Goodbye, Nation. Hello, H St. NE.
Friday, December 29, 2006
It has been a busy year on the Washington area night life beat, full of new lounges, dance clubs and places to catch bands. But looking back at 2006, what really stands out are the places we lost.
The closing of Nation, the vast warehouse-like space that hosted concerts by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Rage Against the Machine, Fatboy Slim, Pet Shop Boys and Paul Oakenfold, had been in the cards since 2004, but it was still hard for fans of the weekly Alchemy, Cubik and Velvet Nation dance nights to accept that the former factory was to be torn down to make way for an office building.
Since Nation's doors were finally locked in July, the club scene has taken a hit. The groundbreaking Buzzlife crew, responsible for bringing such top-drawer DJs as Tiesto and Sasha and Digweed to Buzz and Cubik, still hasn't found a new home, though promoters have been hosting events at Avenue, a nightclub near Mount Vernon Square. Also in limbo is Velvet Nation, the popular gay dance party that owned Saturday nights. Founder Ed Bailey has been looking for a space but hasn't found the right one.
Nearby, a decades-old stretch of gay nightspots, strip clubs, cabarets and bathhouses was forced to close to make room for the new Washington Nationals stadium. Ziegfield's, the Edge, Wet, Secrets and others are gone, and although the D.C. Council has promised to help them find new locations, their futures are in doubt. Wet, for example, has tried to move to several spots in the District, but each time, residents and neighborhood associations have rebuffed the idea of a gay nightclub in their back yards.
In late March, Lulu's and Polly Esther's suddenly closed, robbing the city of two large dance floors where the tunes leaned toward '80s hits and Top 40 instead of house and electro. Known as an "anything goes" kind of spot where college students and young people wore (and "earned") Mardi Gras beads every weekend, Lulu's was a nonstop spring break party, even on holidays. Weeks before it closed, there was a line around the block at 6 a.m. for the annual "Kegs and Eggs" St. Patrick's Day breakfast party. Lulu's didn't fall victim to declining crowds but to landlords who decided to convert the club (and the neighboring Blackie's restaurant) into retail space.
Multiple floors with pounding '70s and '80s hits made Polly Esther's one of the most popular clubs in town for a few years in the '90s. Although the guilty-pleasure tunes weren't drawing crowds as they did a decade ago, the neon-lighted building never lost popularity with bachelorette parties. The adjacent Tequila Beach, carved out of the Polly Esther's space a few years back, was an Ocean City nightclub transplanted to Washington -- I'd never seen a woman in a bikini selling beers out of a cooler in a downtown club before. Love them or hate them, both establishments were unlucky enough to be on a block that's being razed to make room for a new high-rise.
Fans of live music were also hurting. The Half Moon BBQ, a staple for local rockabilly, roots and country performers, closed its doors when Silver Spring's booming real estate market became more profitable than serving barbecue sandwiches and Bill Kirchen concerts. In Adams Morgan, tiny Staccato, which welcomed alt-rock bands, singer-songwriters, comedians and poets to its stage, left 18th Street in November. The bar's owners are opening a new space in Columbia Heights in 2007.
Okay, enough of the bad news. There was plenty to be happy about in 2006.
Washington's night life continued its shift away from the Adams Morgan-Dupont-Georgetown axis, and nowhere was this more evident than on H Street NE, where the arrival of several new bars had club hoppers trying to figure out the easiest way to get to 15th and H streets.
Nightlife impresario Joe Englert opened three more bars on the strip this year, following the success he has had with the low-key Argonaut tavern. The Rock and Roll Hotel is the gem of the bunch, a 400-person venue that fits the bigger-than-DC9-but-smaller-than-the-Black-Cat hole on D.C.'s live-music circuit. Many of the city's better rock bands took the stage there this year, including Shortstack, the Hard Tomorrows and the Washington Social Club, though the club has also had packed and sweaty DJ nights hosted by Buzz's Scott Henry, DJ Spooky, the Rapture's Matty Safer and such buzz bands as the Brazilian Girls and ¡Forward, Russia! Upstairs, "suites" strewn with vintage furniture are perfect for lounging.
Down the block, the Palace of Wonders has walls lined with dime-store freaks (preserved eight-legged goats, the Ringling Bros.' "unicorn," a life-size wax model of the Elephant Man) and a calendar filled with burlesque dancers, sword swallowers, sideshow carnies and hot-dog-eating contests. Neighboring club the Red & the Black has a more intimate feel, since the concert room can hold only about 100 people, but it has been host to interesting residencies by local artists, including Luke Brindley.
More than any one bar, though, all the establishments that have arrived on H Street in the past two years have begun to find their footing, making the area a true weekend destination. (The shuttle service to Union Station on weekends is a great help but needs to expand.) A few more places are set to open, and although the neighborhood can be sketchy at night, its bars and theaters -- including the massive Atlas Performing Arts Center, which opened last month -- mean that H Street is a neighborhood that rewards exploration.