More than just serving drinks, if done properly, a good bar will make you feel welcome, isn’t stuffy or snooty, and is a place where regulars and newcomers can go for good conversation, to try new wines, sip a few brews, or try a few cocktails. There are wine bars, beer bars, cocktail bars, dive bars, and taverns and gastropubs; they are all variations on a theme. Some serve food and booze; others are just there for the liquid diversion. No matter what the genre, they exist in Bethesda in all their glorious varieties.
Bar, Restaurant, Italian, $$$
Bethesda diners know that for authentic Tuscan food, sensational drinks, and stunning interiors, they should head to award-winning Chef Francesco Ricci’s Cesco Osteria and CO2 Lounge. Francesco puts as much emphasis on the bar as he does the restaurant, and it shows. Subdued lighting, black and white accents, ebony wood, and live music performances are reminiscent of Florentine bôites. Look for classic Italian cocktails like Negroni and newer drinks like the Aperol spritzer, and try them paired with an affettati misti (an Italian cured meat platter) or arancini. Now you know why CO2 is a hot spot for pre- and post-theater meetups.
Chef Robert Wiedmaier has made a name for himself with his Belgian-inspired taverns, bars, and restaurants, and this old standby has been on Restaurant Row since 2010. For a while now, Mussel Bar and Grille is where expats and hipsters go to slurp bowls filled with moules et frites, sample Flemish waffles, eat carbonade, and drink from the extensive list of craft beer from Belgium and the United States.
Sandwiched in the Wildwood Shopping Center, with salons and expensive boutiques, just off the Beltway is one of Bethesda’s best-kept secrets: Wildwood Kitchen. It’s another of Robert Wiedmaier’s outlets, and it veers off in a wonderful direction: Mediterranean cuisine. The cozy bar in the corner is where you want to go for super mixed drinks, especially the perfectly prepared dirty martinis. The bartender goes old school and employs a James Bond approach to the recipe: very cold timeless Plymouth gin and Dolin dry vermouth are combined with olive juice and garnished with three olives. Voila, you have the perfect dirty martini.
Serious students of the elusive perfect martini can spend a lifetime looking for the drink that will satisfy their insatiable quest. The owners of Olazzo feel your pain and do their best to serve the perfect cure at their martini bar. They are martini agnostics and are willing to consider that there is intelligent life beyond gin and vodka. At Olazzo, Italian cuisine shares center stage with the martini bar, which serves more than a dozen different riffs on martinis like the Italian-style Brooklyn martini made with prosecco and gin.
Bar, Restaurant, Mexican, Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten-free, $$$
Gringos & Mariachis, Bethesda | Courtesy of Gringos and Mariachis
If you like Olazzo, the other restaurant owned by the Pietrobono brothers, this is a drastic departure, but the South of the Border menu is tasty. Think Mexican street food meets tequila, whiskey, and delicious cocktails. Exposed brick walls and shaded charcoal Mexican-themed murals reference Mexico City side streets, and at night, this is a taco-burrito-torta-fueled party for millennials. Gringos & Mariachis gets loud, but if you’re game, dive in, order one of the original margaritas, and go with the flow.
Vino Volo is a wine bar, café, and wine shop all in one and reimagines how people eat, drink, and buy wine. If you’ve traveled by air, chances are you’ve seen a Vino Volo in the airport – that’s how they got their start. Used wine barrels are turned into bar stools for the wine bar and display cases for the wine; carved wooden wine boxes line the walls to display prized bottles, and the friendly staff whirl around the café ready with suggestions of what wine to pair with a meal. Vino Volo wants to change attitudes about wine by educating consumers at tastings in the wine bar and by showing them the art of pairing them with dishes from the restaurant. And judging from the busy bar and restaurant, they’re making progress.
Big screen TVs (lots of them), sports memorabilia on the walls, and a golf theme are what newcomers see, but regulars love Caddies on Cordell for the camaraderie with other sports fanatics and the stadium food that is just like being at the game. Order a burger or sandwich, but check out the drinks menu. The management knows it’s important to stay hydrated during long games, so they’ve stocked a full bar that includes terrific martinis, quenching shandy, beer on tap and in bottles, and a respectable wine list – this is a sports bar, after all.
Redwood Restaurant and Bar treats everyone like a local. A casual but elegant stalwart on Restaurant Row since 2008, the theme for the food and drink is fresh, local, and organic. Redwood’s drink menu features classic cocktails like Manhattans, seasonal cocktails, or drinks with local lore behind their origins like the Rickey Bobby. The white marble bar and comfy high-backed chairs make it easy to linger, so order a few appetizers and relax in the dark wood- and glass-accented interior.
TapaBar feels like it was plucked from Barcelona and dropped into Bethesda intact. The owners, the Roche brothers, have managed to capture the distinct Catalonian vibe that combines urban industrial chic with raw wood and stainless steel, and things are kept upbeat by the natural light that streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows. The food and the drinks menu exude the spirited flavors of Spain, with new twists on classic Spanish tapas served with inventive drinks. TapaBar is where you want to eat, see the beautiful people, watch the world go by, and sip on dreamy cocktails like the Ava Gardner, which is smooth and easy to drink thanks to an enticing blend of cava, vodka, framboise, cassis, and raspberries.
Sit by the fireplace and drink a hearty red wine in winter, enjoy seasonal beers during summertime, and take part in the fall-favorite Oktoberfest by having brews until you snooze. American Tap Room is a rustic, friendly place for homestyle American comfort food complemented by 20 beers on tap, about 25 in bottles, and some in cans, mostly from America. American Tap Room celebrates the patriotic craft of brewing beer in America like they did back in Boston in the 1600s. The styles range from light and crisp lagers by Devils Backbone from Virginia to Bell’s hoppy Two Hearted American IPA from Michigan.