Stan's is only blocks from the White House, but it's easy to miss.
It’s happy hour at Stan’s Restaurant — an eatery and bar a block north of McPherson Square in downtown Washington.
People are starting to trickle in from the surrounding office buildings, but I beat most of them here and have staked out some prime real estate at the already crowded bar. That’s where I meet Frances (who didn’t want us to use her last name), a Louisiana native who’s been frequenting this dive for more than a decade.
“There are lots and lots of dive bars in New Orleans frequented by regulars and by tourists alike,” she replies when asked to describe the legendary bar scene in her hometown.
Transitioning from a place like New Orleans was difficult at first. “I didn’t think was any place like this quite frankly,” she says. “The first few years I was here I didn’t know it existed.”
That’s not surprising. Stan’s is a basement bar, and you’d likely be forgiven if you walked past the entrance without noticing it. But what Stan’s lacks in location it more than makes up for in ambiance.
“Oh, it’s a very dark bar and at night it gets even darker,” explains Frances. “We like that though because we look so good in the candle light. Everybody thinks you’re beautiful until you walk outside. And then they go ‘Oh my god! Who are you?!’”
This restaurant and bar was founded more than three decades ago by its namesake Stan Gimble, but it’s been the lifelong love of current owner Cathy Schwass. She actually worked for Stan long before she was the boss.
“I waited tables; I was a bar tender here for at least 20 years,” says Cathy. “Then [Stan] was going to close down in the early 90s and so then I bought it. I just didn’t want to look for another job. And it was like a dream come true. I always wanted a bar. It was just in my heart.”
I hope that if anything happens to me that someone else will come along and at least keep the name going and the tradition," she says.
What is that tradition?
“The large drinks and good food and good conversation and wonderful people,” she shoots back with a smile.
The bar claims to be home to the “Best Damn Drink in Town,” and those large drinks certainly help back that up.
“I pour like three to four ounces of liquor and put the juice on the side,” explains Cathy. “Then you mix it yourself and so you get your own taste on how you like your drink.”
Cathy doesn’t claim to have invented this unusual method of serving.
“Stan got that idea,” she admits. “That’s the way he always did it. I tried to change it but it didn’t work. They weren’t going for that.”
According to bar regular Frances, those healthy pours can have consequences.
“You have to be careful because you have to go back up the steps to the street,” she says giggling. “So you have to keep that in mind. That’s not so easy if you’ve had more than one or two. Not that I would know about having more than one or two.”
That’s a very important point. When you’re in a basement bar you have to have an escape plan, and many of the patrons at Stan’s know that escape plan by heart.
“I would say 98.5 percent are regular customers which you can see almost every night,” says Joaquin Guevara, whose been serving the crowd here since 1987.
Those regulars help create an interesting and diverse atmosphere.
“It’s a bar where politics and sports and whatever is going on in the world is discussed by everybody,” says Frances. “It’s kind of interesting microcosm of the world because you’ve got Democrats and Republicans, black and white, young and old. And it’s just a good mix of folks to have conversations with.”
The bar is also in the shadow of the White House. Because of that location, bar regular John Daniels says Stan’s attracts a surprisingly international crowd. “I’ve seen people from Russia, New Zealand, France, Georgia," he says.
John even met the love of his life in the bar.
“I met my wife here at Stan’s Restaurant,” explains Daniels. “And we’ve been married ever since 1999 and we’re still married today. That was the best day of my life.”
According to bartender Kelley Kreidel, that’s not uncommon. She estimates that about 30 couples have met here.
“I have served people that are throwing a birthday party for their parents—grown people—and they said their parents met at Stan’s,” says Kreidel.
John Daniels says there’s no single reason why so many regulars have fallen in love throughout the years. The bar just sets the stage.
“This is the place to come when you want to relax, have a good libation, and good food.”
The mood lighting probably doesn’t hurt either.