IT WAS the Fifth Column. It was the Bank. Now it's Platinum (915 F St. NW; 202/393-3555). I've always thought that old building (it says 1879 on an outside wall) was the best club space in town, and with the opening last month of the sleek and swank Platinum, I still think that.
That address really was a bank, built in the glory days of banking, with a grand staircase entrance, marble floors, high ceilings. In place of teller windows there's an enormous bar along the interior's east wall, staffed with sleek and swank bartenders (who could be models, male and female). Me, I think bar-for-bank is a fine trade-off. At least you get a drink after you hand over your hard-earned money (They do make a nice pot of coffee over at my new bank, Virginia Commerce, but that's no martini).
"Architecturally, nothing even comes close in Washington as far as club space goes," co-owner Abdul Khanu says. "People perhaps might not have realized that before now. It was like a beautiful girl, hiding under glasses and unflattering clothes who then gets a makeover and people go, `Wow, I never knew!' " I like Khanu's poetry, but in truth, the Bank was no ugly duckling. It was a beautiful club with great sound and lights that suffered from some ugly art on the walls.
But still, it wasn't quite what Platinum is. Just walking into the club makes you feel important somehow. And of course, folks who put this club together want you to feel important simply by being allowed in. There is generally a line, with a doorman who will give you the eye to see if you're up to speed, fashion-wise ("No jeans, no sneakers," Khanu says. "You should come looking good.") Then you pay your $10 ($15 after midnight on Saturday) and sashay in.
Look up and there's the defining detail, an enormous chandelier hanging over the dance floor, laden with flickering orange bulbs in lieu of candles. It makes every night seem like a gala ball. And when the smoke machine kicks in from high above, and smoke floats down through the chandelier, it's an eerie and beautiful effect, a "Phantom of the Opera" kind of thing that's entertaining even for the wallflowers and barflies who haven't yet gotten the gumption up to hit the dance floor.
Of course there's plenty of entertainment for those types anyway, what with all the beautiful people shaking their booty out on the dance floor. The ads for the club list its musical offerings: "trance, house, progressive house, hi-NRG." Whatever. I'm not going to slice this modern disco stuff that thinly. What do I know? Here's what I know: It's throbbing music with a relentless beat, coming at me out of an extraordinary sound system, even better than the one the Bank used to have. I feel it in my bones and could almost picture myself bustin' a move out on the floor. Almost. But the $7 cocktail is too dear for me to be drinking enough to get me dancing.
The sound system and lights are created by John Fiorito, a New York-based designer who did the Limelight in NYC. (If you've never been there, let me tell you about its sound and lights: Wow.) He designed the systems for the Bank but did a total reworking for Platinum. Big boxes of low-frequency speakers ring the dance floor, and many, many more speakers float overhead. The lights are intricate and subtle, and at the same time very in-your-face. The ultra-high-tech light units hang from walls and ceiling like possessed gargoyles, with spinning heads flashing reds, purples, strobes and more. It's a treat.
You can watch all that machinery up close by walking upstairs to the two levels of balconies that line the club's inside walls. Look down on the DJs spinning in the two-turntable booth, flicking their wrists to find the right spot on the vinyl. Look at the teeming masses on the dance floor.
Then, if you are a real high-roller, you can get into the second-floor VIP room, a gorgeously appointed space, with an entirely separate sound system and DJ. There's no dance floor; it's more of a lounge for chilling out. Don't even think about sitting down on one of the couches unless you're willing to drop serious dollars on waitress service. You're asked to buy bottles of wine or champagne ranging from $50 to $500.
In the basement there's a whole 'nother space. You walk downstairs and there's a small dance floor and bar. Usually the music is hip-hop or salsa, depending on the DJ and the night. "That's where we want you to let your hair down and really party," Khanu says.
The "we" that Khanu refers to when talking about his club are himself and his two partners, Masoud A. and Tesfaye Hidaru. Khanu and Hidaru are the owners of DC Live, and they had worked with Masoud A. on Earth night at DC Live. They work well together, they have a built-in clientele, and they know how to make a nightclub work.
Open Thursday through Sunday, Platinum was designed to attract the international crowd that flocks to, say, MCCXXIII, but that wants more room to dance. Khanu, who already has a sizable slice of the upscale, young black scene with DC Live, is frank about going after white nightclubbers with Platinum. "They need a place to go, too. The black crowd has DC Live, Republic Gardens, Zanzibar. We're offering the white and international crowds a place to go."
Sundays, however, are Platinum's black night, says Khanu, because the crowd that goes to DC Live and Republic Gardens on Fridays and Saturdays doesn't have a place to go on Sundays. "All the ball players come out," Khanu says, "whether they win or lose. The Redskins, the Wizards, even the Ravens do, too. They like the VIP room." Well, they're young and wealthy, so that makes sense.
For those of you not young and wealthy, Platinum is still worth a trip just to see that you really can build a better mousetrap. Khanu and his partners have created a very chic joint that is not for everyone, and might make some of you a little mad. You might not get in one night. You might pay a lot for a drink. The music might bug you. But you're not who the club wants anyway. So don't stand in line. Don't worry about looking beautiful. Don't worry about your maxed-out Visa card. Go to Dan's Cafe and have a draft beer and don't think about it.
CHAT ABOUT '99
Got your favorite local CDs from 1999 picked out? Favorite live shows this year? Beefs and gripes and songs of praise about the 1999 night life scene? Tell me, tell me! Log on Friday from 3 to 4 p.m. to www.washingtonpost.com to discuss all this stuff with me live. You can send questions and comments to me in advance as well, at the same site.