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IndeBleu Puts Itself On the Map

By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 25, 2005; Page WE05

WHEN YOU STROLL into the austere modern bar at IndeBleu (707 G St. NW; 202-333-2538), look on the white granite counter for a glossy orange brochure that resembles a tourist's pocket guide to downtown attractions. Unfolded, the familiar image of a Metro map serves as a cocktail menu, with a Lycheetini (vodka and fresh lychee juice) replacing Franconia-Springfield on the "Martini Line," and a blackberry mojito (imagine the minty Cuban favorite muddled with fresh blackberries) on the outer reaches of the Red -- sorry, "Bleu" Line.

The clever imagery is one way IndeBleu's bar and lounge is trying to set itself apart from the increasingly crowded high-end nightlife scene. Others include a roster of DJs affiliated with clubs such as Eighteenth Street Lounge and Ozio, a complimentary coat check, and friendly bartenders and servers who generally satisfy. And don't miss the bathrooms, which sport black-and-white flat-screen televisions over the sinks instead of mirrors. Higher up on the wall and pointing down are television cameras, which transmit somewhat grainy images of the hand-washer in question to the TVs.

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IndeBleu wants to be an alternative to style-conscious, European-inspired nightspots such as Blue Gin or Eighteenth Street Lounge, focusing on music and cocktails for a smartly dressed crowd in its late twenties and thirties. There's no cover charge -- "asking for money at the door wouldn't feel right," says general manager Jay Coldren -- though IndeBleu does offer the usual "amenities" that can be off-putting: a "reservations only" lounge with bottle service Thursday through Saturday, where groups can relax on couches or banquettes as long as they agree to spend a couple of hundred dollars, and admission at peak periods on weekends may soon be limited to those with table reservations and regulars who've been "invited" onto a special guest list.

Coldren, a graduate of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, designed IndeBleu's menu map after a trip to Europe. It's something that's uniquely Washington, he says, and it's a map because "people are exploring the world of cocktails -- you know, 'Where do I go?' "

Besides serving as a guide for indecisive drinkers, Coldren's map is becoming quite a collectible. From its mid-December opening through the beginning of March, IndeBleu went through 10,000 copies of it. People take them home, "and we love that," says Mark Gundersen, IndeBleu's communications director. Among those impressed by it are the Library of Congress, which plans to add a specimen to its cartography collection, and Department of Transportation employees, who asked for unfolded copies to hang in their offices.

More important than the design, though, are the drinks on it. Forty-six different martinis and shots are represented, including selections of shots and champagne-based drinks, and they're all over the map. The Holy Basil is a particular favorite -- a dry mix of champagne and basil-infused sirop de gomme (which sounds so much fancier than simple syrup), garnished with a large sprig of holy basil, a plant with religious and medicinal significance for Hindus.

There's an international flavor to the menu. Chef Vikram Garg, who heads the restaurant on the second floor, is responsible for the masala mary, a traditional bloody mary warmed up with masala and other Indian spices. Mangotinis and the banana-and-orange Cheeky Monkey are refreshing tastes of the tropics. Some of the drinks, though, seem to suffer when crowds descend -- a friend and I ordered a pair of Holy Basils one night, and hers was heavy on the champagne, light on basil. Mine was the reverse.

Just be prepared for sticker shock -- more than half of the cocktails are $12 or more, and even a lowly bottle of Samuel Adams will set you back $6. At those prices, I might expect more from the stark black-and-white surroundings, which offer chunky metal barstools for 20 and standing room for dozens more. That's where the sumptuous rear lounge comes in. Decorated in warm oranges and reds and lighted by flickering candles, the two rooms are a mix of ultra-modern furniture -- the high back of one sofa almost reaches the ceiling, curving like an upholstered tidal wave above a trio of tables and long, bedlike benches -- and a large sunken "den" filled with striped banquettes and low tables. Every couch and bench is covered in plush beaded pillows.

You don't need to be a VIP to hang out here -- each group merely has to spend a minimum of $300 to $500 per table on weekends. The easy solution is to make an initial visit to IndeBleu during the week, because the lounge doesn't require minimums or reservations Sunday through Wednesday. Thursdays can be trickier, Gundersen says, because while it's possible to get a seat, your chances "depend on the time [you] arrive, and whether we have anything reserved."

IndeBleu has been building a crowd of regulars, and it wants to find a way to "protect and reward" them, says Coldren, especially on Friday and Saturday nights, when the Penn Quarter area attracts lots of bar-hopping thrill-seekers, or an influx of people going to events at MCI Center across the street. The answer, it seems, may be to limit admission to folks who've made reservations or come in on off-nights and made themselves known to the bar staff and management. "We want people to get to know a bartender, get to know a manager," Gundersen says.

Coldren says that IndeBleu is "looking at some nights being exclusive after a certain time" to ease the crush, in the hopes that "people are happy with it and come back because of it."

That seems unfair to curious folks who may just want to check out the drinks on a Friday-night date, but Coldren argues that "you have to pick your battles. . . . There's an enormous chunk of time when they can come explore." So much for a place that promised "no pretense, no attitude" when it opened.

That said, cocktail aficionados, lounge lovers and the see-and-be-seen crowd will find much to like at IndeBleu -- as long as they don't mind a few gaps.

CAPITOL CITY REOPENS DOWNTOWN

Since opening in August 1992, the downtown branch of the Capitol City Brewing Company (1100 New York Ave. NW; 202-628-2222) has served almost 2.9 million pints of beer. It was, boasts Capitol City's Vice President of Operations Andy Cook, "the first brewpub in Washington since Prohibition."

I'm referring to Cap City's brewery in the past tense because several years ago the company opened a larger, high-capacity brewpub in Shirlington and decided that it would be more efficient to brew beer for the downtown branch in Northern Virginia. (The Cap City locations on Capitol Hill and in Baltimore continue to make their own beers.)

Despite the loss of day-to-day brewing operations, the restaurant and bar remained popular. But after almost 13 years, Cook says, the restaurant was showing its age, and closed in February for a month-long makeover. While the "new" space has been freshened up, the changes are primarily cosmetic: a new coat of yellow paint on the walls, new tables and chairs, new hardwood flooring, new lights hanging above the oval copper-topped bar, a pair of flat-screen televisions. Upstairs, the renovated "Brewer's Lounge" offers additional seating for private gatherings and beer tastings.

My favorite reason to visit Cap City, though, remains untouched: extended, affordable happy hours. Every day from 4 to 7 p.m. and again from 10 to close, draft beers sell for $2.50, and everything on the appetizer menu is half-price. On my last visit, there were five beers available, including an English Nut Brown Ale that's sweeter than you might expect. Always reliable: the crisp, light Capitol Kolsch, a golden German-style ale that's become one of the chain's signature beverages, and thick, toasty Prohibition Porter.

Don't expect much more than bar food, though. The multicolored nachos are average, and a pound of wings is a little bit better. Buffalo chicken pizza is just what it sounds like: a medium-size pizza topped with melted blue cheese, moderately spicy wing sauce and hunks of chicken. There's a reason Cap City's reputation rests on its beer, not the pub grub.


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