Drinking beer and wine at Starbucks didn't initially sound so bad. The coffee chain began offering something a little stronger than espresso with the April 12 launch of its new "Evenings" menu at five D.C. locations (with more on the way). Could this be a reasonable alternative to crowded bars? Would you actually want to meet a friend or a colleague or a date for happy hour at a Starbucks?
My husband and I stopped in at the Shaw Starbucks at 815 O St. NW to find out. The food seems strangely ambitious for a Starbucks: truffle mac and cheese, artichoke and goat cheese flatbread, meatballs with tomato basil sauce. The beers ($5-6) are all local: Port City's Optimal Wit, Lost Rhino's Rhino Chasers Pilsner, Evolution's Sprung, and AleWerks' Drake Tail IPA. And the wines ($7-12 a glass) cover all the standard bases: pinot grigio, chardonnay, pinot noir, malbec, prosecco, etc. I can't think of any other place that lists wine calories on the menu; I don't want know that.
At the cash register, we order a Port City and glass of cabernet sauvignon plus a few "small plates." I watch the male barista struggle to use the corkscrew to open a new bottle of wine. Finally, the female barista steps in to do it.
The male barista then spends a good two minutes or so attempting to twist off the cap of the beer. I tell him that I don't think it's a twist-off and that he'll probably need a bottle opener. He looks around and says he's not sure they have one. I tell him he can use the handle on the corkscrew, but when he goes about it all wrong, I offer to show him how it's done. The female barista swoops in again and opens it herself.
The male barista tells me that we're the first people he's served beer to in the two and a half weeks since the "Evenings" menu launched. Around 15 people have ordered wine, he estimates.
The beer and wine are displayed on the wall with chalk board signs that read "Amy's Pick" or "Mo's Wine of the Week." I start to wonder who these people are. Does Amy really prefer malbec and think it pairs best with bacon-wrapped dates? Does Mo know how to use a corkscrew?
Starbucks classes up its evening service by bringing the food and drink to you on a tray. The barista accidentally drops the fork on the floor; the knife is dirty. At least the beer, poured into a glass, is properly chilled. My wine is served in a stemless glass with "permission to relax" etched into it.
The food looks a little less appetizing. All three dishes spent a tad too long in the toaster oven. But despite the burnt breadcrumbs, the mac and cheese is surprisingly creamy under that crust. It's better than I expected, but it's served in a tart-shaped paper shell—a reminder that it's not much more gourmet than a microwaved TV dinner.
Skewered bacon-wrapped dates drizzled in a super sweet balsamic glaze are not terrible, but the same can't be said for the meatballs. The sad pile of balls, while moist inside, are so dried out that they've developed a leathery skin. The little bit of tomato sauce is caked on like leftovers that have been reheated too many times.
By the time we have our food, a little after 8 p.m., the Starbucks is nearly empty except for a guy working on a laptop with a stack of papers. He's drinking coffee. A few people trickle in and out, but none of them order beer or wine. The place is completely silent aside from some synthpop and indie rock. It feels awkward to talk above a whisper. Actually, the whole experience is depressing.
When Starbucks launched its "Evenings" menu, the company envisioned book clubs, Bible study groups, or friends meeting there. Maybe that's happening at other locations or on other nights. More likely, the vast majority of people still have no clue that Starbucks sells alcohol. But even if they did, getting them to think of Starbucks as a destination for anything other than coffee is no small challenge. To its credit, Starbucks appears to have plenty of room to accommodate groups. And unlike a lot of bars in D.C., you can actual hear your conversations. But I can't imagine anyone going on an evening date at a Starbucks. And I can think of countless better places in the District to meet a friend.
So leaving our meatballs behind, my husband and I left for the bar at Convivial next door.
The Starbucks "Evenings" menu is currently available at Wisconsin and Idaho avenues NW; the Grand Hyatt at 11th and H streets NW; 237 Pennsylvania Ave. SE; 1801 Columbia Road NW; and 815 O St NW.
Photo by Jessica Sidman