A Reason to Stay Up Late in Silver Spring
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, August 25, 2006
At 3:30 Sunday morning, Gallery Restaurant and Lounge is the only nightspot in Silver Spring that's still going -- and it's going strong. Last call was 90 minutes ago. Every drop of alcohol had to be finished by 2:30, and the bartenders are handing out water instead of mixing up Red Bull and vodka. Still, the crowd packing the makeshift dance floor isn't ready to head home.
And why should they? DJ Sneak, a Chicago DJ known from the warehouses of the Windy City to the beaches of Miami and Ibiza, has been killing it all night with a mix of funky house, Daft Punk and disco covers. Breakdancers form circles, taking turns in the spotlight to show off their locking moves. Women in tight skirts and pointy heels are throwing their arms in the air alongside men in Kangol caps and Converse. This is a crowd that crosses racial, gender and clique boundaries, united by a love of music and a desire to have a good time.
It's closer to 4 a.m. by the time Sneak finally plays his last record, and the crowd is reminded yet again that coming soon to Gallery's Summer Sessions party are Derek Carter -- who has swapped the states for Europe, where his house-disco sets draw large crowds -- and a return trip by Roy Davis Jr., one of the godfathers of the Chicago scene, who brings his soulful dance music to Gallery once a month.
Actually, for some people, it has been a long day. Every Saturday, the local production team 88 takes over Gallery's large patio -- really more like a large patch of parking lot covered with tables and chairs -- for Daylight Sessions, which brings DJs out of dark clubs and lets them provide the atmosphere for a sunny afternoon. Beginning at 4 p.m., this is more of a cool-out vibe, with folks sitting outdoors, poking at their mojitos with stalks of sugar cane, and occasionally watching graffiti artists work on a long fence in the parking lot.
Gallery's World War II-era building backs up to the Blair Mill Arts Alley, a one-lane passage that has been turned into a colorful pedestrian-friendly walkway of shops and a monthly artists market. A large, folding garage-style door in the main restaurant area connects the indoor and outdoor spaces, offering the choice between the indoor lounge and an outdoor block party. Early in the evening, I'm more likely to choose the latter: Patrons bring their drinks outside, stand around on the pavement and talk or grab one of the few tables. DJs set up turntables at the far end, with a screen behind them for projected images and video footage. With headlining DJs spinning until 3 or 4, that's almost 12 solid hours of music.
Chris Senese, Gallery's operations manager, oversees the various components of the event but says the credit really goes to the promoters and DJs. "I just brought everyone together and let them be creative," Senese explains. "David Fogel [of 88] wanted to do the Saturday afternoons. Then Omnipresent Syndicate started doing Saturday [nights]. They definitely bring the right crowd. It's not meant to be a see-and-be-seen scene."
Gallery opened in January, replacing the African club Izora along a stretch of East-West Highway that's rapidly shifting from auto shops and warehouses to luxury condos and upscale apartments. The two-level space, which got its start as a machine factory, mixes industrial basics (exposed pipes overhead, cement floors underfoot) with modern touches.
Entering from street level, the one-room bar is fairly basic: white barstools along a short, stylish bar; white plastic chairs at a dozen tables; a creamy leather sofa. Photographs and paintings by local artists hang on walls as blue as a summer day, though not really enough to justify the "Gallery" name. Underneath each work is a pocket of fliers, with each card containing a short bio of the creator and a way for patrons to get in touch if they'd like to see more or perhaps make a purchase.
Downstairs, the vast restaurant and lounge is divided into sections. A large, deep nook filled with white banquettes and tables does double duty as a dining room and the late-night "VIP" area, though customers demanding bottle service are in short supply on Saturdays, and it often just becomes an extension of the dance floor. Up a short flight of steps is a wide mezzanine level that runs the length of the room, filled with tables and chairs. In between is a split-level bar, with orange, yellow and red tiles glowing warmly after dark.
Unlike most clubs and lounges with top-flight DJs, you don't have to pay through the nose if you want to grab a seat. Large, curving booths and couches are tucked into corners and along the walls. Along with the tables on the raised platform, they're open to everyone on a first-come, first-served basis.
Gallery has had a busy schedule -- live jazz on Thursdays, a loungey Friday with Latin music -- but didn't stand out from the crowd until Senese and his promoters started tapping that Chicago pipeline for the likes of Davis and Gene Farris, or San Francisco's Kenny Glasgow. (Washington has been represented by local DJs Tom B, a regular at Red and Eighteenth Street Lounge, and the District Soul collective.) The 88 team began hosting a monthly outdoor blowout with artists and painters. Everything just fell into place, and Gallery began attracting crowds that wee looking for a lounge and club experience but didn't feel like dealing with the parking and dress-code hassles so common at Washington's bigger clubs.
"I was in a position to start bringing in [DJs] I wanted to bring, people that I wanted to hear," Senese explains. "It sounds selfish, but it's true. No one else in D.C. is doing this, so I wanted to throw a party that I'd enjoy or that the DJs and the staff would enjoy."
The late-night vibe is important, too, in a city where everything but the Tastee Diner is shut up tight at 2 a.m. "It wouldn't make any sense to bring in these [DJs] and tell people, 'Okay, it's 2 o'clock, you have to go home,' " Senese laughs. "Like I'm going to bring in DJ Sneak and be like, 'Hey, you're on at 10:30.' People don't even roll in until 11:45."
One downside of bringing in big names is that cover charges can be steep. Last Saturday, men paid $20 to see Sneak if they arrived before midnight and $25 after. Women, meanwhile, got in free from 10 to midnight and even received free drinks until 11, much to the delight of my mojito-loving female friends. (I found out later there was a guest-list option -- $15 with an e-mail -- but didn't see that deal mentioned on fliers or the venue's Web site.) More than prices, though, I've found myself griping about the service. Once the crowds arrive, bartenders frequently seem overwhelmed by the number of drink orders. (I was told by one bartender that they stop making mojitos and several other signature drinks after 11 p.m., when the rush begins.) One friend of mine waited a half-hour for a bartender to take his drink order even though he had a seat at the bar. From my experiences, as well as conversations I overheard while waiting, it's not uncommon to stand for 10 to 15 minutes before your order is taken -- even for something as simple as two bottles of beer.
Away from the bustle of late Friday and Saturday nights, Gallery can be downright sleepy. I've swung by at happy hour to find five people sitting at the bar, plus a couple of diners at tables. Too bad, because the deals -- $2 domestic beers, $3 imports, $5 martinis and $6 mojitos from 4 to 9 on Thursday and Friday -- are among the best found in Silver Spring.
Senese says that soon Saturdays will start including monthly theme nights with new resident DJs -- Sneak may be among them -- and changes are also coming to Gallery's other events. Beginning Sept. 8, BCBG Productions, which has been hosting events at Juste Lounge in Bethesda, will be bringing its salsa-African-Caribbean vibe on Fridays.
In the meantime, Gallery's making small changes -- new speakers improved the sound last weekend, for example -- and trying to perfect a formula that should draw electronic music fans out of the city and into the suburbs for more than just a late night.