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Posted at 10:26 AM ET, 10/ 5/2009

First Sips: Social and the Reserve

By Fritz Hahn

While I was roaming the city the other night, I made pit stops at a pair of lounges: the two-week-old Reserve on L Street NW, where you'll find an extended happy hour and live jazz targeted at downtown office workers, and the month-old Social in Columbia Heights, a homey place for cocktails with a lively atmosphere.

The Reserve
1428 L St. NW
Quick take: The former Ollie's Trolley has been remade into a tapas lounge and bar. The change is evident before you even approach the front door, since the façade now resembles a Baltimore rowhouse, thanks to a coating of what looks like Formstone. Inside, the two levels are done up in the shiny-mahogany-and-sconces look that Marc Barnes's lounges made so famous. (Barnes, of course, has admitted to borrowing the idea from D.C.'s high-end law firms: who wouldn't want to get their drink on in a fancy office?)

The decor is sparse: there's a bar with a pair of flat-screen TVs behind it and along the wall, pairs of low leather loveseats that serve as booths. (On weekends, they're prime seats for bottle service, complete with $600 bottles of Cristal.) The biggest visual may be the open kitchen tucked into one corner of the first floor, directly across from the bar.

Drinks: The biggest appeal of the Reserve, for me, is its happy hour, which runs from 5 until 9 every weekday, and includes $5 cocktails, bottled beers and selected wines by the glass. The $5 for a "rail" drink sounds unremarkable, but the Reserve's rail is actually a step up from most after-work destinations: Order a plain-old gin and tonic, for example, and your drink is made with Tanqueray. (Outside of happy hour, when a "rail" is closer to $8-$12, this may be a budget-buster, but not at happy hour.

When both of the women I was with ordered wine, the bartender poured a small taste into the glass, swirled it around, and told them to try it before he poured a full serving. If only more places did that. Social has a decent wines-by-the-glass list, mainly French and New World varieties, which cost $6-11 per pour.

Food: I wasn't really interested in the tapas menu, though I snacked on a $9 plate of "tequenos of queso blanco," which resembled mini-taquitos of smooth white cheese, wrapped in what tasted like fried wonton wrappers, similar to crab Rangoon. A very light snack, they came with a guacamole dip. Food is served from 5 to 1; the planned late-night dinner menu hasn't started yet.

Good to know: The Reserve's entertainment schedule is still in flux as it builds toward the grand opening, which will happen the week of Oct. 8. The bar plans to have live jazz on weeknights during happy hour and dinner service and DJs spinning lounge music from 10 p.m. until close Thursday through Saturday.

While the Reserve requires the purchase of a bottle for seats on weekends, and you can grab those $600 bottles of Cristal, you can also purchase a bottle of wine instead, for a much more affordable night out. There's no cover charge.

1400 Meridian Pl. NW

Quick take: Columbia Heights's bar scene continues to grow with the addition of Social, which boasts the neighborhood's first true lounge. Like its upstairs restaurant, Social's basement-level lounge -- dubbed "The Cellar" -- is decorated as if it's someone's home, with old family portraits on the walls (courtesy of the owners), large leather sofas and ottomans and tall lamps with retro-funky shades. (All the furniture comes from designers Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams.) It's cozy, inviting and exactly the kind of place where you want to linger with friends.

The first thing you see when you come in the door from 14th Street is a large, handsome wood bar, surrounded by occupied barstools. It's nice, but I'd take those ottomans every time. (Service doesn't suffer, because the bartenders walk around to the adjacent lounge area to see if you need a fresh drink, want to order food or have any questions.)

Drinks: There are half-a-dozen cocktails on the menu, and my friends and I would happily have taken a second round of everything we tried. The CoHi Corner, which should lose points for using that abbreviation for Columbia Heights, is outstanding -- Hendricks gin gets right amount of both sweet and spice when it's muddled with mango puree and chili pepper. Almost as good was Engine #11, which drew our interest because it sounded so summery (Hanger One vodka, ginger-basil syrup and muddled strawberry). It was nowhere near as sweet as we'd envisioned; the ginger and basil combined with the strawberry had a robust, not sugary, taste.

If you're not in the mood for cocktails, there are 10 wines by the glass ($7-$12, mostly at the low end of that scale) and a handful of bottled beers at average-to-high prices, including $6 for Stella and $7 for the Victory Hop Devil IPA.

Happy hour, which runs from 4 to 7 every day, includes $3 Bud Lights, a $5 specialty cocktail of the day, $5 rail drinks (again, these are "rails" that use Stoli or Tanqueray instead of cheap stuff) and $5 glasses of red or white wine.

Food: Everything on the menu comes in three sizes -- the smallest, which our server referred to as the "intimate" portion -- is for one or two people. The deliciously caramelized Vietnamese pulled pork sliders, for example, which were piled with spicy slaw, cost $8 for a serving of three or $14 for six.

Good to know: The brand-new Sunday brunch, which starts at 11, includes the option of $15 all-you-can-drink bloody marys and mimosas.

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | October 5, 2009; 10:26 AM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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