Two Old Favorites, Reborn on U Street
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, August 8, 2008
In the late 1990s and the early years of this century, there was no hotter nightlife destination in the area than U Street, and Republic Gardens and Bar Nun were two of its crown jewels.
Republic Gardens (or just the Gardens, to its fans) was the glamorous spot with open bars, lavish happy hour buffets, top radio DJs and classy decor. It became the destination during Howard University's homecoming. Bar Nun was its bohemian neighbor, famous for its eclectic mix of open mike poetry, alternative hip-hop nights and, most notoriously, the consenting-adults-only Entre Nous party on Saturdays.
But times changed. Marc Barnes, the man who built the Gardens into the kind of place Prince and Magic Johnson wanted to drop by, turned his attention to his megaclub Dream (now Love) in 2001, and the building sat unused for almost two years. A new ownership team took over in 2003, but their reign ended unceremoniously last year after falling behind in rent, with an eviction notice on the door and the club's possessions scattered on the sidewalk.
Bar Nun, too, began to feel a little too "been there, done that," with key DJ nights slipping away and only the Movement open mike night garnering any buzz.
But now there's new life for old favorites on U, with a fresh set of entrepreneurs taking the helm at the Gardens, which reopened as the Republic in early July, while a year-long makeover for Bar Nun resulted in its recent rebirth as Pure. With one eye on the future and one on the past, we stopped by on a Saturday night to scope out the scene and to get some thoughts from patrons about the new digs.
... Down the street, it's the other side of midnight before I make it into line for Pure, and after the bouncer at Republic asked for $20, I'm expecting the worst. But when I hand the bouncer my ID, he just nods and waves me in. Later, owner Dee Hailegorghis tells me that when Pure opened, weekend cover charges disappeared. "For me, I'd rather let the people in free and have them spend $20 at the bar. You charge people $20 at the door, they may turn away."
After 12 years owning Bar Nun, Hailegorghis decided last year that the club needed a new look and image. "It was time to change," he says, laughing. "Change is good, right?" The split-level lounge now sports a futuristic look that's more modern and Euro-styled than the previous plain, earth-tone space. Downstairs, where the main dance floor is, has become mostly white, while the second floor is more vibrant, with glowing panels on the walls and long, red benches running along the sides of the room. The bars are still small, though, and wedged into corners.
Michael Chepkwony, who is hanging out with Joy Montet at the rear bar, is making his first visit. "It's a nice place," he says. He's disappointed that the bar doesn't have single malts, "but the bartender is responsive." He compliments the music and the diversity of the lively crowd, but he's not sold on the new decor. "They could have done something better with this place."
Different DJs work the two floors, and I'm drawn upstairs, where the music is a world tour of hip-hop, soul, soca, reggae and high life -- "international night" in the best sense of the term.
Gizachew Andargeh, wearing a T-shirt with "Addis Ababa" in the familiar Coca-Cola script, is grooving in the narrow passageway between the bar and the dance floor. "I think it's a significant step up from Bar Nun," he says. He has visited before and is still getting used to the new look but loves the new Saturday night theme. "The decor is a little space age. I hate to hate on the place, but I don't think it fits the people who frequent the place.
"But when it comes down to it, the music is what makes the party, and the DJ tonight is great."