It's quiet on St. Elmo Street near midnight on a Saturday, until you get about halfway down the block from Old Georgetown. Then the bass starts thumping.
At this hour, all parts of are packed, from bar to seating area to dance floor. Somehow it's a wild success as the DJ slips from a top-ten radio hit to the first telltale guitar riffs of "Footloose," eliciting cheers as he calls Kevin Bacon to the dance floor.
The crowd loves it.
"In D.C., it's more about posturing," says Peter Facinating, 33, who came tonight from Germantown with friend Danny Fritz, 33. "It's a good mixed crowd here."
"Mixed" might be the most accurate word for both the scene and the patrons. The bar's website boasts "upscale pub-style dining" and "game watching," which lurks to the left of the bar with tables and ESPN highlights playing on hanging flat-screens and plastic green foliage adorning the wood beams. Flannel-clad bros with Coronas haunt this side of the joint, while the dance floor at the front is owned by grinding and sequins.
But where there's a short-skirted 20-something on a table grooving to Michael Jackson, several feet away there's inevitably a late-30s couple in the midst of an awkward twirl.
"People don't care," says Cristal Rodriguez, 23, a government auditor from Wheaton. She and a friend from Laurel are leaning against the wall, nursing beers, observing the crowd. "They just have a good time."
As the bar scene in Bethesda has blossomed in the past few years, it seems this has become its signature: after-work types watching the game in happily close quarters with post-grad partiers, people glammed up or dressed down, students enjoying their new legal status and career folk gathering casually for a pint.
Gilma Abreu, 24, is at on Fairmont a couple of blocks away. The Germantown native frequented D.C. bars until she discovered her comfort zone about two years ago.
BlackFinn has more of a sports-bar feel — a bit edgier, with dark wooden tables and various taxidermy mounted on the wall. But just past the bar the space splits into an upstairs, where it’s all rap and neon-green lighting.
"The atmosphere is 'all are welcome,'" Abreu says.
Sure enough, it's the up-county crowd that seems to reign on weekends — those who like to go out but don't enjoy the pressure of the D.C. scene.
"I like my little podunk Olney bars," says Veronica Smart, 27, standing outside BlackFinn with a group of friends on a smoke break.
But places like BlackFinn, she says, are a happy medium — not too country, but not too slick.
BlackFinn bouncer Mark Lee, 22, also representing Germantown, stands by a small blue sticker on the glass door declaring the bar a Bethesda Magazine 2011 top vote-getter. He says the majority of the crowd typically hails from the outer parts of the county, from Damascus to Gaithersburg to Rockville.
"It's more local [than D.C.]," he says. And, an added bonus — his observation on cops: "There's less chance of DUIs here."
It helps that it's a lot easier to get to and park in Bethesda than in D.C., said Macdara MacTigue, one of the owners of on Cordell.
"D.C. is just a little expensive, a little far away," said Bob Brooksbank, one of the owners of on Elm Street.
And of course, variety is the spice of life.
"There's much more options in Bethesda than there ever were before," he said, "from just a tavern-type atmosphere all the way up to the world-class dining options."
The Barking Dog first opened 11 years ago and has since seen its bar kinfolk soar in number.
"There's many more places to go out now than there were 11 years ago, probably by threefold," he said.
MacTigue said the regular customer base has grown noticeably in the past few years since his bar's inception in 2004. His venue's patrons come from as far as Virginia and Baltimore, he said, to catch European sports broadcasts and live music.
"There's a very large variety in a small neighborhood," he said of Bethesda's draw. "You've got every sort of bar — sports bar, you name it, you've got them all."
In the end, Abreu attributes Bethesda's growing bar-scene success simply to proximity.
"The closer, the better," she said.