Science Club: Intelligent by Design
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, January 13, 2006
The art nouveau logo over the door of the imposing brownstone on 19th Street NW says "Science Club." Passersby might wonder what lurks behind the heavy doors and etched glass windows -- a place where men and women in lab coats gather to discuss Newtonian physics or string theory? A debating society for biologists?
Not exactly -- it's downtown Washington's newest lounge and nightspot, but one that owner Steve Maguire hopes is a little more cerebral than most.
When he first looked at the building, Maguire explains, the facade reminded him of a turn-of-the-20th-century private club. "The facade looks like it's an institution, like we've been here for 100 years," he says. "I thought about the Cosmos Club, places like that. I wanted to open a bar where there's intelligent discussion about the news of the day."
A noble goal, but I have a theory that although Science Club (1136 19th St. NW; 202-775-0747) may appeal to those who want to ponder intelligent design and the size of finches' beaks over an imported ale, it will certainly attract a broader audience. Open since mid-December, Science Club draws ahead-of-the-curve DJs and women with high heels and tiny purses, as well as people who introduce themselves to the bartender as science teachers who stopped by because they heard about the name. Couples wander in at happy hour, dressed in their office suits, for glasses of house wine and cold $3 bottles of Yuengling, and perhaps a snack of hummus or baba ghanouj. Tables are hard to come by on weekends, and the dance floor fills as DJs spin forward-looking dubstep and broken beat records. The buzz of conversation fills the air.
I shouldn't be surprised -- Maguire knows a thing or two about Washington nightlife. He was the general manager at Chi-Cha Lounge when the couch-filled U Street bar arrived on the scene, and he stayed there for four years before helping owner Mauricio Fraga-Rosenfeld open the trendy Dupont lounge Gazuza.
After Gazuza, Maguire decided it was time to take a step up. "I wanted to be a sole owner," he says. "I went searching with no understanding of the D.C. real estate market. It took me two years. I got to a point where I was going to take the next place that came along."
Luckily, he found this four-level space, recently occupied by restaurants Thai Bistro and Star of Siam. Maguire and his designers have made the most of the narrow building. Science Club's decor is simple but as artfully distressed as a pair of $300 jeans from Denim Bar: walls that alternate between painted panels and whitewashed brick; shelves behind the bar that look as if they were hewn from the skeleton of the building; mahogany chairs have been violently "antiqued"; mismatched light fixtures shine down onto the polished hardwood floors.
In one of the few nods to the club's name, patrons at the bar sit on round metal stools rescued from some high-school chem lab -- the kind where, if it's too short, you spin the seat to raise it. A nearby chalkboard is available for computations as well as random graffiti.
Once you squeeze past the two-person booths hugging the walls near the entrance, things become a little more spacious. In the back, where tables are moved on weekends to create a makeshift dance floor, a long, low banquette snakes around three walls, and a table is hidden in a semi-private nook. Mirrors and a skylight combine to make it feel roomier than you'd expect, which is welcome when Roots and Zee of the ESL Records group See-I spin dub and funk on Wednesdays, or Digital K -- nephew of legendary DJ King Tubby -- takes over on Thursdays.
I prefer to hang out in the basement. Accessed separately from the street through a padded door -- look for the small sign that says "Bar" -- it seems like a holdover from Prohibition, thanks to low ceilings and sparse decor that is more "furnished cellar" than "finished basement."
Science Club is fairly egalitarian. There's no dress code, no cover charge, no private rooms or tables reserved for bottle service. "I've never been about VIPs and separation," Maguire says, though he admits he watches the door on weekends "to make sure the kids who go to [neighboring bar] Rumors and have 15 beers don't come in here and try to have their 16th."
Still, Science Club isn't cheap -- expect to pay $6 to $8 for a bottle of imported beer, and $10 or more for the large appetizer dishes. Service is hit-and-miss, with attentive waitresses one visit followed by scatterbrained service the next time.
For now, the most comfortable area is the second floor, which features a large table set in the prominent bay window and a stylish atmosphere more reminiscent of Eighteenth Street Lounge. It's also nonsmoking, though it's never been officially designated as such. "I think it's that we don't have ashtrays up there," Maguire says. "We'll see how it goes, but it's nonsmoking for now. I don't like to tell people who we are or what we are. I prefer to say, 'We're a little space in downtown D.C., so come in and judge for yourself.' " After all, what's more scientific than the survival of the fittest?