The Buzz: The Sky's the Limit at Fly
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, June 9, 2006
Those who hit the city's club and lounge circuit know that Washington's nightlife is more varied than ever, thanks to some high-profile club and lounge openings in recent years, but the "Washington is boring" image persists both inside and outside the area.
It's unheard of for a Washington lounge to be written up in hip-hop magazine Vibe before the first customer is served or to receive a glowing recommendation in men's style rag Details just as doors are opening for the first time. But that's what has happened with Fly, a new high-end lounge that debuted near 18th and M streets NW last month.
Part of the buzz is Fly's aviation-themed design: curved, dropped ceilings that replicate the cylindrical fuselage of a 747; aluminum-paneled walls; flat-screen monitors positioned like windows; female cocktail servers in low-cut stewardess uniforms (complete with a neck scarf); even free bags of hyper-salted mixed nuts -- which come in silver wrappers emblazoned with the Fly logo.
"D.C. has become a fun town, but people still take themselves so seriously," says co-owner Richard Eidman. "We wanted to do something fun. We're not taking ourselves too seriously -- we're partying inside an airplane!"
Built into the center of each circular table is an ice bucket "modeled after F-15 Eagle afterburners," Eidman says with a grin. LED lights inside cause the base to glow red.
At one point, Fly's designers thought about fitting the bathrooms to make them look like the cramped conveniences found on jumbo jets, but decided "we didn't want to hit [customers] over the head too hard," laughs co-owner Chuck Koch, who's better known on the club circuit as DJ Dirty Hands. Probably a smart move.
Of course, a clever theme and cutting-edge design will go only so far: Buzz, DJs and bottle service are just as important, and so far, Fly is soaring on all three.
Koch and Eidman were introduced by a mutual friend more than two years ago. Eidman was interested in learning to fly, and Koch is a licensed pilot. They quickly discovered a shared background in nightlife.
Koch, a wizard on the turntables, was a founder of Soul Camp, the legendary b-boy and underground hip-hop night, before finding more fame spinning at megaclubs such as Dream and NBA All-Star parties in New York. Eidman has been involved with nightclubs in Boston and Puerto Rico. Both were interested in opening their own place and found the opportunity when the after-hours dance club Red closed last year.
The partners spent months working on the dark, basement-level space, and "we literally had to gut the place to the core -- we stripped it to brick, cement and rafters," Eidman says. They added all kinds of subtle touches that take more than one visit to appreciate: Speaker covers are custom aluminum grills emblazoned with the club's logo. The angular legs of the barstools complement the slanting edges of the bar counter. Tops of banquettes are padded, "because we know people are going to want to sit on them," Eidman says.
Fly's centerpiece is the DJ booth, where Koch and a hand-picked team of selectors play everything from Madonna to Jay-Z to the latest house mixes, depending on the mood of the room. There's no dedicated "hip-hop night," for example, but getting the crowd moving on the small dance floor or on top of the couches never seems to be a problem.
With a DJ involved in central decisions, Fly's sound system is among the best in the city. "The first thing the clubs overlook is the music," Koch says, pointing out eight concert-quality EAW subwoofers, which is "unheard of" in a lounge that's only 1,000 square feet, and a top-of-the-line Rane mixing board. (Koch is endorsed by the company.) What they haven't been able to do is significantly up the occupancy. Only 140 people can squeeze into the basement-level club without seriously affecting the quality of service, the owners say, and about half the occupancy is reserved for those who want to drop serious cash for bottle service at private tables. To guarantee a seat on the comfortable banquettes or ottomans that line the walls, a group of six or eight needs to spend about $100 apiece -- or for $1,500, a dozen folks can grab the semi-secluded cluster of seats at the far end of the club, which includes volume control for nearby speakers and access to a private bathroom.
That said, "we know not everyone is going to want to come in here and drink for $100 a person," Eidman admits. The alternative is to wait outside.
The politics of the line are the same as at almost every hot lounge in the city: If you show up after 11 Thursday through Saturday and you don't have a reservation, you may as well choose another destination, because you're probably not getting in. Folks with reservations and selected friends of the owners, DJs or bouncers will sneak past the velvet rope first. Besides, the owners point out over and over, the capacity is a low 140, which only increases demand.
"People don't believe you," Koch says with a shake of his head. "The people who go out a lot get it. We want everyone to see the club, but we turned away 300 people last Saturday night."
"That's more than twice the capacity," Eidman adds.
"And if we'd let everyone in," Koch continues, "customers couldn't get a drink or be comfortable.
"I've walked into clubs in the city where I had to do this," he says, standing up ramrod straight, pressing his arms tightly into his sides. "You couldn't see the girls, you couldn't get to the bar."
"On Saturday, our door was closed at 11," Eidman says, even though the room looked almost empty. Four velvet-roped sections of couches and tables had been pre-booked for parties of 15 each, but those groups hadn't arrived yet. "We were operating at half-capacity, but we couldn't let any more people in, because when [the groups with reservations] arrived, we were going to be at capacity."
Fly has been working with a few promoters for guest list access, but even then, nothing is guaranteed. "Last weekend, the guy gave me pages of names," Eidman says. "Half the people who were on the list didn't get in."
Those who did were treated to an outstanding party with a great vibe, filled with attractive people ready to dance. There's no dress code or cover, so attire ranged from pinstripe suits to track tops and sneakers. (Just watch your bar tab: A gin and tonic is in the neighborhood of $10.) Featured behind the long bar is Snow Queen vodka, which looks like it could become one of my favorite spirits. A premium wheat vodka from Kazakhstan, it's distilled five times and has an incredibly soft feel and smooth taste. Thanks to an exclusive deal, Fly is (so far) the only place in the United States selling it. A glass costs $13 and a bottle runs $325, but connoisseurs will find it worth a taste.
If you arrive early on a Friday, or stop in on a less-hectic Tuesday or Wednesday, anyone can usually get past the doorman. If you don't have reservations, treat Fly as you would any other trip to an exotic destination and arrive two hours before you expect to take off.