Note: BeBar reopened as EFN Lounge in June 2009.
Aiming to Be All That it Can Be
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, Sept. 22, 2006
First impressions of the new BeBar lounge: a funky design; sweet, candy-flavored martinis; DJs spinning electro, party-pleasing '80s remixes and pumping Top 40 music; a smoke-free atmosphere; the choice between relaxing on a couch or getting up and hitting the dance floor if the mood strikes. The guys behind BeBar vow that they're setting out to create a "truly new genre of lounge," but, so far, I'm not seeing anything I haven't seen at other lounges in the Washington area. Instead, BeBar is just trying to wrap every option up in one neat little package.
"We're not trying to sell a nightclub image," owner Michael Watson says. "We're a neighborhood lounge. We're a comfortable space, and, at the same time, we offer DJs and dancing and video." That's all the bases covered.
Actually, Watson and his partners say they're just relieved to be open. The short version of BeBar's story reads like this: In late 2005, three gay men found a location for their dream bar in Shaw, a block from the gleaming new convention center and across the street from Scripture Cathedral. The church's bishop, C.L. Long, who has been in the pulpit for four decades, led protests against the bar's receiving a liquor license, and dozens of members of his flock came to community meetings to demonstrate against BeBar. In a letter sent to the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration, the D.C. Black Church Initiative claimed that having a gay bar in Shaw would "promote an alternative lifestyle" that would "undermine the moral character" of the neighborhood.
After months of arguing and several hearings, BeBar finally received its liquor license in August and opened the first week of September. The response has been immediate: Lines curved around the block on opening weekend, and Friday and Saturday nights still find packed houses of stylish men and a handful of women.
Watson, formerly a bartender and the manager of the gay club Cobalt, designed the sleek two-room space, which he calls "mid-century modern meets baroque." It's actually far more simple than that: The main bar area offers a variety of textures, from billowy curtains to cool turquoise columns. For actual lounging, BeBar has a selection of deliberately mismatched 20th-century furniture, including stools shaped like garden gnomes and hourglasses, a molded plastic couch, armchairs arranged around a dining room table and a banquette covered with mountainous piles of pillows and cushions. Low tables sit atop animal-print rugs. On one contoured wall, a large screen shows music videos or DVDs. Giant antlers hang nearby.
In back, separated by a gauzy scrim, there's a medium-size area for dancing next to an oversize DJ booth. Lasers and lights flash overhead, and large frosted wall panels pulse and change color with the music. It's not quite a replacement for Velvet Nation or Apex, but it's a welcome escape from the packed scene in the front room, where long waits for drinks can overwhelm the oft-friendly bartenders, who can be downright chatty when business is slow.
The mass of well-coifed and artfully dressed-down guys who congregate at the bar to see and be seen has found BeBar labeled with the dreaded "stand and model" tag by some gay patrons, who gripe that the focus can be more about looks than about just having a good time. That's no surprise to BeBar's owners. "People want to go where it's popular, but then people complain that it's too crowded and that people stand around and pose," Watson says. Instead, BeBar tries to offer something for everyone: "If you want to stand and pose, pose. If you want to lounge, lounge. If you want to dance, dance."
Cocktails similarly try for wide appeal, though the focus is less on dirty martinis than on Watson's creations, which are designed to taste like childhood treats: Sweet Tarts, Jolly Ranchers, Lemon Heads. Sometimes it's over-the-top -- a tropical Gummi Bear martini has peach, banana, pineapple and orange flavors -- but the Strawberry Creamsicle is dead-on.
With some of the opening bumps out of the way, BeBar is moving on to its next target: diversifying the crowd. "We've been targeted as a gay venue, and we're certainly gay-friendly -- we're gay owners and we know a lot of gay people -- but we want to provide a mixed environment," Watson says. At the same time, he says, "I don't want to mislead anyone" about the fact that women and straight men are a tiny portion of the crowd on weekends, when there's a $5 cover charge for dancing. "I don't want anyone to feel uncomfortable. I just want people to try it."
Instead, the owners are hoping that some events will transcend sexual orientation. Pink, the Tuesday night mix of electro and indie rock, features DJs who've spun at DC9 and the Rock and Roll Hotel. Musical Mondays, where a VJ cues up song-and-dance clips from a spectrum of Hollywood movies -- "Dirty Dancing," "Chicago," "High School Musical," even "Mean Girls" and "Beetlejuice" -- drew more women than men last time I was there.
And, of course, there's happy hour: half-price martinis until 9 nightly. I'd have to think $5 cocktails and comfortable couches have a way of uniting people.