Salsa Club Spices Up K Street
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, April 16, 2004
Even before George Clooney came to town, K Street had certain connotations: influential lobbyists, fat-cat lawyers, power lunches at expense-account restaurants. It didn't seem like a place you'd go for entertainment, especially after happy hour, when most of the neighborhood packed up and went home.
At Connecticut Avenue and K Street on a Saturday night, just across the street from Farragut Square, there are no pinstriped suits or tasseled loafers in sight -- just dozens of Latin-music fans waiting in a long line outside Bravo Bravo. By midnight, the line is almost halfway down the block.
From the sidewalk, Bravo Bravo's nondescript glass doors and wide descending staircase don't look like much, but for almost 10 years, the club has attracted an international crowd of salsa lovers. A recent series of renovations freshened up and enlarged the basement-level space, adding bars (seven are scattered around the sprawling room) and expanding the large, central hardwood dance floor.
More than 500 people crowd in to dance until 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, when DJs spin sizzling salsa and merengue, thumping Spanish-language club hits and up-tempo music "with a Latin flavor," manager Marivel Husman says. (Remixes of Jay-Z, Ludacris and Nelly songs spiced with congas and electric piano are popular.) Though the club usually gets off to a slow start, the atmosphere becomes lively. Couples head on and off the dance floor, where quicksilver footwork and flashy turns predominate. Casually dressed singles (mostly men) watch from the sidelines, scanning the crowd for potential partners or talking to friends at the bar. The crowd is mostly Latino, a mix of young and old -- this is one of the only 18-and-older salsa nights in the area, and security is highly visible, though not obtrusive.
Along one wall, raised platforms full of couches and small mod tables offer a view of the action, as well as a place to talk when the music stops. A larger restaurant-style area in the back offers a respite from some of the noise, but it's nearly impossible to escape the bouncy rhythms and the DJ's exhortations (in Spanish, of course). You'd think people would get tired, but Bravo Bravo's buzzing into the wee hours, with much of the crowd arriving between midnight and 1.
The pace is a little slower on Wednesday, when salsa lessons are offered and a DJ plays classic music until midnight. Then there are as many people chatting at tables as on the floor, although if you show an interest in the dancers, someone's going to ask you out for a twirl. Despite the latest renovations, Bravo Bravo's decor mixes an upscale Mexican restaurant with a no-frills dance club -- the sconces, Joan Miro-inspired modern art and wrought-iron railings seem a bit at odds with the disco ball and banks of colored lights that incessantly sweep the floor or the mirrors found on every wall and column. Behind the stage, a large projection screen silently shows news and sports all night. It would have been nice if owner George Christacos had put a touch more of Ozio -- his martinis-and-cigars nightspot -- into Bravo Bravo.
As Bravo Bravo marks its first decade in business, its staff proudly points out that the building has a long history as a nightclub. Down Under, a popular haunt for disco-loving singles, opened here in the early '70s, says manager Digna Guevara (Husman's sister), and it has changed with the times. "When [Bravo Bravo] opened up, we had Latin music only on Saturdays," Guevara says. "We had techno nights and other nights, but that didn't work," so the club soon went to a predominantly Latino format, salted with the occasional "international" dance night. Now, although Bravo Bravo is open for lunch and happy hour Monday through Friday, the nightclub is only open three days a week, plus the occasional special event.
The secret to the club's success, Husman says, is basic: "It's the atmosphere and the crowd, and we have good DJs. One's been here for eight years, and the other even longer." Keeping a dance floor happy -- even at 4 a.m. -- is a skill. It's one of the reasons you have to think Bravo Bravo will be around for a while to come.