Change Has Bethesda Buzzing

Bethesda's new Fuzion Lounge is similar to the building's old tenant, Juste Lounge.
Bethesda's new Fuzion Lounge is similar to the building's old tenant, Juste Lounge. (Sarah L. Voisin - Twp)
By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, February 16, 2007

Keep your eye on the restaurant and nightclub scene long enough and you'll see and hear about cursed buildings: promising locations that, for various reasons, become deathtraps for a parade of businesses. Take the former Lewie's near Woodmont and Bethesda avenues in the heart of Bethesda. Despite being surrounded by restaurants, shops and a movie theater, the large nightclub has opened and closed repeatedly in the past decade, occasionally staying shut for a year or two at a time, while owners tried to use the space as a live music venue, a sandwich shop, a martini bar and an Asian restaurant.

I'd hoped the place had finally found stability in 2005 when Juste Pehoua brought his eponymous R&B- and martini-focused lounge from Washington's Mount Vernon Square neighborhood, drawing crowds and adding some color to the Bethesda scene. Wrong again.

Disputes with his landlord recently pushed Pehoua to look for a new location, and, because he wanted to stay in Bethesda, he teamed with Tel Aviv Cafe owner Pete Panagiotopoulos to create Cafe Peju, which offers a Mediterranean menu as well as a steady diet of the happy hours, live music and DJs that made Juste Lounge so successful.

Meanwhile, new promoters have taken over Juste Lounge's old digs and rechristened it Fuzion Lounge. With a familiar lineup of complimentary drinks, live music and DJs, their ads boast that "the party is betta than ever!"

In pubby, polo-shirt-and-khakis Bethesda, having two clubs pushing hip-hop and R&B and competing for the same crowds is a change, so I compared them head-to-head on a Friday.

When Pehoua decided to move, one of the first people he talked to was Panagiotopoulos.

Panagiotopoulos wanted to lure more foot traffic to the area around his Mediterranean restaurant, which lacks the bustle of the Woodmont Triangle a few blocks away. "I figured that if [Pehoua] brought some life to this side of Cordell, it would benefit both me and him," he says.

The result is Cafe Peju, which takes its name from the first two letters of the owners' first names. Peju keeps the same menu (kafta and chicken shawarma sandwiches, stuffed eggplant, the spice yogurt dip tzatziki) and the same decor of warm, muted colors, heavy red curtains and large paintings, but weekend nights have a new buzz.

Juste Lounge's long-running Sex in the City party has moved here, and it's still one of the best weekend deals in town. Printing a pass from the club's Web site entitles the bearer to free admission, two free drinks between 5 and 8, performances from neo-soul artists and dancing to DJ Weezy's hip-hop and reggae mix.

On this recent Friday, I find the hostess on the patio, which is covered with a reception-style tent and filled with free-standing heaters and dining tables for smokers during the winter.

I give her my printed pass, and she hands over two orange carnival tickets, each good for a free drink, and I'm reminded to use them before 8. After making my way through the two-deep crowd at the bar, I ask my server what the tickets are good for -- bottom-barrel rail drinks? House wine? He smirks and says, "Anything you want." Sure enough, a few minutes later I'm sipping a strong Tanqueray and tonic.

That happy hour lasts until 8 is incredibly convenient for those who can't rush from the office at 5:01. It might even give you time to go home and change before heading out.

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