Dance Club, Bar, Upscale

Editorial Review

Martini's Solves An Age-Old Problem
By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Weekend Section
Friday, January 9, 2004

"I've never understood why there aren't more clubs [targeted at an older crowd]," says nightclub owner Norman "Doc" Hayes. "I always thought that, if there was a place for them, people in their thirties and forties would go there."

Watching the crowds grooving to the Delfonics and O'Jays at Martini's last Friday night, it's obvious the man is on to something. And when Nelly's "Hot in Herre" booms from the speakers, some graying couples prove that age ain't nothing but a number.

Open for just less than three months, Martini's is Hayes's second foray into the over-30 nightlife scene. Six years ago, he opened Club Elite in Temple Hills, which quickly built a following by offering hand dancing (an elegant African American swing dance native to the Washington area), live R&B bands and fancy cognac. (Hayes boasts that Club Elite sells more cognac than any bar in Maryland.) Younger people come too, congregating on the lower level, where DJs spin the latest hip-hop hits, but they're in the minority.

Now with Martini's, Hayes, his brother, Ronald, and daughter, Jedaka, are attempting to reach a more mature audience while filling a niche in southern Prince George's County with "an upscale place for jazz and R&B."

To that end, Majic 102.3 (WMMJ-FM), which focuses on R&B and soul from the '60s and '70s as well as current slow jams, sponsors the Friday happy hour and DJs. Smooth Jazz 105.9 (WJZW-FM) is involved with Thursday's jazz night, which features live music by Impresario as well as DJs. "If [Club] Elite is 30 and over, this is 35 to 40 and over," Hayes says with a grin as couples whirl past.

Hand dancers and Chicago-style steppers fill the dance floor on Wednesdays for Spur of the Moment's blues and R&B grooves. Mondays find Whop Frazier and friends performing a wide spectrum of funk-infused blues. Local funnyman-about-town Skiba, who hosts shows at Takoma Station and Teddy's House of Comedy, runs a stand-up showcase on Tuesday nights.

No matter the night, the crowd seems happy to go beyond the "proper attire" dress code and make an extra effort with sharp pinstripe suits and homburg hats, figure-hugging dresses, glittering accessories and elaborately styled hair.

Formerly known as Charlie's and the Top Hat, the layout is simple. A stage and large dance floor fill the spartanly decorated main room.

Seats -- especially the black horseshoe-shaped booths along the walls, perfect for people watching -- are quickly taken, and groups holding snifters of port and colorful martini glasses begin to congregate around the edge of the dance floor and the curving, neon-lit bar.

Adjacent to the main room is a more formal space used for private functions, but often it's open to everyone. With plenty of tables, its own bar and a separate DJ -- but little room to gyrate -- it's a better place to talk and relax, so patrons wander between the two areas all night. A kitchen is in place, but the full dinner menu isn't -- at the moment, a short list of late-night selections is available. Better to arrive before 8 for the free happy-hour buffet, loaded with fried fish, roast beef, potatoes, corn and salad.

Come early anyway, if you can, because parking looks to be the club's biggest problem. Located in a long, industrial cul-de-sac among tire dealers, automotive repair shops, hairdressers and assorted small businesses, there are few spaces to be had, and they go quickly -- especially early in the evening, when other business are open and towing restrictions are enforced. Later, a parade of sports cars and Mercedes sedans circles through the parking lots, hunting for a spot.

Hayes says discussions are underway about adding a new parking lot behind the building, but nothing will be done for a while. That's too bad -- one night, I circled for almost 20 minutes before miraculously spotting an opening.

That probably doesn't happen to all the local politicians who've come through the doors. Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (R) spoke to local business leaders at a networking breakfast in November. U.S. Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.) co-hosted an evening reception for County Council Chairman Tony Knotts (D-Temple Hills) last month. And it's not unusual to find state senators or council members dropping in to the club to dance and say hello to the gregarious Hayes.

"I'm originally from Chicago, and politics, entertainment and the real world are entwined there," Hayes says. "You knew your alderman, your councilman, everyone. . . . You'd see them, they'd socialize."

Hayes wants to bring some of that atmosphere to Martini's, similar to Washington's well-known Player's Lounge. "I've said to Tony Knotts, 'Your constituents are right here. You don't have to drink. You can come in, have a Coke and talk to them, listen to their opinions. Hey, they all have votes.' " Community, Hayes says, shouldn't be taken for granted. He speaks proudly of collecting canned goods for a local food bank at a Christmas party, and of working with county churches. More than 70 percent of Martini's clientele live within "a 10-mile radius" of the club, he estimates, so it's only right the club should give something back.