Washington area bars where you can be a kid again: Spelling bees

Friday, April 23, 2010

Most of the games represented here recall carefree childhood fun. That's not the way most people would describe a school spelling bee. (Case in point: Fellow Going Out Guru Stephanie Merry and I both still remember the words that got us bounced from our respective bees all those years ago, which were c-o-l-l-e-g-i-a-l and

l-i-e-u-t-e-n-a-n-t, respectively.)

The Rock & Roll Hotel is aiming to change those memories, though, with a weekly Spelling Buzz contest in its spacious upstairs bar. Some aspects will be familiar: sitting in long rows facing a podium, being called up one by one to say and spell words from the official Scripps National Spelling Bee list. What makes it different, though, is that contestants are required to consume an alcoholic beverage -- a shot, a beer or mixed drink -- between rounds.

Last Friday, more than 30 people signed up for the 20 available slots, so the hosts had to draw names from a hat. There's no cost to enter, but you have to start a tab at the bar. There was a highly collegial atmosphere among the participants: "Woo! You can do it!" -- for friends and strangers alike. Spellers handled "faucet," "enzyme" and "feasible" with ease, and only two spellers went out. (Hey, "fiery" isn't such an easy word.) The 18 remaining contestants then had to head to the bar and order a drink. Bartenders checked off their names and numbers, to make sure everyone was getting buzzed.

The whooping and hollering went on for three rounds, but as soon as the "intermediate/advanced" words hit, contestants started falling. "Luau" took one right off the bat. "Jackal" hit another, as did "knave" and "leprechaun."

After another trip to the bar, the fifth round turned into a slaughter. "Fuselage," "egregious," "fricassee" and "demitasse" all stumped players, and the staff began removing rows of the losers' chairs. Two guys earned enthusiastic cheers from the tossed contestants for nailing "eviscerate" and "dilettante." One woman asked the judge for a new word when she got "grandiloquence" after the guy before her had "gnome." She didn't get one, and she was out.

In the end, it came down to a sudden-death battle over "hieroglyphic" and "hypotenuse," with the victor winning a $60 bar tab and the runner-up getting $30.

"It's a great way to spend a Friday night, and I was surprised how well I did," said Nic Fox, 30, who does nonprofit work for a law firm and who made it to the fifth round before flubbing "emphysema." "I wasn't very good at spelling bees [as a child]. I was in the national geography bee instead."

Still, he admitted being "disappointed" in his performance. "I did the Peace Corps, and emphysema was one of those diseases we were taught about."

This was the first time Erika Gebel, a journalist for a scientific publication who holds a PhD in biophysics from Johns Hopkins, had been in a spelling bee since fifth grade, when the budding scientist misspelled "oxygen." And, she said, it was a much better experience, despite an early exit when she stumbled over "feint." She recommended better regulation: "Some people are getting beers, some people have cocktails, some people are doing shots. They should have everyone get the same drink.

"But it's a fun night, and I think it's a great concept," although "I thought that any sixth-grader could have spelled most of the words."

Fridays at 8 p.m. Rock & Roll Hotel,

1353 H St. NE. 202-388-7625. http://www.rockandrollhoteldc.com.

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