Editors' pick

The Wonderland Ballroom

Lounge, Bar, Low-key

Editorial Review

Your Local Wonderland
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, October 22, 2004

Most of the blessed hole-in-the-wall joints we call "neighborhood bars" are actually on busy commercial strips, not in residential neighborhoods. The term is used to evoke nostalgia, a longing for a low-key bar full of regulars where Friday night doesn't find the place full of "randoms" who drove in from another state looking for a good time.

There are still a few true neighborhood bars out there, though. The latest treasure is Wonderland Bar and Grill, an old-fashioned corner bar in the middle of Columbia Heights, sitting alongside single-family homes and numerous group houses populated by young professionals.

From the outside, the building looks as though it has been there for decades, and the well-worn patina is authentic. For almost five decades, this was Nob Hill, a gay bar that catered to middle-age, middle-class African American men. But business slowed down, and, earlier this year, Matthew McGovern, a former Madam's Organ bartender, and his wife, Rose Donna, purchased the bar.

Open since August, Wonderland has the edgy, alternative feel of the old Black Cat's Red Room -- back before 14th and U offered a strip full of pricey, cutting-edge home furnishing stores.

Most nights, the place is packed with young people in jeans and T-shirts. They sit at tables inlaid with the logo of "Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken" or booths constructed of bench seats scavenged from old minivans.

The eclectic decor also features a vintage tabletop Ms. Pac-Man game and huge signs promoting the shuttered DCCD record store and something called "Kung Food." (McGovern found the latter "on the street" in Detroit.) "It's my husband's sense of style -- the urban salvage look," Donna says. "We've just moved it from our house to here."

Wonderland's drink of choice is Yuengling; the Pennsylvania brewery's lager, porter and Lord Chesterfield Ale cost $2 before 8, and $3 after that. Hungry? There's a small menu of sausages (bratwurst is "part of my Midwestern Detroit heritage," Donna explains), sandwiches and salads, which may be extended now that Wonderland has a full-time chef.

"We try to keep things simple," McGovern says. "And who doesn't like cheap beer?"

Upstairs, the "ballroom" has a simple layout, with a low stage at one end and a small bar at the other. In between are tables and some thrift-store couches and armchairs that invite you to sink into them.

Old record album sleeves hang on the walls with binder clips: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the "Superfly" soundtrack, Sam Cooke, Julie London.

On weekends, the second floor is smoke-free. "The place gets so packed, so it's nice to have an area where you can dance without having to worry about smoke," McGovern says. (Smokers can step outside to the "Bohemian Beer Garden," which is little more than a mostly grassless patch of lawn.) Wonderland offers an eclectic mix of performers, from DJs spinning soul and hip-hop to acoustic singer-songwriters. Sometimes Wednesday is an open-mike event, but it could just as well be reggae night.

"We've even had a bluegrass band in here," Donna says. "Mostly it's been local neighborhood bands who come in and say, 'Hey, can we play here?' " But there's always great music in the main bar, thanks to my new favorite jukebox in the city. It holds 100 CDs, and one page alone includes the "Best of Sugar Hill Records" (featuring hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang), the Buena Vista Social Club, the Smiths and the Velvet Underground. Scroll through, and there's OutKast and Dr. Dre; Jimi Hendrix and the Clash; Prince and the White Stripes; Johnny Cash and Motown hits. Unlike those digital jukeboxes with tens of thousands of tunes, this one has real personality.

"We fought 10 days tooth and nail about what goes in the jukebox," McGovern says. "It was my wife and me and a couple of friends. We all had really strong ideas. I had to fight really hard to keep the Beatles out. . . . I'm a Rolling Stones fan."

"We both like dance music," Donna counters. "He thinks Blondie is great dance music. I think Soundgarden is great dance music, or Wilson Pickett, or whatever. But we've left a few slots empty . . . and we'll take suggestions from the neighbors."

Wonderland has quickly become a neighborhood favorite -- some group houses are touting their proximity to the bar when advertising open rooms on the Web site Craigslist -- and I have a feeling it's not going to be overrun by "outsiders" anytime soon.

For a start, there's nothing else nearby, so a trip to Wonderland might be the beginning and end of the night. The three-block walk from the Columbia Heights Metro station is not pedestrian-friendly -- it's poorly lit and frequently deserted. (A quick survey of female friends and co-workers revealed that most wouldn't feel comfortable making the trip by themselves.) Parking is pretty easy to find, but cabs are few and very far between. All of this is fine by McGovern. "It's a neighborhood corner bar," he says. "It's first and foremost for the neighborhood."