Madams Organ: Five Nights of Fun in One

The best bar in Adams Morgan, hands down

Fun fun fun! Photo by Hannah Berman.

Madams Organ is the best bar in AdMo, hands down.

I’ve been to every bar on Adams Morgan’s 18th Street, so I feel that I can say this with confidence. Madams Organ has cornered the market on fun, and it’s been doing it for over thirty years — at this point, I’m not sure why the other places are even trying.

Every floor of Madams Organ has a distinct and bizarre vibe all its own. The first floor is a concert hall; the second floor is for pool and dancing; the third floor is for cozy chats by the fire and stronger drinks. There’s also a roof and a fire escape. It sounds like a lot, and it is: this place is five different bars squished together, lit with sexy red light and adorned with paintings of nude women and taxidermied animals.

Because Madams Organ is a strange amalgamation of different scenes, it attracts a diverse crowd. My favorite thing about this bar isn’t the eclectic decor, but the pure range it offers: I’ve met more weirdos here than anywhere else in DC. No review of this bar would be complete without the characters that dwell there, so I’ve decided to tell five different stories about the people I’ve met and the things that I’ve done in this strange bar on 18th Street. Read on for my own glorified series of “A _____ walks into a bar” jokes.

First floor: A magician

On one February evening, my roommate Gabi and I brought a whole gaggle of girlies with us to Madams Organ to celebrate a birthday, or just the weekend, or something like that. We walked right by the performance on the first floor without a second thought—usually there’s a live band, but on this night it was just a magician who looked to be about forty doing lame little card tricks, and we wanted to dance.

After four songs and a round of shots, though, it was time for a smoke break. We headed back downstairs to the first floor, eyes glazed, and pushed past the performance. We sat still for just a second before someone spotted the magician.

“Excuse me, are you the magician? Will you explain to us how you did that trick with the name in the box?”

I half expected him to hit us with the classic “A true magician never reveals his secrets” line; instead, he pulled out a thin cigarette and laughed at us. “How do you think I did it?” he asked drily, lighting up. “I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

From that point forward, the girlies were hooked on this short, jaded performer. We asked him about his life and he avoided the questions with card tricks. The only thing we could get out of him was that he almost made it to Las Vegas. “I got sick and they gave my spot up,” he said, and we all nodded knowingly. There was a sense that he had said all the things he was saying a hundred times. Something about him made me very sad — maybe it was that he only made eye contact when he asked us to name a card.

After a half-hour long private show, he excused himself, and we figured that he was heading home for the night — but then we saw him again hours later on the roof, doing the same card tricks he had done for us in front of a new gaggle of young women.

Madams Organ. Photos by Hannah Berman.

Second floor: An Academy man

My friend Gabi and I were dancing on the second floor one night when we decided to take a breather on the sidelines. From behind us, a boy who looked like he could have been 17 years old addressed Gabi. “Can I buy you a drink?”

Gabi and I exchanged a glance. She said, “How old are you?”

“I’m old enough for you!” (Which, needless to say, meant that he wasn’t.)

“Okay, well, where do you go to college?”

“I go to the Academy.”

At this, she burst out laughing. “The Academy? That’s a high school,” Gabi responded.

“No, it’s not! The Academy, at Annapolis. Look it up!”

At this point we waved him away, and he returned to a pack of other boys who looked to be about 17, who continued scanning the bar for more girls like he had never even left. Gabi and I rolled our eyes, amused. “How did they even let these guys in?”

Later, Gabi decided to Google their high school to see how far they had come that night to be rejected. Turns out the joke was on us; he was talking about the Naval Academy.

The view from Madams Organ. Photo by Gabi Hubner.

Third floor: A first date

I went on a first date on the third floor of Madams Organ. The third floor is a little more intimate than the rest: it’s more dimly lit, with couches and big armchairs and a huge, blazing fire. Still, I wouldn’t recommend going on a date there.

We sat facing the fire, loud music thumping through our bodies, early on a Wednesday night. We had to half-scream to hear each other.

“So, you said you’re a teacher? What grade do you teach?”

“Sixth grade English. They’re little monsters.”

“I’m trying to remember my sixth grade teacher. I think she was really ugly.”

“She was really what?”

“Ugly!”

“Oh.”

We somehow ended up talking critical race theory for most of the night, I think. He’s a big Marxist, in the race-doesn’t-actually-explain-inequality way.

An hour went by before we went back down to the second floor and kissed while sitting on another of those big armchairs. Then we exited the front door, went opposite directions, and never spoke again.

The balcony: Kyle

We were standing on the fire escape overlooking 18th Street, and it was cold. The cold made my friend Carol want to do a shot, and in that moment I couldn’t imagine any worse fate than doing a shot, so I thought I should outsource shot duty to a stranger. That’s how we met Kyle.

I reached out and hung somewhat precariously over the railing to tap him on the shoulder. “Hey, are you in the mood to do a shot, by any chance?”

He turned to me with fire in his eyes. “Oh, honey, AM I!”

Kyle quickly rounded up his companions. He had barely announced that we were doing shots before one of the girls made us circle up and said, “So, who else here is queer?”, and Carol and I knew we had found the right people to accompany us through the night.

The shots came — tequila with lime and salt. Right after we swallowed, Kyle screamed, “Tongue touch!” with an impossible amount of enthusiasm, proclaiming that the unofficial last step of a tequila shot is always a tongue touch. So we all went around and licked each other’s tongues, feeling delightfully wicked for sharing spit in a way that wasn’t even strictly necessary in the time of corona.

Soon after, we chose to escape Madams Organ for Pitchers, which is actually where we belonged, that night. Kyle held my hand as he danced and for some reason decided he could trust me with all his weight, which was a bad call, in hindsight. I think that fall might have been the reason he left without saying goodbye.

In line for Madams Organ. Photo by Hannah Berman.

The roof: A cowboy

The roof at Madams Organ isn’t large — just one small porch banded by a bar and interrupted by a long standing table. Standing there with Carol, I could easily see the cowboy staring at me from across the table, and time slowed as he approached and I decided what to do about it.

“Can I buy you a drink?” asked the cowboy, and I said yes, because I wanted a drink. Carol’s stare told me that she was NOT comfortable with this big hulking gentleman, but sometimes you have to do what you have to do.

“You have the most incredible eyes,” the cowboy said to me. “What do you do?”

“I’m a teacher,” I said, avoiding eye contact.

“You’re a teacher, I’m a cowboy, it just makes sense. I’m gonna buy you a ranch one day, teacher, and we’re going to live there with our three children.”

“Wait, I’m sorry, what makes you a cowboy?”

The cowboy’s friend laughed through his nose. “Don’t you see his bolo tie?”

“Do you want to go to Starbucks?” continued the cowboy, as if no one else was on the roof with us. “I want to take you to Starbucks.”

His friend said, “Get him to show you his horses.”

The cowboy’s eyes finally left my face, and he turned soulful. “I had to sell them all to come here,” he said, opening his phone to show off grainy pictures. “I had three beautiful girls back home. No room for horses in Adams Morgan, though. I’m working in tech now so I can save up to buy a whole herd. And a pretty little house for you.”

I gave him my number when he asked, because he had just bought drinks for me and Carol and he was such a big man, and because sometimes you have to do what you have to do. He texted me over and over that night with no response: “Hey teacher — nice to meet you.” “Hey you — remember me?” “Are you available tomorrow evening for a champagne picnic on the mall?” “Shall I come pick you up on my horse?”

Of course, part of what draws me to these characters is that they remain contained to those Madams Organ moments — for me, they are stuck within the walls of the establishment. (Except, I suppose, for the cowboy, who after a harsh rejection and three weeks texted back, “You have seriously unforgettable eyes.”) I’ve never seen any of them again, not even Kyle. All I am left with is the memory — and the knowledge that at any time, I can enter Madams Organ and find a new friend (or enemy). THAT is what makes it the best bar in Adams Morgan.

Read more musings at Do Not Disturb, Hannah is Eating, or subscribe to get the newsletter delivered to your inbox here.

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