“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.” —Charles W. Eliot
The life of a mediocre cocktail writer can be a lonely one – as you get a bit older, you realize your acquaintances steadily accrue wives, children, careers, and other unhelpful encumbrances that keep them indoors in the evening. Blissfully free of such restraints, I maintain a pretty heady bar schedule. So, during those times when pals are tending to their flock or professional well-being, I usually bring a book along with me for company.
And to be honest, books can be the best bar companions. A passionate, earnest passage read after a nip of gin takes on new meaning, and a ho-hum cocktail drunk after a powerful history becomes more intriguing, sophisticated. They also serve as a superb vehicle for memorable bar conversations; after all, the best interactions invariably start with “what are you reading?”
So on a lazy weekend day reading and sipping, it came to me – why do I like to read at this specific bar? What features make it so hospitable to intellectual and sinful pursuits? I pondered, pondered some more, and started to write down my answers.
It’s a challenge to “rate” good reading bars – often, it just comes down to that gut feeling of where you feel most comfortable. But since I always try to add rigor to my analysis, I sought to grade bars using five, ultra-scientific criteria:
- Space – a reader-friendly bar has enough room to place a book, drink, and food without inconveniencing your neighbor – the cardinal sin of any bar reader. Also, it’s hard to read with people crowding the bar behind and around you, so a reading bar keeps the numbers down and the press off the patrons.
- Ergonomics – when you are sitting still at a bar for hours, a comfy seat is critically important. Try reading for several hours on a chic-minimalist stool with no support – hopefully you have a really good book and the drinks better be strong enough to distract you from the pain. The truly ergonomically-gifted bars feature foot rests and nice chairs, which keep you reading, drinking, and happy.
- Ambiance – as a non-superhero, I lack the ability to see in the dark. Dark speakeasies are some of my favorite bars, but they aren’t a great fit for readers. Conversely, too much sun can be a drag, reminding you that you should get out and do something with your life. You’re looking for that healthy middle-ground illumination. Also, music can play an important role – thrash metal doesn’t suit most readers, but some subtle Miles Davis can keep your toes tapping and help the pages fly by.
- Aesthetic – ever tried reading a book in a stark, industrial bar? I haven’t either, but I bet I’d hate it. Reading bar aesthetic can vary, but you’ll know it when you see it. I usually favor earth tones, dark wood, and country furnishings, but that’s just me.
- Crowd – nothing ruins the literary mood quicker than a horde of bros and their older, equally insufferable equivalent – lawyers. The optimal reading-drinking crowd can be hard to define, but you usually want a good mix of the congenial and contemplative. Fans of conversation in low voices can make or break a good night out with a book.
So, my criterial strictly defined, here are eleven bars where I’ve happily finished off many drinks and books. In no particular order…
The Reading Room at Petworth Citizen – honestly, this one is too easy; Chantal Tseng’s literary cocktail events are the epitome, the apex of the boozy bibliophile tradition. Surrounded by volumes of all subjects and colors, you sit at the cozy bar, chat with people who have read more than you, and sip world class cocktails. Need I say more? Don’t sleep on the Citizen’s regular bar either – although it can get crowded and loud at peak times, generous bar space and tons of learned and friendly patrons make it a great fall back if the Reading Room is too busy.
Ashlar – a new restaurant/cocktail bar in Old Town, Ashlar is a bibliophile’s delight with a roomy bar, elegant and relaxing decor, literary quotes on the wall, and a super comfortable foot rest. To cinch the deal, they even have sockets for you uncouth savages who use e-readers.
Lyman’s Tavern – Lyman’s is a newer discovery for me, but this Columbia Heights dive bar is perfect for summer weekend drinking. A very comfortable elevated bar and solid seating make long stays easy, while the outdoor bar lets in just the right amount of sun. The crowd is usually a good mix of the friendly and the delightfully introverted, so you won’t be distracted if you don’t want to be.
Twisted Horn – there does seem to be something about that stretch of Upshur Street that breeds boozy literary outposts – maybe its that vortex of good bars and Upshur Street Books. I had one of those standout reading moments at Twisted Horn a few weeks ago as the sun came in on a hazy early summer evening – Faulkner, the right level of clamor, and lighting just melted stress. Or maybe it was the 5 cocktails I had. Ah, memories. I love this neighborhood spot, which also features some good high seats along the wall perfect for long sessions with the right book.
Copperwood Tavern – an old favorite of mine, Copperwood is where I discovered cocktails AND finished War and Peace. So, needless to say it has a special place in my heart. With a nice big bar, airy decor and lighting, and friendly locals, Copperwood is a sweet spot for some weekend or after work imbibing and reading.
Left Door – a classy but relaxed outpost near 14th street, this high-profile cocktail bar features a roomy bar, comfortable furniture, and a happening and well-behaved crowd. Pull up a corner chair if you can – you’ll feel like a man or woman of mystery as you enjoy some ace cocktails and a good book while taking in the always convivial scene.
Slash Run – another fun dive bar that I discovered recently, this Petworth gem sports cool people, footrests, and Natty Boh – perfect combination for discerning readers. Also, a killer 80s metal theme soundtrack just….goes well with a book and a burger; I never knew Guns and Roses could make my history of the Tet Offensive read better. Great place to spend a Saturday.
B-Side – this Mosaic District bar worked its way into this reader’s heart on a long rainy Saturday afternoon, my bar space dominated by bitter cocktails and books. The comfortable bar has a folksy, Pacific Northwest vibe, perfect lighting, and a relaxed decor that facilitates marathon reading sessions. Go on a rainy day and you’ll see what I mean.
The Gibson – you’d think this famous, low-light speakeasy would challenge the eyesight of even the most dedicated reader. But no, just enough light sneaks through, and the Gibson’s lush furnishings, classy customers, and comfortable set up helps the reader feel refined and relaxed. Just the write place to read an Agatha Christie novel, I found!
Jack Rose – Jack’s status as a good reader bar came somewhat as a surprise – I always envisioned it overrun with bros and their equally annoying female counterparts. However, after several visits to the saloon, this notion was happily discarded – while it can get a bit noisy at peak hours, there’s something about the earthy color scheme, big bar, and wall o’ scotch that helps me read. Exuding civilization and clubbiness, embrace the Ivy League atmosphere and break open some John Steinbeck – the combo worked for me.
Brabo – a fine dining establishment in the heart of Alexandria, Brabo has a friendly, business-class atmosphere that lets you turn some pages without feeling like a deranged hermit. A favorite watering hole for upscale travelers and friendly lawyers types from Alexandria and beyond, you’ll find it easy to transition your reading into a good conversation. Great drinks and a stylish, broad copper bar help the word intake as well.
So there you have it! Would love to hear what my fellow readers and imbibers think about my picks and places I may have missed!