Going Underground in Clarendon

Stephanie Rohrer of Ballston and Charles Atwood of Clarendon at the Eleventh Street Lounge in Clarendon.
Stephanie Rohrer of Ballston and Charles Atwood of Clarendon at the Eleventh Street Lounge in Clarendon. (Michael Temchine - Freelance)
By Fritz Hahn
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 17, 2007

Clarendon is becoming a more interesting place to eat and drink, thanks to the addition of Eatbar at Tallula and the chic Liberty Tavern on Wilson Boulevard. But if you're looking for dancing on a Saturday night, the choice has been limited to Clarendon Grill (DJs spinning Top 40 and hip-hop in a neighborhood bar) or Clarendon Ballroom (DJs spinning Top 40 and hip-hop in a giant nightclub environment).

I lauded Eleventh Street Lounge a few years ago for trying to break out of the neighborhood's sports-bars-and-cover-bands scene, offering trendy cocktails and Belgian beers in an environment resembling a cool urban lounge: crystal chandeliers, deep red walls decorated with local art, couches to recline on. It has been offering weekend DJs since soon after opening, but the crush of patrons in the narrow room has made it hard to get to the bar, let alone find space to groove.

That has all changed, though, thanks to the introduction of a new basement-level lounge area that seems to almost double the space. Too bad no one seemed to know about it -- or take advantage of it -- on a recent visit.

A friend and I made it past a cranky bouncer and pushed through the densely packed bar area, heading for the back. Just as you pass the bathrooms, there's a double door on your right, which opens into an unmarked staircase. It looks like the plainly decorated hallway might lead to the kitchen, but as you descend, you hear the unmistakable thump of house music.

The Basement, as it's billed, is basic compared with the lounge upstairs. Cinderblock walls are painted a dull yellow, with rows of track lighting overhead. Banquettes and booths follow two walls, facing low coffee tables. A large area in the middle of the rectangular room is free of furniture, providing a place to dance.

We wandered in about 11, and there were maybe 20 people in the room, compared with four or five times that packed into the less-spacious upstairs. A cast of local DJs rotates through on Friday and Saturday nights, spinning fresh mixes of funky house and breaks, old-school hip-hop or retro tunes.

Eleventh Street owner Tessema Getachew admits that he and partner Rich Roberts didn't have plans to do anything with the building's lower level when they opened in 2004. They've been working on getting it open for 18 months or so, but delays with permits and "hurdles with the local government" meant that the low-key "soft opening" didn't happen until late spring.

Apart from the seats, the basement still seems like a temporary operation. Tucked into one corner, the tiny bar lacks draft beers, wines or even a soda gun. Order a Jack and Coke, for example, and the bartender pours the whiskey into a glass and tops it up with soda from a freshly opened can. Bottles of beer are kept in coolers behind the bar.

(Meanwhile, upstairs, the staff is pouring a selection of great Belgian ales, including Chimay and Maredsous 8, and shaking up flavored martinis.) Slowly, though, things are changing. A new DJ booth replaced an old jury-rigged bench-and-cinderblocks setup two weeks ago, and Getachew says they're going to upgrade the bar to make sure it has "all the essentials," though he promises the stairwell will retain its anonymous speakeasy feel.

The latest addition to the schedule is an open turntable night every other Thursday, hosted by DJ Double o7, where aspiring mix masters can sign up for a 30-minute slot to spin their own vinyl or CDs. (E-mail for more info.) Be warned, though, that the basement is closed Sunday through Wednesday and every other Thursday.

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