The Vesper Lounge in Capitol Hill is about to celebrate five years in business, but the location has been a bar since at least the 1960s. Owned by local restaurant mogul Frank Bonanno, today's Vesper Lounge is a pleasant, cozy spot that has been nicely redone while paying tribute to the bar that came before it, a dive known as the Lancer Lounge.
The Vesper retains much of the cave-like ’70s charm of the original Lancer. The booths, chandeliers, and most of the bar area haven't changed much, including the antique cash register. The letters from the old Lancer Lounge sign have been artfully rearranged to spell out the bar's motto, "No anger," on the back wall of the main seating area. However, according to general manager Spencer Gary, one of the original n's had to be replaced recently because someone stole it. At any rate, the place has definitely been cleaned up and given a more intentional aesthetic, with Buddhas and saints adding a spiritual vibe to the decor. Jaqueline Bonanno created the decor concept, but Gary thinks maybe the choices were designed to create good energy in a location that has seen anger, joy, sadness and everything in between during so many years as a bar.
I have been to both the Vesper and, back in the day, the Lancer quite a few times over the years, and was in most recently with some co-workers for happy hour. The bar is never empty, but it's also not usually packed to the gills, except on Friday and Saturday nights. It's another one of those spots that earns my "good for Tinder dates" recommendation because it has fun names for drinks — see "Blue Horse of Death" — and pictures of John Belushi on the menu that you can discuss with your date. Also, the eats and libations are on the unique and ever-so-slightly classy side. Burgers and wings, along with pitas, Moroccan bar nuts and other Mediterranean fare offer a little twist on the usual bar snacks. Cocktails on tap are also a creative idea; I'm not entirely sure about the physics of it, but I know somehow it works. I think suggesting the Vesper for a first-date drink strikes the right balance; it's casual enough to not look like you are trying too hard, but interesting enough to show that you are possibly a cool person who knows about cool places.
The Vesper Lounge crowd runs the gamut from hipsters to middle-aged folks, blue-collar workers to Cherry Creek types, and happy-hour-seeking employees of several nearby hospitals and schools. Another frequent sight in the Vesper is everyone from the techs to the on-air personalities from PBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, Que Bueno, CBS and whatever other broadcasting outfits I may have missed that house their headquarters in the neighboring blocks. During the second of the Vesper's two happy hours, the industry crowd from the many restaurants lining Sixth and Seventh avenues come in for after-work drinks.
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Aside from happy-hour deals on food and drinks, noteworthy specials include a $10 burger and beer on Sundays. In addition, a unique promotion at the Vesper Lounge is the "Solo Cup Club." Beer lovers can buy an $8 reusable Vesper Lounge solo cup filled with beer, then refill it with $3 draft beers on Wednesdays.
A friend of mine worked at the Lancer Lounge as a door woman and bar back for a few years back in the 2000s, and she was also a regular customer there before and after her employment at the bar. Her memories of the Lancer include bringing her dog to work, eating tater tots and chicken-fried steak, putting up with people smoking in the pool room (it was legal back then), and opening the bar at 8 a.m. Mostly, she remembers a lot of debauchery with the varied and loyal crowd at the Lancer. She took pride in working at one of the drunkest establishments in town, with the biggest shots and the strongest pours in the neighborhood, and multiple crazy-cheap happy hours. Another memory is the day the bar closed after being seized for back taxes in 2012; there was a huge party, with tons of people spilling out into the street. She fondly remembers longtime owner Rebecca Comda, who passed away soon after the Lancer was sold.
According to my friend, many of the bar regulars from the Lancer days migrated up the street to Don's Club Tavern, at least for morning drinking, because the Vesper doesn't open until 4 p.m. But according to Gary, patrons old and new return to the Vesper and talk about the recent and not-so-recent history of the bar. He just met some older guys who used to come into the bar in the ’60s because their nearby apartment didn't have any heat. Gary appreciates the legacy of the Lancer, and from day one, he and his staff have sought to pick up where Comda and company left off in providing a great neighborhood watering hole.
So far, it seems to be working. The Vesper Lounge is celebrating five years of success with a Sunday funday bash coming up on June 4 from 4 to 8 p.m. The team will be firing up the grill and serving up $5 burgers, beers and cocktails, with select beers priced at two for $5. The event will also feature live music to go along with the festivities, just in time for perfect patio weather. So whether you're reminiscing about old times at the Lancer or if you have no idea about all that and just want to impress a Tinder date, the Vesper Lounge is a good choice of venue to enjoy a drink in the Cap Hill neighborhood.