The U Street renaissance continues with the reopening of one of Washington's most legendary jazz spots: the Bohemian Caverns. The club has been empty for almost 30 years; but a new team of owners has restored it to its former glory, and given Washington the jazz spot and supper club it has been lacking.
The first floor of the club is a gorgeous but often empty restaurant called Mahogany. The expensive entrees (prices start at $18.50) are named after jazz luminaries that performed at the club during its illustrious history. From the restaurant, you can head downstairs directly into the Caverns nightclub, which also has its own street entrance.
The decor of the Bohemian Caverns has been taken back to the '20s, when the club was known as the Crystal Caverns. There's a reason for the name: The walls are done in fake rock, like the Seven Dwarves' Mine at Disney World, or the Lost Jazz Grotto of Luray Caverns.
Stools, tables and even the long, wide bar at the end of the room are made from petrified wood. If you have to stand, recessed shelves "hammered" out of the rock hold your drink. So far, this sounds fun, kind of cheesy, right? It's a cave on U Street. Ha ha. Maybe it'll be a trip to go there every now and then.
But then you look at the list of performers who've played there: Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk...the roll call of greats goes on and on. This place reeks of history, even if it doesn't look exactly as it did when those giants roamed the stage. You can still imagine them here, though, and you'll just want to sit at the bar and take it all in.
The space has great ambient sound, but columns and stalactites can block the sight lines from corners of the room. Service is a bit slow and sometimes chaotic, but that will hopefully improve with time.
Upstairs, with its own entrance, is Liv, a two-level club space with a bar, dance floor and tables, plus a mezzanine for watching the crowds. The Caverns holds weekly happy hours here for young urban professionals, and a well-dressed crowd hits the club on Saturday night for Touch, with WPGC's DJ Quicksilva spinning popular hip-hop.
The focus, though, is on the jazz, with a regular spot by the Young Lions and rotating out-of-town guests. Who knows? Maybe one of the groups you'll see will one day have a photo in the window next to Miles, Earl Hines or Ornette Coleman.
-- Fritz Hahn (Updated April 2007)