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Posted at 3:32 PM ET, 06/22/2007

Explorations in Bethesda

By Fritz Hahn

I've taken some stick in the past for dismissing Bethesda's nightlife, which boils down to a couple of Irish pubs, a decent brewery, random sports bars and a pair of lounges with live R&B groups and hip-hop DJs. Reliable, but not very exciting. The reasons for this paucity are murky. Montgomery County has to be full of people in their 20s and 30s who would prefer options in their own backyard over heading to Washington for a night out. Right?

News that two bars had opened in Bethesda raised my hopes, so I spent one happy hour this week checking them out.

First up was a trip to Gator Alley Cocktail Bar and Grill, which opened its doors to the public on Monday in the old Uncle Jed's Roadhouse space. The funky dive interior has been replaced with decor that can only be termed "mid-level chain steakhouse." Boring yellow walls are peppered with framed vintage prints advertising Taittinger champagne and Martini vermouth -- you know, the kind you buy at Target for My First Bachelor Pad. The friend who was meeting me there had arrived earlier, and she texted to say it was TOO LOUD inside. She was right. Sitting side by side at the heavy wooden bar, we were nearly shouting to hear each other over the top 40 music blasting from the row of speakers overhead.

At least the happy hour has potential: From 4 to 7, all rail drinks are $3, and most domestic beers (Budweiser, Yuengling, Miller Lite, Blue Moon, etc.) are $2.50. Stella's a buck more, and Guinness costs $3.75. My Yuengling arrived in a frozen pint glass, which was covered in chunks of ice and proceeded to melt all over the bar. If you're meeting friends, spring for a $9.99 pitcher. Appetizer specials vary by day and include the usual plates of wings and loaded quesadillas.

I noticed a PA system set up in the rear of the room, near a parquet floor that would be very easy to clear for a dance area. According to a manager, they haven't decided what, if any, entertainment will be offered. For now, it's used by happy hour groups and private parties.

We finished our drinks and headed down to Vegas Bar and Grill, which replaced the lackluster Paradise Restaurant near the intersection of Wisconsin and Bethesda avenues.

The bartender introduced himself as we grabbed stools at the paint-flecked counter, which had been assaulted by a wanna-be Jackson Pollack. Save for a few small Texas Hold 'Em signs on the wall behind the bar, Vegas lacks glitz and a discernible gambling theme. I imagine the darkly colored, dimly lit tavern would have been topped with swirls of cigarette smoke a few years ago and, for some reason, it reminds me of the kind of dive that predominates in college towns, not Bethesda.

The brightest spot in the otherwise bland room is a pair of couches across from the flat-screen television. At least happy hour is cheap: $2 domestics and $3 rail drinks between 4 and 7 on weekdays, plus a $5 food menu of such inspired choices as a pound of wings, mozzarella sticks and cheese poppers.

Vegas is taking an aggressive stance with its late-night entertainment, hosting DJs and serving drink specials Wednesday through Saturday. On Wednesdays and Fridays, there's a optional open bar from 8 to 10 for $15. Wednesday is also ladies' night, with half-price drinks for women all night. (Men console themselves with $2 Miller Lite drafts.) Thursday has karaoke with a promised "15,000 songs to choose from" and $2 drinks with a college ID. Fridays and Saturdays have DJs spinning Top 40, hip-hop and "club music," while Sundays feature occasional live bands. There's actually room to dance, too, thanks to a barstool-lined patch of floor near the front door.

Neither of these bars is going to become a destination or set the town alight, but if you find yourself looking for a place to meet for happy hour in Bethesda, the prices may be right.

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | June 22, 2007; 3:32 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Too bad the owner of that spot where Gator Alley is couldn't work out a deal with Jed's - it was the best in town. Sounds like a lackluster replacement that won't last long and will serve the property owner right for overcharging for the spot.

Posted by: Missing Jed's | June 24, 2007 8:27 PM | Report abuse

You mention two new mediocre places but you didn't check out the best new happy hour in Bethesda. At Rarely Legal Grille's upstairs bar from 4:30 to 8:00 you can get $2 twenty-four ounce drafts, $5 for rails the same size, not to mention half price appetizers and a $3 bar food menu to go with it. It's by far the best deal in Bethesda!

Posted by: Michael | June 26, 2007 3:27 PM | Report abuse

Bethesda has been a veritable wasteland ever since McDonald's Raw Bar was razed to build Metro access. Twist and Shout provided a flicker of halogen-like brightness, but alas...VFW liquor licenses don't allow for using the place as a nightclub. And don't get me started on the Psychedelly....

Posted by: 102.3 - Triangle Towers | June 27, 2007 4:35 PM | Report abuse

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