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Patty Boom Boom: Eric Hilton brings reggae to D.C.'s U St. bar scene

By Fritz Hahn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 29, 2010; WE08

The buzz: The newest and hottest bar on U Street is packed with the flavors of Jamaica. Every night finds classic rocksteady and dub or current reggae hits blasting from the high-watt sound system, with bass so strong that it feels as if it could knock you over. Rastafarians in colorful head wraps and hipsters in kaffiyeh scarves groove side-by-side in a narrow, darkened room. "Ring the Alarm," "Murder She Wrote" and other iconic tunes turn into mass singalongs on the packed dance floor and at the bar. Rastas pound the wall as they shout along with the chorus of "Buffalo Soldier."

Bartenders whip up fruity rum cocktails (with Jamaican rum, of course) and hand over bottle after squat brown bottle of Red Stripe, the national lager of choice.

On the first floor of the two-story building, a deli counter serves up tasty Jamaican patties, a traditional food similar to empanadas and turnovers -- essentially spiced meat or veggies inside a flaky pastry. Upstairs, the party rages.

Patty Boom Boom is the newest creation from bar magnate (and Thievery Corporation founder) Eric Hilton, whose group often weaves reggae rhythms and vocalists into its dub-heavy songs. The stripped-down decor -- ceilings open to two stories, old DJ equipment and speakers decorating the walls -- give the place an easygoing island vibe, as does the lack of cover charge or dress code.

On a recent Friday night, Melissa Feider, a 30-year-old accountant from Washington, and Brittany Ebbertt, a 31-year-old accountant from Baltimore, are dancing and taking in the scene with a group of girlfriends. "It's the same owner as Marvin and Gibson, so we thought it would be fun," says Feider. "I love the music. And the Dark and Stormy [rum cocktail]. It's awesome -- not too sweet."

"It makes me wish I was on an island where it was warm," Ebbertt adds. "I like the vibe in here. It's very positive and very chill."

DJs start spinning at 9 p.m. on weekends, and by 10:30 it's really hard to move from one end of the room to the other, thanks to all the couples and groups dancing and to the folks who've grabbed the tables lining the front wall. It can be hard to talk over the music, though. The sound system at Patty Boom Boom is one of the most potent in the city, and you'll feel the bass punching your gut as well as your joints. (True story: On the first nights of operation, the bass was so powerful that it was vibrating glasses and bottles off the bar.)

Downstairs, Ryan Daza and Christina Steinbrecker are hanging out next to the picture windows. "It's a rarity to hear this kind of dub and a slow dance on U Street," says Steinbrecker, a lawyer who used to live down the street. "I feel like so much of U Street feels really contrived, but for now this feels really authentic."

Perhaps that's why there's a long line of people outside trying to get in, and it's not even midnight.

The scene: Reggae is featured every night in a multitude of forms. On Tuesdays, there's a live performance by a band called the Executive Branch. Thursdays belong to the roots, dancehall and dub sounds of DJ J-Bone, who used to rule the dance floor at the much-missed State of the Union club down the block in the late '90s and early '00s. Fridays find the Selassie Sound mixing up vintage roots reggae and dancehall classics. And on Saturdays, VJ John Bowen of the Video Killers mixes up old-school music videos along with the tunes.

Against the back wall one Friday night, Ras Israel Dyer and Tess Zerabrun are dancing and grooving to the rootsy sounds. "We needed a place like this," Zerabrun says. "There's nothing in D.C. for this type of music."

"It's not [modern] dancehall," adds Dyer, who's sipping a cup of rum punch. "Everywhere plays dancehall. This is the foundation of reggae music."

Jeohn Favors, a 25-year-old State Department staffer who lives nearby, brought visiting friends to check out the U Street scene. "Tonight is coming together," he laughs. "I'm enjoying the reggae and the atmosphere. The drinks are strong and very good. I like the old DJ equipment [hanging on the walls]."

"I think the most important thing is the feel of the place," says his friend Rosa Avion, 27, who works at the National Institutes of Health. "The crowd is really diverse. It's what U Street is about."

In your glass: Red Stripe beer ($5) is the most popular drink in the crowd, though you can also get Heineken and more pedestrian beers. Check the chalkboard next to the bar for a list of rum-based cocktails, all of which cost $7. The Dark and Stormy is very good, but I'd try one of the potent rum punches. There's a choice of white, gold or dark rum; I took my bartender's advice and went for the gold, made with Jamaica's Appleton Gold. The smooth, fruity taste belies the drink's strength.

There are a variety of Jamaican rums on shelves behind the bar, but you might want to ask before you order: The 21-year-old Appleton Estate will set you back $28.

On your plate: The choices at Patty Boom Boom's deli -- all of which cost $3.50 -- include patties stuffed with spicy goat and guava as well as more expected jerk chicken and spicy beef. For Rastafari and other vegetarians, options include sweet potato (with a spicy kick) and spinach. I've yet to try one that disappoints, and food is served after last call, in case you need a late-night snack.

Nice to know: When the lines upstairs are too long, you can head down to the patty counter and order a tallboy can of Red Stripe there.

Patty Boom Boom 1359 U St. NW 202-629-1712 To see more photographs of people enjoying the warm vibe at Patty Boom Boom, go to http://www.goingoutguide.com/bars. -- Christina Steinbrecker

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