A Short History of DC Restaurant and Bar Folks’ Hangouts

Georgetown loses another institution: Bistro Francais, which shuttered after 40 years. Photograph via Facebook.

Late hours, cheap booze, and a chill vibe are hallmarks of the places restaurant and bar workers go to eat and drink after a long night of work. The following spots have served as post-shift destinations over the years.

Bistro Français

3124 M St., NW

During its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, Bistro Français was a popular hangout for its 2 am steak frites and tartare. Chefs such as Jeff Buben, Robert Wiedmaier, Roberto Donna, and the late Michel Richard regularly gathered to unwind and brag about how slammed their own restaurants were (even when they weren’t).

“You never knew who you were going to see in there,” Wiedmaier says. The Georgetown stalwart closed in May after 41 years.

Pharmacy Bar

2337 18th St., NW

If you worked in nightlife about a decade ago, you probably worked in Adams Morgan. And if you worked in Adams Morgan, you almost certainly threw back Miller High Lifes and shots of whis-key at Pharmacy Bar. The dive, which closed last year, was known for its jukebox, Big Buck Hunter arcade game, and no-frills vibe.

Bartender Owen Thomson, now an owner of the U Street–corridor tiki bar Archipelago, frequented the place five nights a week while working nearby at Bourbon. “We used to always say we knew how well Adams Morgan was doing by how well guys working at Pharmacy Bar were doing,” he says.

Old Ebbitt Grill

675 15th St., NW

Since 1996, the self-proclaimed “oldest saloon in Washington” has offered a late-night happy hour with half-price oysters from 11 pm to 1 am (till 2 am Friday and Saturday). Naturally, it attracted a lot of people who were just getting off work at those hours. Even José Andrés has been known to post up for some discount bivalves.

Old Ebbitt’s bow-tied bartenders and suspender-strapped servers—some of whom have built entire careers there—have poured many a Jameson shot (a longtime industry favorite) in the back bar.

Café Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar

1833 14th St., NW; 1847 14th St., NW

Before the barrage of trendy tapas spots, Neapolitan pizza places, and bistros, 14th Street had Café Saint-Ex and Bar Pilar. Opened in 2003 and 2005, respectively, the sister bars remain standbys for anyone working in the dining corridor.

Co-owner Jonathan Fain says the ap-peal is that they’re just normal bars—when bartenders get off work, they’re typically looking for a tall boy and a shot, not a $13 cocktail. “If I walk in at midnight at Saint-Ex, all I see is bartenders,” Fain says. “The same for Bar Pilar. It just depends on what bartender you want to see.”

Columbia Firehouse

109 S. Saint Asaph St., Alexandria

When chef Cathal Armstrong and barman Todd Thrasher were opening Old Town Alexandria’s Restaurant Eve more than a decade ago, they’d go to Portner’s Restaurant to have a beer. Portner’s closed and became Bookbinder’s Restaurant, which in 2009 became Columbia Firehouse. With each iteration, the servers and bartenders of Alexandria kept coming.

“My whole staff goes there,” Thrasher says now. While plenty of bars claim they want to be late-night destinations, few put the time in to make it happen, according to Thrasher: “You have to have months and months, if not years, of having no one in there before it does well. And they kill it at night.”

This article appears in the November 2016 issue of Washingtonian.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.