Washington D.C.’s Capitol Lounge

Washington D.C.’s Capitol Lounge


They say there are two things you don’t discuss in a bar – religion and politics. I can’t say I’ve ever preached a sermon while drinking a cold one (though I’ve asked for God’s help many a morning after), but I’ll admit that, after a couple of stiff whiskies, I’ve railed against the government from atop my barstool. And I’m certainly not alone.

It’s a good rule, though, meant to keep people tame and civil—a tough order when they’re throwing back shots on a late Friday night. Bartenders know that fights begin with simple disagreements about the complicated happenings of our government and elected officials, so it's better just to keep your mouth shut about it.

That was the rule at the Capitol Lounge, a small dive located only two blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Popular with Hill staffers, college students, and sports fans, this place was rabidly non-partisan. Their motto, proudly displayed throughout, was “No Politics. No Miller Lite.” Discussions about politics were strictly forbidden, and bartenders regulated it with a heavy hand, yelling at customers to “shut up” if they caught them in discussions about the city’s main industry. Avoiding the subject was not easy, but customers seemed to manage it.

On any given night, interns from opposing senators might play a pool game or cheer on their respective soccer teams, and the Capitol Lounge brought them together. That’s what a bar should always do, but with its simple yet firmly followed mandate, this bar turned opponents into drunken allies who were somehow able to find common ground. Truly, it was an uncommon place.

Opened in May 1996, the Capitol Lounge (or the Cap Lounge to regulars) had a rocky start. Not getting much traffic, they started serving drinks at rock-bottom prices, like $.25 draft specials and $2.00 house amber ales (remember when prices were that low?). A simple menu was added, and soon enough, cheap wings (also $.25) and half-priced pizzas followed.

Cheap food and drinks do eventually draw a crowd – a broke crowd. Sure enough, the place quickly became a go-to for young revelers; it was the bar known for its inexpensive drinks. Not the kind of economic model to make an owner rich. But the Lounge hung on and defied the odds, and soon its authentic charm eventually wore down the hard-drinking curmudgeons of the Hill. Before you knew it, the blue suit-wearing crowd began dropping in, then off-duty cops, then the dam burst, and the Capitol Lounge had arrived.

They never grew pretentious but remained honest, their motto never changing.

By the way, speaking of their motto, as it clearly stated, they didn’t serve Miller Lite. The story goes that early on the beer company’s delivery driver kept dropping off the weekly shipment during the Lounge’s busy happy hour – a definite no-no when bartenders and managers alike are swamped with orders. On one hectic night, the manager had enough, canceled the order, pulled it off the taps completely, and stubbornly refused to ever put it back on.

Anyway, for 26 fun-filled years, the Lounge fostered a sense of community in a town more known for tribalism, jealousy, and bitter opposition. On occasion a newcomer might violate the Cap Lounge’s cardinal rule, only to quickly be put in their place by the regulars. Their error was quickly forgiven and forgotten, as warm congeniality easily took the place of vitriol.

The Cap Lounge was more than just a place to tie one on. It was a destination or a meeting place, maybe even a community center. At this same little bar, enemies became acquaintances, acquaintances became friends, and (sometimes) strangers became couples.

But sadly, nothing is meant to last.

COVID-19 restrictions seriously put the hurt on the hospitality industry of our nation’s capital. The Cap Lounge, like all other bars and restaurants during those heady days of the shutdown, tried its best to hold on. It sold mixed drinks to go by the gallon and offered even cheaper prices on its pub grub but to no avail. Its revenue dropped from $45,000 a week to about $5,000. It still sounds like a lot of money, but that wouldn’t make payroll, the tab for weekly beer and booze deliveries, or the costs for food ingredients.

On September 20, 2020, a final crowd of regulars got their drink on at the Cap Lounge. The booze flowed, and memories were wiped clean for the last time. Politics, as usual, weren’t allowed – except for some venom directed towards certain safety protocols and guidelines.

For a city, hell, a country, mired in “us-vs-them,” the Cap Lounge was a welcome respite. It was an oasis in a desert of civility. It is sorely missed.

If there’s a place like this in your area, treasure it. They don’t come around that often, and they’re getting more and more difficult to find.

So, thank you Capitol Lounge for your years of service and all you did in making life in a tough city just a little bit easier.