i get up in the morning, photos of patrons and musicians, and American flags. No better place to show off your date’s new tattoo.