A FIXTURE on the local electronic music scene for well over a decade, Lieven DeGeyndt is best known in music circles for co-founding Buzz, the rave-style party that brought the biggest names in electronic music to Washington. But DeGeyndt has also been a regular DJ at the legendary nightclub Tracks, owned a piece of the south Dupont Circle dance club Five and run a cutting-edge record store called Music Now.
So when he says, "I think people underestimate D.C., in what people are willing to go to and what they want," you listen.
What does DeGeyndt think they need? An attractive, urbane lounge called Eyebar (1716 I St. NW; 202-785-0270), which features DJs spinning house and trance music, pricey cocktails, leather sofas and a strict dress code. It's a far cry from Tracks and all-night warehouse parties.
"I'm a little older now," says DeGeyndt, 34. "I wanted to change directions. I'd been working in nightclubs and for nightclubs since I started in the business. I wanted to bring something different to the city."
Partner Andre Demoya also has a nightlife background -- he was general manager at the large Spy Club in the '90s and currently runs D.C. Life Media, which designs and prints fliers and hosts Web sites for a number of Washington clubs and promoters. Demoya and DeGeyndt became friends a few years ago and decided they wanted to take Washington's lounges to the next level.
Located in a second-story walk-up next to the Bottom Line saloon, Eyebar is a simple, almost spartan space with clean, modern lines. Banquettes and a thin strip of mirrors line one wall, facing a row of low cocktail tables and chairs; "individual drink rails" are mounted on another wall, looking a bit like oddly spaced xylophone bars. There are couches and tables for VIP bottle service in the rear and very front of the room, a medium-size bar in the middle and a small, mobile DJ booth (turntables on what looks like a wheeled workbench) that can be moved around the room.
Aside from glowing lights, that's it for decor. There's nothing extraneous -- the sound system's speakers are recessed into the ceiling and the end of the bar, for example. Two 82-inch projection screens slide into the ceiling when not in use. DeGeyndt explains that he "made up a list of things I don't like about bars -- stuff that people don't necessarily notice," such as speaker cables or the height of armrests on sofas, and made sure that none would appear at Eyebar.
"My goal was to make it have a really European feel," DeGeyndt says.
"We're trying to be a nice-looking place to go and have fun, but we're not pretentious."
That really depends on your view of how far an establishment has to go to be pretentious, though. Eyebar's Web site, for example, boasts of "A place to see and be seen -- Eyebar sets new standards for style in DC" before listing all of the items that will cause patrons to be "declined" at the door: sneakers, flip-flops, hats, athletic wear, baggy jeans and so on.
The owners explain almost apologetically that they don't want people who've made an effort to look good to have to sit next to people who've just come from a softball game and are still wearing shorts and dirty tennis shoes.
"We're trying to have a balance between . . . you don't have to have a suit, a collared shirt or spend $1,000 on your outfit [to get in]," DeGeyndt explains. "You should just be . . . "
"Fashionable, in one word," Demoya says.
That's one way to describe the crowds who have been flocking to Eyebar over the last month, dancing as DJs spin uptempo house and trance music ("The goal is never too hard, never too soft," DeGeyndt says) and trying to see and be seen. Students, professionals, an international crowd -- a fairly diverse clientele, all dressed to impress each other. Of course, there have been lines outside as the doormen try to limit capacity. So far, they've done a good job in preventing the bar from feeling overcrowded. "When we feel it's uncomfortable, that's when we stop letting people in," Demoya says. "Or when it takes too long to get a drink."
Although it's a long, narrow room, people tend to cluster around the bar, not along the walls, creating a massive roadblock for those who need a drink or want to get to the bathrooms. Happy hour has been a bit more sedate; the jazzy electronic beats are better for lounging.
Currently open at 5 on Thursdays and Fridays, DeGeyndt says Eyebar will be open Tuesdays and Wednesdays by the end of the month, complete with a fondue menu. When the Euro 2004 soccer tournament begins next month, doors will open even earlier -- DeGeyndt is counting on the lounge's proximity to the World Bank to draw crowds for the afternoon kickoffs.
Like Eighteenth Street Lounge and the Blue Room, Eyebar shuns advertisements, preferring to create word-of-mouth cool. So far, it has done only one event with an outside promoter, choosing to rely on private parties and a bare-bones Web page (www.eyebardc.com) to get the word out.
The downside is that private parties tend to close the bar to the general public on weekends, especially in the early evening; Saturday night, for example, Eyebar opens to the public at 11. "We don't really have many people showing up at 9 anyway," DeGeyndt says. "We'll do what we can to make sure people don't feel like [we're saying], 'Oh, you're not good enough. We're closed.' " That includes handing out coupons for free drinks to those who show up while a private affair is in progress and inviting them to come back later.
No matter when it's open, DeGeyndt is adamant that entry to Eyebar will remain free. "Typically in D.C., places that look like this will have a high cover," he says. "You shouldn't have to pay $20 [to get in]. To what? People will spend their money at the bar."
Words of wisdom from a man who has been around the block.
If you're a fan of hotel bars but also looking for a happy-hour spot where you can feel like a regular, you need to visit the bar at Circle Bistro, in the One Washington Circle Hotel (1 Washington Cir. NW; 202-293-5390). Formerly the chummy West End Cafe, the redesigned Circle Bistro falls comfortably between the flashy new lounges like Helix and Bar Rouge and the clubby traditional bars that include Off the Record and the Town & Country Lounge.
Despite Circle Bistro's odd basement-level space, a warm orange-and-yellow color scheme gives the low-ceilinged room a cozy atmosphere; the fireplace adds another homey touch. There are some odd seats in the room -- try to avoid the stools pinned between the bar and a large support column -- but I like the long, communal table and a nook of small couches in the back.
Far from the tourist crowd you'd expect, many at the bar are regulars from the neighborhood or nearby offices who've popped in for the excellent happy hour. From 5 to 7 Monday through Friday, Circle Bistro goes above and beyond most establishments with specials that include $5 martinis, $4 beers, wine and rail drinks, and a special menu of $1 bar snacks created by chef George Vetsch.
Although I like Vetsch's cooking, it's a stretch to call these small plates appetizers -- you can't feast on two chicken wings, no matter how delicious the spicy Thai dipping sauce. To make the most of the menu, order a few plates, tapas style. Dishes change frequently; last week, for example, the appetizers included Daniel's Savory: small pieces of salami, olive and Gruyere cheese skewered on a trio of tassled toothpicks.
The cocktail selections are dubbed "Drinks of the Week," although they don't seem to change. My favorite is the Sweet Orange Martini, a wonderfully crisp and slightly bitter blend of vodka, orange juice and dry vermouth that's not as saccharine as the name implies. The other winners include a sweet Melon Margarita and the Evening Madras, a sunny blend of cranberry juice, orange juice and your choice of Ketel One or Absolut vodka.
Conversation is lively, and my friends and I are constantly amused by what must be one of the oddest soundtracks in the city: songs by Steve Winwood, Queen, the Cranberries, New Order and David Bowie all featured on the sound system during a recent visit.
Circle Bistro has a much different vibe on Saturday night, when the Yvette Rivers Jazz Trio plays classic tunes from the Great American Songbook, channeling the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Peggy Lee. Joined by pianist Peter Edelman and bassist Victor Dvoskin (regulars at Twins Lounge and the Tabard Inn, respectively), vocalist Rivers sets the mood for a date, a post-Kennedy Center cocktail or just a chance to unwind after a busy week. The music runs from 8 to midnight, and there's never a cover charge.