Yuppie Chow: Dogs Are The New Diners

Every month, nearly 60 people apply to land their dog’s mugshot on the coveted “Dog of the Month” wall at Copperwood Tavern in Shirlington. The restaurant’s staff sifts through the applications and not-so-scientifically chooses the winner to ensure there’s a diverse mix of dog breeds, sizes, and genders represented.

The restaurant once inadvertently selected male dogs for four consecutive months, resulting in some customer quibbles. If a dog isn’t selected, its owner will often apply again and again until they win, says Meredith Wells, the director of marketing for Wooden Nickel Bar Company, which owns Copperwood Tavern. The restaurant wants dogs who have compelling stories—October’s dog was rescued after Hurricane Katrina—and sometimes owners will even amp up their applications when they re-submit their losing dogs for the honor.

The winning dog receives a $100 gift basket from nearby Dogma Gourmet Dog Bakery and a “Weekend Pet Spa Package” to Fairfax Animal Hospital, plus some laudatory nods from the restaurant on social media.

“People definitely respond to ‘Dog of the Month,’” says Wells. “People love their dogs as much as they love their children.”

And the more people treat their four-legged friends like humans, the more money they’re willing to spend on them. The American Pet Products Association estimates that Americans will spend close to $60 billion on their pets this year. Along with chewy toy makers and apartment buildings with rooftop dog parks, area restaurants are also trying to cash in on pet spending.

The D.C. area’s booming dining scene increasingly caters to dog owners with luxurious amenities and plenty of water bowls—even if that dog does spend the entire meal under the table licking and scratching himself. There are dog buffets, gourmet steaks, and non-alcoholic dog beer for “yappy hours.” Some business owners even prefer dogs over humans, though they acknowledge that humans are the ones with the wallets.

Bocephus, Levon, Riley, Omar,” says Bill Stewart, the owner of Bardo, ticking off a list of dogs that regularly visit the mostly outdoor brewpub on the 1200 block of Bladensburg NE. “We know the dogs more than the people—at least I do.”

At Bardo, dogs can be off their leashes, run around the bar’s sprawling grass premise, and play with their fellow canine bar-goers. The bar even has a live-in dog, aptly named Bar Dawg, whom Stewart rescued from West Virginia after he decided his establishment needed some security at night. Bar Dawg has his own Twitter account with more than 200 followers.

Stewart says the dogs will occasionally get in fights, but that’s normal dog behavior, and no humans really complain about their presence.

“No one has ever [complained] to my face, but sometimes they post it on Prince of Petworth—we’re not concerned with that. We’re like, ‘Fine, go to Dacha,’” says Stewart, referring to the Shaw beer garden, which also has its fair share of dogs during the day. “You can’t please everyone with a bar. I think we can only please 2 to 3 percent of people.”

Bardo is very much the dive-bar dog experience, though. Not all dog-friendly area-establishments that welcome dogs function as a dog park with beer on the side.

Park View resident Kristen Roggemann works from home or from area bars and restaurants and brings her rescue Labrador mix Bailey along when she sets up on the patios at Columbia Heights establishments like the Coupe. The staff brings Bailey water and treats and, when Roggemann told them it was Bailey’s one year “adopt-iversary,” a waiter gave the dog some free, celebratory vanilla ice cream.

“D.C. is an extraordinarily dog-friendly place,” she says. “I work at the Coupe a lot with Bailey and they all know her and love her there.”

Those who want their dogs to eat gourmet now have options that, for non-dog owners, probably seem straight out of a dystopian novel where dogs have overthrown their human handlers. As outside dining days come to an end for the season, though, finding a dog-friendly dining establishment gets trickier: The D.C. Department of Health only allows service animals inside restaurants and bars, keeping pets at home when patios close (though it’s not that hard to find a bar into which to sneak your dog).

At Art and Soul—the restaurant attached to the dog-friendly Liaison Capitol Hill hotel—there’s an entire “Pooch Patio Menu” devoted just to canines. Owner Art Smith says the days of stuffy, white table cloth-type restaurants that only serve adult humans are over. “We are kid-friendly and dog-friendly,” he says. “We live in a time and culture where exclusivity doesn’t exist like it used to.”

The dog menu is only available when it’s warm enough to use the patio, but hotel guests can order the canine specialities year-round for room service. Among the featured items: a $8 six-ounce grilled steak called the “Hungry Dawg,” homemade dog treats, beef tips in “rich sauce” with rice, and $4 non-alcoholic beer called “Bowser Beer,” which is a meat broth and malt barley drink that keeps dogs hydrated and can serve as a full meal. “We can sell quite a bit of it,” Smith says of the beer. “It’s like an energy drink for the dog.”

No dog at Art and Soul is chowing down on anything similar to the dry, bagged food your childhood pup ate. Just like their human companions, Smith says, dogs have dietary restrictions, and the restaurant’s chefs will tailor meals for them.

“We have people coming up saying our dog is on a raw diet, or organic diet. It’s common. Dogs are just like people,” Smith says. “Our chefs will take care of them just as well as they will take care of people.”

Heads turn when Stallone enters the courtyard. A loose yellow hoodie drapes over his brawny frame with miniature boxing gloves hanging from his neck. Stallone, contestant number eight, is dressed up as Rocky and, at 6 feet 2 inches tall when standing on his hind legs, the Great Dane elicits gaping stares from humans and causes the small dachshunds dressed as hotdogs and the Boston Terriers in hamburger costumes to scamper.

With help from his owners, dressed as Adrian Balboa and Apollo Creed, Stallone clumsily struts down the makeshift runway at Hotel Monaco in Alexandria for the final Halloween-themed “Yappy Hour” before winter—a weekly Thursday event that typically draws about 50 canines for free dog treats and, for their owners, happy-hour priced booze and food from Jackson 20, the restaurant attached to the hotel.

The crowds at the Halloween contest were double the yappy hour’s typical size, but for many in attendance, grabbing a drink with their dogs and mingling with other dog owners in the courtyard is a regular ritual. Places like Hotel Monaco are doing everything to accommodate the area’s dogs—even a 165-pound Great Dane.

In many ways, this pampering of canines at human restaurants is just the logical an extension of a growing population that can afford to support the city’s increasing number of pricey restaurants—people who have enough disposable income to, say, buy a gourmet treat or Halloween costume for a dog, who isn’t likely to entirely grasp the gesture. Dog-friendly patios, of course, are nothing new, but the idea that pets should not only be welcomed at restaurants but served as well seems natural for a booming pet industry fueled by people treating their pets more and more like humans.

“We do everything with him,” says Stallone’s owner Stephanie Wilson. “We go on hikes, he does pilates.”

Even if some of these restaurants and bars are offering dog amenities gratis, there’s certainly a benefit for them to keep the dogs happy, allowing their owners to order just one more round of drinks.

Every Monday (weather permitting), Cantina Marina—a bar in Southwest D.C. overlooking the Washington Channel—hosts a happy hour to which patrons can bring dogs. A local rescue shelter is on-site with additional pups looking for homes. There’s even a dog buffet with rawhides, pig ears, and other dog favorites. Surprisingly, Rich Hemmer, the managing partner at Cantina Marina, says dogs handle themselves quite well at a buffet.

The rare problems Hemmer encounters comes not from rowdy dogs, but owners who think their dogs are incapable of being rowdy and want to let their pooches off leashes.

“I have had more issues with dog owners than dogs,” he says.

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Photo of the “Hungry Dawg” steak at Art and Soul by Darrow Montgomery