Bars and the City

Bars have also carried with them the stigma of locations of ill-repute, vice, underage drinking, brawling, and debauchery. While many bars have rightfully earned these reputations, these pre-conceived notions can also blind us to the important role bars have and continue to play in American cities, culture, and society.

The Historic Social Aspect of Bars:

Being Urban: A Sociology of City Life, a book that studies the sociology of places, suggests that there are few locations other than bars where urban strangers “can suspend the normal rules of disengagement and participate in..quasi-intimate relationships.”(Karp 110)  Not only are bars places where strangers can become friends they are also platforms “on which persons vie for status, esteem, and recognition.” (Karp 246)

Researchers suggest that in regards to these social aspects bars and taverns are comparable to the coffeehouses of London and Parisian salons. However, unlike these European establishments, that may have been more selective towards clientele, in bars and “taverns people could mix together: you see men drinking alongside the people they work for.” (Smithsonian, 2011)


This important social aspect, the blending of social groups, can be seen in bars across America and in Georgetown’s past. Some examples: Nathan’s used to host a question and answer lunch with local influential Washingtonians, connecting residents with politicians. The Cellar Door and the Bayou offered intimate concert locations where fans could watch their favorite artist in an intimate setting and often meet them after the show, connecting artist and fan. Martin’s Tavern remains a favorite spot for both tourist, neighbors, and politicians. The Third Edition and The Tombs act and acted as gathering spots for both students and neighbors. Bars such as Winston’s and Crazy horse attracted young adults from Maryland and Virginia, visiting Marines, and college students from GW and American. (Berger, 1982)

The Washington Post article “Georgetown After Dark : Loud, Lively and Preppy Too” sums up the social role of Georgetown’s bars best as: “The need for human contact draws many to bars in Georgetown. In Mr. Smith’s, while the young frolic in the garden patio, older patrons get melancholy around the piano bar, singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” and “Edelweiss,” harmonizing with strangers in a minor key.” (Berger, 1982)

Georgetown’s Historic “Neighborhood” Identity:

Georgetown bars helped shape Georgetown’s unique identity as a neighborhood within a city. In a Washington Post article, a visitor described going out in Georgetown as “like being at home almost, like your own neighborhood…Every time you come here you see someone you haven’t seen in a long time, someone you grew up with. You can stand and talk and see the sights.” (Berger, 1982) People even went as far as describing Georgetown as “Washington’s front porch” where “people bump into old friends, and make new ones.” (Berger, 1982) In this sense, Georgetown’s past bars helped make Georgetown into a going out destination and ultimately a neighborhood for everyone to feel at home.



A Case Study of Bars Historic Social Role in the City: Georgetown’s Suter’s Tavern

While its location is still debated, many historians agree that Suter’s Tavern was located between Bridge Street (now M. Street) and the river some even rumor it was located on thirty-fifth and K street. Below is a picture from the Library of Congress on what is believed to be Suter’s Tavern.

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Suter’s Tavern is important because it is a prime example of a bar’s important role in a city. Traditionally, the role of bars is to serve alcoholic drinks, “but [bars] also acted as a city hall, a marketplace, a banquet and dance hall, a theater box office and a library”(89 Schwantes). Additionally, “taverns also provided meals and lodging and served as places to socialize and conduct business. They frequently served as meeting halls for the town’s political and legal affairs, and as such, taverns figured significantly in Georgetown’s early history.” (Mould 27)

Suter’s Tavern played all these roles, while also playing host to some of the United States top politicians, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. In fact, it was at Suter’s Tavern that George Washington signed the proclamation creating Washington D.C. just east of Georgetown. It was in a room rented from Suter’s Tavern that Pierre L’Enfant planned our Nations Capital. And it is from these early days in Suter’s Tavern that Washington D.C. has grown and prospered into the powerful city it is today.

  1. Being Urban: A Sociology of City Life, 3rd Edition.” Google Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  2. “The Spirited History of the American Bar.” Smithsonian Institution, 02 Aug. 2011. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
  3. Berger, Leslie. “Georgetown After Dark: Loud, Lively and Preppy, Too.” The Washington Post. WP Company, 25 Aug. 1982. Web. 27 Apr. 2017
  4. Mould, David H., and Missy Loewe. Remembering Georgetown: A History of the Lost Port City. Charleston: History, 2009. Print.