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Despite phased reopening, Hill happy hours may take a long time to return

You can ‘relax’ after work, but forget serendipity

Dacha Beer Garden in the Shaw neighborhood reopened in May. Now the District is eyeing Phase 2 of its reopening plan.
Dacha Beer Garden in the Shaw neighborhood reopened in May. Now the District is eyeing Phase 2 of its reopening plan. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

You’ve made it to Thursday, which may as well be Friday, and you’re about to text your friends to meet up for a drink. Of course they’ll say yes, because it’s “bucket night.”

That’s what life was like for many Hill staffers in the Before Times. With the District looking to move into the second phase of its reopening plan as soon as next week, can happy hour go back to normal?

Not likely, says Raman Santra, who runs the popular blog Barred in D.C. He has a pretty good feel for the city’s bar culture, after drinking at more than 250 of them over the years. 

For starters, serendipity is dead.

“Some of those more spontaneous kinds of interactions with people, networking or just meeting up with new people, is not going to happen,” says Santra. 

Outdoor seating resumed at the end of May, after the pandemic put a stop to dining out for more than two months. Right now you can “relax” on the patio at hangouts like Union Pub and Capitol Lounge, but the term is relative. You have to make a reservation in advance, which feels strange when the vibe is less “white tablecloth” than “sticky table.”

Reservations are encouraged but not required by the city, while other rules are nonnegotiable. Before you can order that bucket of Bud Light or plate of $2 sliders, you’ll have to limit your party size to six people, and whatever you do, resist the urge to cluster, cruise or otherwise mingle while standing up. 

Mayor Muriel Bowser said during a press conference this week that the next phase of reopening could begin as soon as Monday if the city hits its metrics, including a sustained decline in community spread. Bowser said she would make her decision on Friday.

During Phase 2, indoor service can return at 50 percent capacity, with tables at least 6 feet apart. That’s good news for places with overtaxed patios or no outdoor space at all. Still, it doesn’t mean mingling is back on the agenda. Standing is still banned, and “patrons may only be served at a restaurant bar if patrons are seated at least 6 feet apart and no bartender is working behind the bar,” according to the D.C. Department of Health. 

Another requirement: food. Watering holes must offer at least three prepared food options, and each table must order one.

Regardless of the reopening schedule, the biggest factor in happy hour culture could be the return of workers to the Hill. As many staffers keep working remotely, “it’s not going to be one of those situations where you’re going to be able to run into people in other offices,” Santra says.

You can still test the idealism that inspired you to public service by downing a bunch of tater tots piled on top of nachos. But with fewer political types around to talk a little too loudly about their jobs, the eavesdropping won’t be as good.

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Santra sees a happy hour future in which people are less likely to venture out of the bubbles they’ve already created at work. When Phase 3 kicks in, he predicts an uptick in small office outings of 10 to 15 people. “I think people there might feel more comfortable hanging out if they’re already together during the day,” he says.

A federal government lawyer by day, Santra has been updating his blog and tweeting regularly during the pandemic, documenting how the shutdown has upended drinking culture in the District. He already had a passion for explaining the nuances of liquor licensing. Now he’s tracking the big shifts in local policy that have happened seemingly overnight, like to-go drink orders and expanded outdoor seating.

Those two changes are positive, says Santra, who can imagine more outdoor dining ultimately transforming destinations like Eastern Market or Barracks Row. But there are plenty of downsides too. For one thing, a lot of places (maybe even a quarter, Santra estimates) won’t make it. 

Around the Capitol, any lasting shift toward remote work could spell trouble for longtime hangouts. “They won’t be coming to work [just] for happy hour,” he says of staffers. 

Correction, 7:26 p.m. |  An earlier version of this story misstated the timeline for Phase 3 reopening.

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