An Urban-Cool Oasis
By Fritz Hahn
Special to the Washington Post
Friday, October 24, 2008
The buzz: If it's your first time heading to Layla Lounge, you're likely to have some misgivings. You wonder what you're getting into when you walk under the train tracks on Florida Avenue and the deserted-looking warehouses of Capital City Market come into view. You question whether you really should park your car in front of a seafood wholesaler with bricked-up windows. The night life options seem more likely to be an underground rave than a lounge.
Then you see the red carpet outside 501 Morse St., guarded by bouncers wearing black suits, and you remember that Saturday night's party is thrown by Marc Barnes, the entrepreneur behind upscale nightspots Love and the Park at 14th, and the club is run by Sherwin Robinson, who managed Jay-Z's 40/40 Club in New York as well as Love, and his twin brother, Sheldon. That pedigree is a clue that Layla is more than a diamond in the rough.
The scene: Layla, which opened in August, is an oasis of urban cool in the shadow of Gallaudet University. The first floor's walls are covered in rough blocks of panther slate, a beige stone streaked with color, and the leather couches are warm pumpkin. (There's black slate underfoot, too.) At the tiled bar, the tall leather stools feel more like chairs, and the friendly staff is mixing colorful martinis with flavored vodkas.
Past VIP ropes, the minimalist upstairs lounge is mix of stark white -- the bar, the couches, the tables with built-in ice buckets for chilling champagne -- and an LED wall that offers a soothing glow. More color comes from lights at the top of columns and under the bar top. (The row of flat-screen TVs overhead is more of a distraction than an addition.) There's plenty of space to mingle at the bar and in the center of the room, so even when it's full, it's never too crowded.
Couches downstairs are first-come, first-served on Wednesdays and Thursdays, when only the first floor is open. On weekends, seating on both floors requires bottle service with minimums that start at $500 and can go as high as $2,000, depending on the night and whether there's a special event. (The first floor is less exclusive, so tables generally are a few hundred dollars less.)
For a first visit, especially if you're on a budget, stop by on Wednesday, where the after-work happy hour includes an hour-long open bar, a free buffet that's almost enough for dinner and various drink specials. A laid-back crowd gathers on the couches, listening to the tunes spun by DJ Jealousy of WPGC and occasionally jumping up to do a little hand dancing on the large (and often empty) section of the lounge that serves as the dance floor.
Getting in: The door pressure depends on the night: Wednesday is "dressy casual," says Andrea Cathey, who organizes events at the lounge, and outfits range from blazers and jeans to polos and slacks. On weekends, everything gets more strict: Besides the usual mantra of "no athletic wear, no boots," men are required to wear a button-down shirt. (It's fine if it's under a sweater, apparently.)
In your glass: Very potent cocktails, whether orange martinis or simple gin and tonics. On Wednesdays, the open bar, sponsored by Ciroc vodka, runs from 6 to 7 p.m., with specials on beers ($3 Heinekens) and rail drinks until 9 p.m.
Price points: There's no cover charge on Wednesday, while on weekends it can run as high as $20. (Try grabbing a free pass from http://www.marcandtaz.com.) Reserving a table upstairs on a Saturday night can require a $1,000 minimum. Drinks are reasonable: $8 to $12 for martinis or basic cocktails.
Need to know: Layla is about 3 1/2 blocks from the New York Avenue Metro station, and valet parking is available.
Nice to know: Layla follows the current trend of unisex bathrooms: Let an attendant point you to one of the closetlike cubicles. The mirrors over the sink have TVs showing ESPN lurking behind the dark glass.
What people are saying: "It was a hole in the wall, but I think it's a really nice club," says Jessica Gray, a 26-year-old law student at the University of the District of Columbia. "When I've come, it's been really nice: good food and an open bar. We're in a recession, so if you can eat and/or drink for free, you have to."
"The ambiance is nice," says Julian Barnes, a 26-year-old second-grade teacher. "The food is really good. They just need a little more patronage."