WASHINGTON - When visiting friends and family members ask you to take them to "a real D.C. bar," they're thinking of the archetypal political watering hole, where there are framed pictures of famous faces on the wall, cozy tables and chairs for two, and a sense that boldfaced names (or less-famous journalists) could be ordering martinis with a side of gossip.
Located just across the street from the White House, the Hay-Adams hotel's Off the Record bar ticks all the boxes. Its inconspicuous location in the basement makes it seem like exactly the kind of place power brokers would arrange for a rendezvous. Plush red wingback chairs and comfortable banquettes surround a large island bar, and more than a century's worth of political cartoons and caricatures cover the walls. A nine-person booth dubbed "the bench" features portraits of each of the current Supreme Court justices, plus a ceremonial gavel in the middle of the table. The free bar snacks - olives, salty nuts, pickles - are the best in town.
But Off the Record has another clear advantage over most D.C. hotspots: You can take home free, collectible souvenirs, in the form of drink coasters.
We know. You don't need more coasters cluttering your coffee table or home bar. But the ones found at Off the Record are original works of art on cardboard. Pick up a cocktail and you might find former vice president Joe Biden flashing a toothy grin and raising a beer, while the coaster under your chardonnay could show former president George W. Bush serving his successor, Barack Obama, a glass of wine.
Commissioned exclusively for the hotel, the striking images are created by award-winning political cartoonists Matt Wuerker, Ann Telnaes and Kevin "KAL" Kallaugher. Wuerker and Telnaes have won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning for Politico and The Washington Post, respectively; Kallaugher, the longtime cartoonist for the Baltimore Sun and the Economist, is a two-time winner of the National Press Foundation's Berryman Award, most recently in 2017.
The coasters were dreamed up by Hans Bruland, the hotel's general manager, as a gimmick in 2014. The original six included former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, former House speaker John Boehner and that dual portrait of Bush and Obama, and Bruland soon realized that he'd have to keep the faces fresh. Several times each year, he emails the trio of cartoonists to solicit ideas for new images. "We work in collaboration - what's hot, what's not," Bruland says. "They know what's newsworthy and what would be fun in the bar."
While dozens of modern and historical political cartoons cover Off the Record's walls, Bruland thinks that having similar images in front of each guest makes the atmosphere at the bar more social: "People sitting at the bar start conversations, and they'll trade coasters," he says. "They'll ask each other, 'Who's that?' because some guests, they recognize Biden, but they might not know Kamala Harris. It's easy exchanges with strangers."
Three dozen cartoons have been commissioned over the past five years, and between eight and 10 coasters are in rotation at any time. The latest additions, unveiled in September, are Wuerker cartoons starring Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., with a supporting cast of Biden, Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., former congressman Beto O'Rourke, D-Texas, and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Wuerker says the new batch shows only Democrats because the Hay-Adams wanted "to get some new coasters related to the presidential campaign that was starting to heat up."
Each new coaster means a matching cocktail is added to the menu. Among the latest batch is the Bern Baby Bern, a sweet-and-spicy mix that includes Makers Mark bourbon and apple cider lemonade, for $20. (Some will make jokes about a Sanders-themed drink that expensive. At least the bar snacks are free.)
Of the coasters available on a recent visit, five show only Democrats and two feature Republicans (President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence), in addition to the bipartisan one with Bush and Obama. You can thank the primaries, though, rather than any bias from the cartoonists: The ratio was skewed the other direction in 2016, because of the crowded Republican field.
The coaster featuring Harris, who recently ended her presidential bid, highlights one of the most important considerations for the coasters: longevity. The Hay-Adams pays cartoonists for the rights for the image and then pays to print (and possibly reprint) thousands of coasters, so they want to feature politicians who will stick in the national consciousness for at least a few months. (Don't hold your breath waiting for another chance to grab Kallaugher's 2016 coaster of Ben Carson dropping an olive into his martini with a pair of forceps.)
"With the rapid turnover in the current administration, it's been tough to pick characters that are going to stick around," Wuerker explains. "We were going to do a Sean Spicer but he got the heave-ho before we committed him to a coaster."
A selection of foreign leaders have also made appearances, including a shirtless Russian President Vladimir Putin doing shots of vodka with a bear, and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who pours from a bottle of "Bomb Bay Gin" while six previous presidents - depicted as framed caricatures on Off the Record's wall - watch with horrified expressions.
As the coasters have become more popular, the bar has made them tougher to get. Each customer who enters the bar has two coasters put in front of them: One for a water glass, and one for their adult beverage. (You can immediately take the coaster out from under your glass if you don't want to damage it, but the server or bartender won't instantly give you another one.)
"When we'd keep them on the bar, people would just take a stack," Bruland laments, and the coasters ran out too quickly. "Someone sits there for lunch, they're not greedy, they might take one or two." Later in the night, he says, fingers get more sticky, and a group of five or six might pilfer 25 coasters between them. (At the same time, Bruland is happy to share stories about guests from Seattle to London who've sent the bar pictures of their framed collections of coasters.)
When a friend and I recently met for happy hour at Off the Record, we got only two of the three new coasters. On our way out, my friend politely asked the bartender if he could give her the last one - Warren carrying a "binder of plans" - which was happily handed over. In a city full of bars focused on politics, this one's a front-runner.
IF YOU GO:
Off the Record, in the Hay-Adams hotel, 800 16th St. NW., Washington, D.C. Open daily.