Where to Chat off the Record

April 12, 2016

Important things happen in bars. The Lincoln conspirators allegedly imbibed whiskey at Mary Surrat’s tavern before their attempt to flee south. Taverns played an essential role in the American War of Independence. And even the legislation that created our national rail system, Amtrak, was originally scrawled on a bar napkin, allegedly at the old Hawk & Dove.

In Washington, DC, a town where information is power, there are times where things must be said out of earshot of eager interns, political foes, or lurking bloggers. Maybe a diplomat needs to give a bit of background to a reporter. Or a political staffer needs to spread some tidbit of scandalous information about a political opponent. Perhaps a legislative deal needs to be cut, or sensitive strategy needs to be discussed without the hassles that surround a formal meeting. Sometimes, meeting behind closed doors isn’t good enough, and hiding in plain sight is the way to go.

Now in this day and age, major leaks are more likely to come in the form of a flight to Hong Kong with a thumb-drive full of government secrets, or hacking executed from halfway around the world. Furthermore, I am certainly not suggesting any of our readers violate the law or the trust of their employers. However, for the sake of espionage fantasy, let’s consider which watering holes of our federal city would be most suitable for officials, journos, wonks, and politicos to retreat to and talk off the record. After all, sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name.

I’ve selected these bars based on rigid criteria, taking into account secrecy, convenience, character, and location. I have also made drink suggestions at each location. First, the important characteristics:

  • Dark corners — The open floor plan in vogue at so many of Washington’s eateries and watering holes simply will not do. An establishment suitable for covert meetings should provide reasonably private space that allows all parties to see who is approaching the table or entering the establishment.
  • Unassuming, but not a dump — The location should convey some gravitas but also be without fanfare. Conversely, a dive bar where patrons mind their own business is also acceptable. The new wave of hipster bars should be avoided. Also steer clear of any place advertising “free taco night” or buckets of beer, as the underpaid and malnourished Twitterati lurk in the corners.
  • Neighborhood — This is important. It should be a place where you would normally go but not be recognized. As such, it should be reasonably central to the heart of Washington. You’re not drinking here to be cool; you’re drinking here because you have to. No one is traveling to Petworth to leak information. Think Downtown, Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Penn Quarter, and Georgetown.
  • Active but not too loud — A quiet bar simply will not do. Conversations can be overheard. Conversely, a loud venue could mean that critical information is missed or misheard (but maybe that’s what the situation calls for). There should be a lively buzz to the place where conversations are rendered inaudible to everyone but the parties involved.
  • Table service vs. Bar — Preferably the parties should order their drinks from the bartender and then retreat to an out of the way booth or vacant end of the bar. If table service is a must, then it shouldn’t be a place where waters are being filled every 5 minutes or where there is constant follow-up from the wait staff. Drinks should be ordered, delivered, and then the parties should be left alone.
  • Drinks — Strong.
  • Food — If you’re eating, you’re doing it wrong. Go to Leavenworth, go directly to Leavenworth, do not pass Go …

Russia House (1800 Connecticut Ave NW)

Located conveniently off of Dupont Circle in a massive converted townhome, the Russia House is rumored to have been a favorite of Soviet spies during the Cold War. I have trouble believing this, because it seems rather conspicuous, but that doesn’t take away from its utility in the situation at hand. Go early and sit downstairs in the lounge immediately to your right; the clientele and tenor of the venue change drastically once the sun goes down. Order a vodka martini (dry and frigidly cold with a twist, please). It’s convenient proximity to Embassy Row makes Russia House the ideal venue for diplomatic staffers looking to sell out their governments.

The Tune Inn (331 Pennsylvania Ave SE)

The Pennsylvania Ave SE corridor used to be flush with true dives and dingy basements. Sadly, Tune Inn is all that remains of a once glorious Capitol Hill tradition (RIP original Hawk & Dove). Despite being featured on a deplorable Food Network program, having to rebuild after a fire, and being somewhat of a draw for tourists, the local character remains and you can be sure that no one cares what you’re talking about. Fortify yourself appropriately with a Natty Boh and a shot of Jim Beam, say your piece, and get out. Steps from the Capitol, the Tune Inn is perfect for overworked and underpaid Hill staffers to spill the beans on their bosses.

The Dubliner (4 F St NW)

Arguably the best Irish pub in our fair city, this establishment offers a dark wooden bar, dim lights, and a properly poured Guinness. Live music starts at 9 pm nightly, so plan accordingly so as to not have to shout over a rendition of “Wild Rover.” Obvious beverage choices include a pint of the black stuff or a quick Jameson. Located across from Union Station, the Dubliner is ideal for someone looking to get out of town quickly. Finish your drink and hop on the next Acela headed north.

Eighteenth Street Lounge (1212 18th St NW)

If you’re looking to make a quick handoff, have a few words, and be on your way, Eighteenth Street Lounge is a superb choice. It becomes more of a dance and jazz club as the night goes on, but the hustle and bustle would create a nice cover for a secret exchange. Furthermore, a maze of different bars, rooms, and private seating areas make this an ideal space to drop a tail, if you suspect you’re being followed. Order a Hendrick’s & Tonic with a healthy squeeze of lime.

Church & State (1236 H NE – Upstairs)

The speakeasy trend has probably reached a saturation point in DC (if not nationally) and I’m breaking my own rule by pulling you out into the less central and hipster-rich H Street corridor (but we have a functioning streetcar now!). However, Church & State is a great pick. Dim lighting, the perfect level of conversation buzz, and converted church pews and confessionals give you the ideal level of secrecy. As a bonus, all the spirits they serve are from the good old U-S of A, so if you’re caught you can easily deny being a commie. This is good choice if you’re settling in for a long chat and particularly if your handler is picking up the tab. They have a rotating cocktail menu but order one of their great Manhattans made with Old Overholt Rye.

So as to save myself an indictment as a collaborator to any breaches of national security, please don’t use this information to break the law. Thanks. The above establishments are all bars that illustrate the rich and broad drinking culture of our wonderful capital and are suitable for all sorts of conversations and evenings out, from the innocent to the felonious. With that said, I believe that if you are going to do something you should do it properly, with class, and ideally, with a drink in hand. Happy leaking!


James Sheehan is a homebrewer and cider-maker. He holds an MA in Terrorism, Security, and Society from King’s College London.


Photo credit: Becky Stern