The return of the retro vibe
By Fritz Hahn
Friday, February 26, 2010
The buzz: Hotel bars used to be classy, understated places -- the kind of rooms where you would order a cocktail, relax on a comfortable sofa and listen to soft jazz or piano standards. Not terribly exciting, but perfect for a quiet date or a place to talk business.
Then came the flashy, trendy Kimpton and W hotel lounges, and now new hotel bars tend to be high-energy places with futuristic lighting, DJs and flashy mixologists. That's great for a scene, but what if you want someplace a little more quiet, a little more like the hotel bars of old?
The retro styling of the Black Fox Lounge, a new Dupont Circle watering hole, harks back to hotel bars of the '70s and '80s. Part of this is intentional: Three huge paintings of Bath, England, reclaimed from the Watergate Hotel's Circle Bar, dominate the wall facing the long wooden bar. In the rear of the room, a small lounge area is full of chocolate-colored tufted leather sofas that practically beg you to sink into them. They were salvaged from the pre-renovation Jefferson Hotel.
From the heavy barstools to the fixtures, the colors throughout are neutral: glossy brown wood, beige marble floors, butterscotch walls. It screams "adult," not "happy hour," which is rare in Dupont.
Monday through Thursday, musicians take their places in the large window facing Connecticut Avenue, performing classical, jazz and Latin tunes on guitar, trumpet or bass, the perfect soundtrack for an evening out with friends.
Downstairs are two more rooms filled with mismatched furniture -- couches, armchairs, seat-height leather blocks -- that makes the environment less formal than the upstairs. But the key element is a baby grand piano, which is put to good use by jazz trios on Friday and Saturday nights.
"I love it," said Mary Eva Candon, 59, executive vice president of the D.C. Bar Association, who was enjoying a glass of wine with her boyfriend at the bar. "I like an elegant place to relax after a hard day of work."
Though this was her first visit, she'll be back, she said, to hear jazz and guitar in the evening. "My parents were native Washingtonians, and they tell me about going to cocktail lounges with live music in the '40s and '50s. You don't have that anymore. But this place is bringing it back."
The scene: The combination of music and cocktails -- and the lack of a happy hour -- means that the Black Fox attracts an older crowd more into chatting with one another over a glass of wine than watching the flat-screen TVs or shouting over the night's performer.
"It's absolutely wonderful," said Jeff Mathewson, 61, who knows a thing or two about local hangouts, having tended bar at the now-closed Timberlake's across the street for more than a decade. Black Fox is, he said, "very nice, very tasteful. It's great to have live music. This is a place where you can come and feel comfortable."
Wayne McCabe, a 39-year-old lawyer, and his friend Mark Hall found themselves in the Black Fox on a Thursday night after visiting three other places in the neighborhood, which they found "young and loud."
"This is more, 'Let's go somewhere where you can relax and listen to live music,' " McCabe said. "You can just have a nice drink in a nice place. It's not pretentious. It's a neighborhood place."
In your glass: Given the surroundings, you might expect a classically boozy martini list, but the drink menu is full of sweet -- and frankly feminine -- touches. The house cocktail is the Black Fox, based around Sazerac rye whiskey and orange bitters, but a touch of creme de cacao adds a subtle hint of chocolate to the mix. A bourbony mint julep is dressed up with green creme de menthe for an unnaturally minty drink. Much better was the Cowgirl Hoof, despite its odd name: just silver Jamaican rum, orange bitters and mint, touched with a bit of lime, for a strong, refreshing drink.
There's also an extensive wine list -- a dozen sparklers alone, such as Cook's, Gosset and Veuve Clicquot -- that includes 20 sold by the glass. There's no draft beer, but there's a short selection of bottles that includes the pedestrian (Heineken, Amstel) and interesting (the Belgian Affligem).
On your plate: The menu is loaded with salads -- including cold shrimp tossed with a creamy dressing over greens -- and lots of small plates. It's not long on adventure (baked brie, anyone?) but can be good. I've gravitated toward the panini with prosciutto and gooey provolone, fiery red peppers, pickles and olives.
Price points: Cocktails cost $9 to $12. Beers range from $4 to $7. Wines by the glass can cost up to $14, but you can also stick with the "house" selections (Australian wines by Alice White, a Languedoc merlot from Patch Block) for $5 each.
Need to know: Music begins at 7 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 8:30 p.m. Wednesday (for great trumpet-and-guitar duets), 7:30 p.m. Thursday and 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday.