Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The King Street crawl

I was in America for three weeks or so at the start of July, mostly in Alexandria, VA, just over the river from Washington, DC. I didn't go out drinking all that much (by my egregious standards), but there were half a dozen or so notable evenings I feel I should commemorate over the next few days.

King Street is the main drag of Old Town, the high tone, 'olde worlde' enclave of historic housing in the heart of Alexandria. Stretching over a mile from the river to the Metro station, it has become fairly solidly lined with boutiques, restaurants... and bars.

Unfortunately, most of those bars are expensive, and a bit shit. And most of the ones I liked seem to have closed or been elaborately revamped in recent years. On that whole strip, I think there are now only three bars I would ever bother to go to; bars that, fortuitously, are within just a few yards of each other; and bars which I happen to have known for a good many years now, since they are just around the corner from where my very good friends in Old Town used to live (though they moved nearer the river about five or six years ago).

The opening port of call - and the unlikeliest, from my point of view - is a place called Vermillion. The place invokes a lot of my hot button prejudices. It doesn't sound like a bar: that's a name for a wine bar or a restaurant. It doesn't look like a bar: its twee - and uncannily inconspicuous - frontage gives the impression that it's likely to be a tea shop or an antiques emporium (and you can't really see very much inside through the one small window in the isolated front room of the bar). And it is a bit yuppified. But... it is properly dark within; the staff are very good; the drinks and food are excellent; and it's surprisingly reasonably priced (particularly during happy hour!). The bar is rather cheesily ornate (we joked that it's the kind of bar you might fantasise about installing in your basement), and it's not the kind of place where you'd sit at the bar; definitely more a plush-booth-with-a-coterie-of-well-heeled-friends kind of hangout. I don't get on so well with the 'well-heeled' thing; but I don't hate the place. For a group meet-up, it's fine; but it doesn't work for the solo drinker. And, for me, it doesn't have any ambience.

Luckily, it is only one or two doors away from the Tiffany Tavern, one of the oldest established bars in the area, and a basic, downhome, mom&pop-owned neighbourhood boozer (I was sad to learn that the old Greek guy I'd met behind the bar on a number of previous occasions passed away a year or two ago; his widow is now keeping the place going on her own): good burgers, good draught beer, and a really LONG wooden bar (the main reason I tend to love American bars so much!). It also has a long tradition as a focus for the local music scene, with very good acoustic open mic events almost every night, and a decent band on Fridays and Saturdays (the sign in the window boasts "The best burgers and bluegrass in town", and it seems a reasonable claim).

And just over the road from the Tiffany is the Rock-It Grill (one of the very first bars I ever celebrated on here, nearly 6 years ago). The Rock-It is bland and modern and too spacious, lacking in obvious charm - but it does have a distinct personality. My previous experiences of it had mostly been during the daytime, when it's not too busy (allowing plenty of opportunity to flirt with the invariably rather cute barmaids) and the happy hour tariff is in force. By night, it is dramatically transformed: much larger and more raucous crowds flock to it - it reminds me at times of Bob's Country Bunker in the Blues Brothers film. Karaoke has become the key draw there, but the standard - mercifully - is generally quite high. Blue-collar America in the raw: occasionally a tad intimidating, but mostly rather fun.

Any one of these bars can provide you with a very entertaining - though each very different! - night out. Combining all three of them in one evening is probably a bit excessive... but I just couldn't resist.

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