By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 31, 2006
Think about your weekend bar and club plans. Now think about the factors that led you to choose the where and the why. What are the most important requirements?
Judging by questions I get, great music is an obvious choice, along with good (and affordable) drinks; some late-night snack options; a lively crowd; and a balance of dance floor and lounge seating areas. Since no nightspot can be truly perfect, take away one of those options. Which one would you choose?
Vegetate, Shaw's only vegetarian-vegan restaurant and lounge, almost has everything going for it: The three-level townhouse, which opened last October near Ninth and P streets NW, is owned by local DJ extraordinaire Dominic Redd and wife Jennifer. The building's second-floor dining room and bar has soothing lettuce-green walls, with heavy oak mirrors behind the long wooden counter and brushed metal barstools on the other side. More sit in an adjacent lounge, which has slick hardwood floors for dancing and a state-of-the-art DJ booth. Paintings by local artists hang on the walls, changing every couple of weeks. Both spaces feature unreserved couch seating, flickering candles and small plates cooked by Sidra Forman and Derrick Bullock, late of Logan Circle's Viridian.
Try to order a glass of chardonnay or a bottle of Bud, though, and your server will instead suggest a sparkling water from Wales the way a sommelier might steer you toward a pinotage from South Africa or recommend the house-made ginger ale to accompany your sweet potato tart with collard greens. Vegetate has almost everything you need for a night out -- except liquor. The reason why is a tale of bureaucratic wrangling and local politics.
Dominic Redd is well-known on the nightlife scene for his work as DJ Dredd, packing in crowds as the original DJ at Prince-centered Lovesexy parties when they were at Modern, filling dance floors with old-school hip-hop and funk at the Blue Room's weekly Uncle Q's Living Room, and rocking Cleveland Park's Aroma lounge on Friday nights. For his most recent venture, though, he and his wife decided they'd rather focus on one of their pet peeves: a lack of hip, innovative restaurants in Washington that offer only meatless dishes. Both vegetarians, the Redds "got tired of going to places where all we could order was a veggie platter or pasta primavera," he says.
The couple signed a lease last year, but when they went for a liquor license hearing in August, they were surprised to find a boisterous crowd from Shiloh Baptist Church who came to argue against Vegetate's application. "They chartered a bus and brought like 100 or 150 people down" to the meeting, Redd says. "They said we were a nightclub and we were going to ruin the neighborhood."
Around the corner from Vegetate, Shiloh is a neighborhood fixture that boasts a large (and primarily suburban-based) congregation and owns a number of (vacant) properties nearby, and its members are steadfastly against adding liquor licenses on nearby streets. Last year, Shiloh successfully fought against a liquor license for the Queen of Sheba, an Ethiopian restaurant just down Seventh Street.
The church's arguments against Vegetate initially focused on the assumption that Vegetate would open as a restaurant and then shift to focusing on nightclub-style dance nights, bringing more late-night activity and drunken behavior to the neighborhood instead of the fine-dining option many local organizations had supported. (That's not an entirely unwarranted allegation because that kind of bait-and-switch has occurred in other nightlife-heavy areas.) Redd disputes the claim, saying his fixed 10-year lease means his restaurant is not under pressure to make a quick buck from high-profit alcohol sales. Another argument was more direct: Shaw already has a problem with public drinking and drug use, and there was no reason to put another place selling liquor on Ninth Street.
Neighborhood residents, who've seen house prices soar without new retail and restaurants arriving at the same pace, got into the act, sending messages of support through the restaurant's Web site, http://www.vegetatedc.com/ , and contacting D.C. Councilman Jack Evans (D), who represents the Shaw area. To date, only Shiloh Baptist Church has lodged a complaint against Vegetate.
Finally, the church's lawyers maintained that Vegetate was in violation of District liquor laws by operating within 400 feet of Seaton Elementary School. When the distances were measured, the city found that there were more than 900 feet between Vegetate's front door and the school's; more than 400 feet from the rear of Vegetate to the school's back door; and just 334 from a garage on the rear of Vegetate's lot -- "which isn't even attached to [the restaurant's] structure, and goes down an alley [to get to the school]," Redd says -- to the corner of the school's baseball field. Besides, he says, Vegetate opens long after third-graders have gone home for the day.
Still, rules are rules, and Vegetate's license application was denied on appeal in February.
What really ticks Redd off is that he wants to be "an asset to the community" when he could just trade the spinach lasagna and mushroom and kale soup for Powerball tickets and 40-ounce beers. Thanks to laws that grandfathered-in businesses such as the S&W liquor store, which sits directly across from Shiloh Baptist, Vegetate's owners were told that, for example, they could open a similar business in their location.
"If we want to open a liquor store here, we could, but a fine-dining restaurant can't open because there are no other restaurants in the area," he explains, with plenty of frustration in his voice. "We could be a liquor store that sells pocket whiskeys to drunks and bums, and we could open it right next to the playground."
In March, the Redds thought they found a way around the problem: They paid about $1,200 for a month's worth of limited beer and wine licenses valid on Friday and Saturday nights -- the kind used by caterers or event coordinators who want to schedule parties at venues that don't usually offer alcohol. (This was a legal, if pricey, procedural maneuver that couldn't be appealed by the church.) Vegetate extended kitchen hours until 1 a.m., offering a pared-down menu with items such as vegetarian sliders and stuffed crimini mushrooms. Sometimes it worked, as when DJ Stylus of the local hip-hop group Poem-Cees got a few dozen people grooving to a mix of hip-hop and soulful classics one Saturday night. Other times, I stopped by to find two or three people sitting at the bar and ordering from the short but classy wine list.
"I think [the controversy] definitely hurt us," Redd says. "People think we never serve alcohol."
Last week, the Redds announced in an e-mail to customers that they just couldn't afford to keep paying for the license. The restaurant continues to be busy, turning lots of tables on weekends, and Redd vows he won't stay away from the DJ booth for long.
Still, he prudently wonders how many people are going to come out to hear his blends of vintage Michael Jackson, Jay-Z and Roy Ayers if they can't get an intoxicating beverage at the same time. "We lose business because of [the lack of alcohol]. People call us every week, asking, 'Do you have your license yet?' And we have to tell them no. First, you lose revenue because you can't sell liquor, but people also just don't come. I know everyone doesn't drink, but going out and beer and wine and alcohol go hand-in-hand."
That's a quandary that I've often puzzled over on this beat. Swing or salsa dancers get stuck with goody-goody reputations and a lack of available venues because they're more worried about their steps than buying vodka tonics, so bar owners don't make enough money on liquor sales. I also hear from people who'd like to go out on dates or to catch up with friends without feeling pressured to buy drinks. Vegetate seems -- for now, at least -- to be a promising option, but it probably won't be as popular or as busy as it deserves without pouring drinks. Vegetate's next -- and maybe last -- resort is working with Evans on trying to get a waiver around the law. "We testified at an oversight hearing at the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration," Redd says. "Jack Evans says he's going to do something, but we don't know what or when."
Taking his mind off the controversy for a moment, though, Redd is preparing for Memorial Day weekend at the Black Cat, where he'll be resurrecting one of Lovesexy's most famous events: The Prince vs. Outkast Party. It's just what it sounds like: One song by His Royal Badness followed by one track by Big Boi and Andre 3000. Rinse and repeat. "The Black Cat is trying to diversify the dance nights they have," Redd explains, pointing to a lineup dominated by indie rock and Britpop DJs. "They approached me a couple of months ago, but I couldn't do it [because of the problems trying to get Vegetate going]. I'll probably do them every holiday weekend and some Saturday nights."
Vegetate 1414 Ninth St. NW 202-232-4585 The scene: Good vegetarian food, room to lounge, cool music and no alcohol.