Cuba Libre offers two helpings of Salsa
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, Nov 25, 2011
When Cuba Libre opened last fall, the Penn Quarter restaurant boasted that it planned to turn its dining room into a sizzling salsa party on weekends, complete with dance shows, live entertainment and hundreds of salseros spinning around the fenced dance floor, while those waiting in the wings sipped passion fruit mojitos and strong rum drinks.
A year on, the plans have become a reality. Lines stretch down the block on Friday and Saturday nights. Inside, crowds pack the doglegged bar area and gather at tables in the restaurant area designed to look like an old Havana-esque movie set. There, they watch spotlit professional dancers twirl their way through a tightly choreographed routine before a DJ lures couples onto the floor with a lively set of salsa, merengue and bachata hits while percussionists play along.
Entertainment begins at 10:30 both nights, but there are subtle differences, explains Cuba Libre night-life manager Christopher Bowie, a veteran salsa promoter who ran popular events at Bravo Bravo, Lima and, for the old-timers, Chelsea's in Georgetown. Saturday's crowd "has become more international than just Latin focused," he says, so there's more radio-friendly pop music on the playlist, while Friday draws more serious salsa dancers with more traditional music.
Early next year, Bowie says, Cuba Libre plans to start featuring local bands on Friday nights.
The only sour notes come from the suited bouncers wearing Secret Service-style earpieces, wandering through the bar and dance floor with flashlights for most of the night, waving the lights like airport ground crew to keep people from standing in the walkways or blocking the path at the entrance to the dance floor. I understand why they have to do it - it gets crowded around the bar - but it can feel pushy and obtrusive.
Friends and I had gotten to the bar a little after 10 to get a drink before the dancing started, and almost as soon as we'd started sipping our mojitos, a bouncer asked us whether we were dining. We said we were just having drinks. Then he told us he'd have to take our coveted bar stools.
To beat the crowds - and watch the dance performances that begin the night - arrive before 10:30. By midnight, not only are you facing a $10 cover charge, but the wait to get in can be up to a half-hour as diners trickle out after their meals.
"Viva! Fridays" and "Bailamos Saturdays": 10:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. both nights. Free before midnight with an RSVP to rsvpDC@CubaLibreRestaurant.com. Otherwise, $10 per person.