washingtonpost.com  > Arts & Living > 2004 Year in Review

Looking Back: Bugs, Bars, Poker and More

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 31, 2004; Page WE05

THERE WERE no seismic shifts on Washington's nightlife scene this year, though the city's unceasing demand for office space evicted one of Washington's largest dance clubs and threatened the future of another. This was predominantly a year of quiet change, as the next generation of lounges and medium-size clubs replaced fading giants like MCCXXIII, and smaller neighborhood bars moved into areas that desperately needed local watering holes. It was the year Washington bars discovered poker, the year that a group of intrepid bar-crawlers decided to break down the barriers between gay and straight bars, and the year of the cicada.

The year began with the announcement that the VIP Club -- a swank, multi-level nightspot previously known as DC Live -- was closing to make room for high-end offices and shops. Owner Abdul Khanu quickly shifted his focus to H2O, an expansive restaurant and nightclub that occupies the former Hogate's on the Southwest waterfront, and continues with the same formula, bringing in celebrities, DJs, musical guests and large crowds Thursday through Saturday nights.

_____Memorable Moments_____
Michael O'Sullivan's Top 10 Exhibits (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
The Year in Music (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Richard Harrington's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Geoffrey Himes's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Mike Joyce's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Mark Jenkins's Top 10 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
Desson Thomson's Top 10 Films (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
. . . And the 10 Worst Films (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)
The Best Bites of 2004 (The Washington Post, Dec 31, 2004)

Other clubs were also under the gun. In August, developers submitted proposals to level the hugely popular club Nation. Home to the weekly Cubik and Velvet Nation dance parties, the warehouse-style venue draws thousands for appearances by the world's top DJs and an assortment of punk, hip-hop and rock bands. (Thankfully, there's no timetable for its closing.) The outdoor dance club Air returned for a second summer at the Ronald Reagan Building, but it struggled to hold on to its crowd after firing several promoters, getting rid of Friday's hip-hop format and offering a merry-go-round of DJs and guests.

There were many more positives, though. Fur transformed an old warehouse near the New York Avenue Metro station into the city's newest megaclub, with a maze of dance floors, bars and lounge areas, and began pulling in international DJ stars like Paul Van Dyk and hometown heroes Deep Dish. Pearl gave the hip-hop crowd the upscale lounge and club missing since the demise of the Saint. The basement-level dance floor at Mantis encouraged a house-party vibe while DJs spun electronic grooves. Mojitos and salsa music lured crowds to Yuca on Saturday nights, creating a vibrant scene.

If you just wanted to grab a seat, sip a martini and hang out with friends, this was a bumper year. Blue Gin became one of the hottest spots in town, thanks to an outstanding cocktail menu that featured drinks made with fresh litchis, blood oranges and rose water, among other seasonal ingredients, and top-quality liquor. You'd never remember this was once the notorious Champions sports bar. (Too bad the lines and the demand for seating in the VIP-style upstairs lounge sometimes detracted from the experience.) Competing for the well-dressed see-and-be-seen crowd were Eyebar, a mod European-style lounge, and Panache, which tried to bridge the gap between being an after-work gathering spot and a cool place for vodka drinks and dancing on weekends. It's still seeking the right formula.

Hotel bars continued to be among the more stylish lounges around; the latest addition to the scene is Palette, in the Madison, and the tropical Dark N' Stormy rum cocktail alone makes it worth a visit.

Fun-seekers eschewing dress codes, cover charges and budget-busting martinis found relief at unpretentious bars like Wonderland and Tonic, which slotted into their respective neighborhoods (Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant) as if they'd been there for years, offering cheap drinks, good food and great jukeboxes. In Sterling, the Irish owners and staff of O'Faolain's focus on the basics: friendly service, a pub quiz and a proper pint of stout.

Live music fans celebrated the opening of DC9, a mid-size bar and concert venue that welcomes indie rock, hip-hop and alternative bands as well as weekly DJ nights. Twins Lounge reopened in upper Northwest, and the intimate jazz club's lineup, heavy on open mikes and trios, serves as a perfect foil for U Street's larger Twins Jazz. Local Tex-Mex chain Austin Grill added live music at its latest location in Silver Spring, offering no-cover rockabilly, blues and singer-songwriter showcases.

Despite a lineup including the Old 97s, Fountains of Wayne and Virginia Coalition, the annual Live on Penn concert series didn't draw crowds to its outdoor shows on Pennsylvania Avenue, and promoters pulled the plug after just three of the 10 scheduled events.

Dance clubs and lounges may have made the biggest noise, but a startlingly wide array of bars opened throughout the Washington area, proving that there is indeed something for everyone.

Coyote Ugly -- part of a chain of bars inspired by the movie of the same name -- opened across from the MCI Center, and its dancing, shot-pouring female bartenders became popular with bachelorette parties and sports fans alike. The Flying Scotsman brought (what else?) single-malt Scotch whisky and Scotch beers to an otherwise quiet stretch near Judiciary Square and the Department of Labor, and offered specials to Red Sox fans during the team's epic playoff run.

Meanwhile, the brick-walled 51st State pub drew Yankees, Giants and Jets fans to Foggy Bottom. Bartender Scott Porter opened Porter's Dining Saloon at 19th and M streets NW, and his low-key watering hole became a happy hour destination.

Over on Capitol Hill, the Barracks Row area south of Eastern Market continued building steam, as the martini lounge Tapatini's and the Ugly Mug joined the Irish bar Finn Mac Cool's, the homey jazz joint Ellington's on Eighth, and a number of interesting little restaurants, including Belga Cafe, where the crowded bar area offers a large selection of delicious and exotic Belgian beers.

Adams Morgan maintained its position as Washington's leading nightlife area. Biker favorite Asylum expanded to two floors, adding room for more DJs and more medieval dungeon decor, and Felix Lounge lost its "New York, New York" design for something more hip and minimalist.

The hot spots weren't limited to Washington, though. Clarendon residents could boast about Eleventh Street, a cool New York-inspired lounge in a sea of sports bars and live music, and Tallula, which offers 70 wines by the glass in the space formerly occupied by the legendary dive bar Whitey's. The Front Page opened in Ballston, although it didn't bring the same happy hour crowd as its sister bar in Dupont Circle. Leesburg became home to the area's newest brewpub when Thoroughbreds Grill and Brewing began serving its own German- and English-inspired beers.

In Bethesda, Europa Lounge tried to bring a sophisticated feel to the neighborhood, with leather couches, a decent martini list, and live jazz and blues. The Galaxy Billiards Cafe opened in bustling Silver Spring with a sea of pool tables, televisions and happy hour specials. And Prince George's County continued to add cool places to meet friends for a drink, including the attractive Red Star Tavern at the Boulevard at the Capital Centre, and the DuClaw Brewing Company in Bowie.

We did say goodbye to a number of area favorites, including Honolulu, the tiki-tacky tropical paradise that served the best mai tais around; the 19-year-old Luna Park Grille, which was serving up beer and live music in Westover before Arlington was cool; the Signal 66 gallery, where art and live music often mixed in intriguing fashion; and Visions Cinema Bistro Lounge, where the Bar Noir lounge wasn't exceptional, but the all-you-can-drink midnight movies helped turn "Donnie Darko" into a cult hit.

Some of the most interesting weekly events on the nightlife calendar disappeared in 2004: Felix's "Sex and the City" viewing party, which went out with tears and Cosmos; the busy, groovin' Lemur Lounge DJ night in Alexandria; and, in the past two months, a trio of established hip-hop events: Krunk, Reunion Thursday and Grits and Gravy, all of which offered something outside the endless repetition of radio-friendly beats.

On the legal front, a proposition to ban smoking in D.C. bars and restaurants failed to make it onto the November ballot, but the issue reverberated across the area. Gaithersburg's Buffalo Billiards and Bethesda's Montgomery's Grill were among several Montgomery County restaurants and bars that shut their doors, claiming the county's year-old smoking ban caused business to decline dramatically. Fearing a similar fate, Bethesda bars Uncle Jed's Roadhouse and Saphire constructed elaborate decks to give smokers an option in warm weather.

The Montgomery County Council pointed to statistics showing that tax revenue from restaurants and bars was up 0.04 percent over fiscal 2003, but bar owners complained about slowing business, empty seats and staff layoffs.

Not everyone was worried about smoking sections though. Halo, Dupont Circle's hottest (and tiniest) new lounge, went nonsmoking after opening night, but lines still stretch out the door on weekends. Cafe Saint-Ex manages to have one of the coolest DJ lineups in the city while not allowing smoking on the main level until 11 p.m. In Arlington, Ireland's Four Courts and soccer hot spot Summers remodeled, expanded and added separate nonsmoking areas. Beer drinkers gained an extra incentive to visit the smoke-free Founders' Restaurant and Brewing Company when award-winning brewer Bill Madden left Capitol City Brewing Company for the Old Town Alexandria brewpub over the summer.

While hundreds of bars and clubs celebrated an anniversary this year, a few hit milestones ending in "5" or "0." The Rock Bottom Brewery in Ballston marked five years of making its own award-winning beers.

Iota, Arlington's bastion of roots rock, alt-country and independent music, turned 10. Tommy "The Matchmaker" Curtis boasts that 168 couples have gotten engaged after meeting at the singles-heavy Yacht Club of Bethesda over the past 15 years. Downtown, the Bottom Line celebrated its 25th anniversary, and Martin's Tavern, which opened in 1933, finally got around to celebrating 70 years of being Georgetown's favorite corner pub, frequented by politicians, celebrities and neighborhood residents alike.

Some other events that brightened the nightlife this year:

The buzz over the 17-year cicadas didn't live up to the pre-invasion hype, but the little critters served as an inspiration for bartenders across the city, and numerous green or brown drinks were created in honor of the bugs. ( Kramerbooks actually served chocolate-covered cicadas with a Jack Daniel's cocktail.) One thing this town did get excited about, though, was the presidential race. The buildup to Nov. 2 felt like New Year's Eve, as dozens of bars, restaurants and clubs threw election-night parties with large screens, themed cocktails and live music, allowing politicos of all stripes to cheer (or groan) as results came in.

Thanks to endless replays of ESPN's "World Series of Poker," the Travel Channel's "World Poker Tour" and Bravo's "Celebrity Poker Showdown," Texas Hold 'Em moved out of friends' kitchens and into the national consciousness -- and Washington area bars. Some tournaments, like those at Dr. Dremo's and McFadden's, raised money for charity. At Fado Irish Pub, on the other hand, it's every man and woman for themselves, as the Irish pub hands out "$400" in chips every Wednesday and awards prizes to the winners.

Guerilla Queer Bar Takeover was the year's most interesting sociological experiment, as groups of gay and lesbian bar hoppers "invaded" traditionally straight nightspots, mixing, mingling and breaking down artificial walls.

The Columbia Island Marina became the summer's unlikeliest outdoor concert venue, as reggae and oldies bands performed at the Pentagon Lagoon while audiences snacked on barbecue and played volleyball.

Prom-themed parties were the retro event of choice, demonstrating the lasting influence of '80s teen movies, and providing a chance for anyone to reposition themselves as the in crowd. There was a Goth prom at Nation, a gay and lesbian prom at the Velvet Lounge, a mohawked "anti-prom" at the Black Cat and the "Punk vs. Pop" prom at DC9.

Perhaps the most traditional was a costumed '80s prom to raise money for the homeless, held in the gym at the Sports Club LA.

I can only wonder what 2005 will bring.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company