SITTING IN the corner at Blue Gin (1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-965-5555), I'm taking in what is arguably Washington's hottest bar scene. A well-dressed crowd that runs from the mid-twenties to late thirties and beyond is perched on boxy couches or silver bar stools, talking and laughing over the steady beat of electronic house music. No one's frowning, and plenty are grooving -- or slyly checking out one another.
In front of me, the hardcover bar menu offers 12 martinis made with top-shelf liquor and a produce section's worth of fresh fruits and juices; other pages list 12 wines by the glass and a few dozen more by the bottle, and a small menu that includes skirt steak on skewers and lobster spring rolls. Bartenders are fast, friendly and efficient, whipping up some of the most outstanding and refreshing cocktails in town.
There's a bit of culture shock here. Tucked down an alley off of M Street, this two-story building previously housed the rowdy collegiate sports bar Champions, which closed in summer 2002 -- shortly after it was fined $10,000 and had its liquor license suspended for repeatedly serving alcohol to minors.
With new owners and an expensive remodeling job, though, Blue Gin has become the latest (and largest) in a spate of stylish European-inspired lounges arriving in the city, bringing dress codes, DJs and sleek design. Washington was sleeping, says Philippe de Francois, Blue Gin's beverage director. Now it's coming alive.
First impressions are everything, so co-owner Jonathan Umbel says he and Gregory Talcott, owner of the neighboring Third Edition, "wanted people to walk into an environment unlike the traditional Georgetown bar." That's exactly what you'll find, but it's still comfortable. The first floor has a modern, minimalist Asian feel -- lots of squat stools and low tables with flickering candles, and a medium-size dance floor, where DJs spin electronic music during the week and higher-energy old-school hip-hop, house and retro club favorites on Fridays and Saturdays. (Some tables are moved on weekends to help diners and dancers coexist.) But the action is in the upstairs lounge, a beautiful space with a long wooden bar, plenty of leather couches, twisted chandeliers and creamy red walls. Pass through (or around) a beaded metal curtain to reach another bar and a long nook with banquettes and tables. You can watch through windows as a DVD player projects movies such as "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "The Godfather" on the rear of the Abercrombie & Fitch shop next door. It practically begs you to hunker down with friends for a few drinks.
Too bad getting to the second level can be a chore; on weekends, the staircase is frequently blocked by a bouncer and a large rope. Before midnight, a line forms by the stairs and at the bar, with customers frequently checking on their status and pleading their case. "We try to get everyone upstairs eventually," says hostess Melissa Kronfeld. "We don't want to have a VIP feel. Still, most of the dozen tables on the second level are reserved for people who are eating and ordering bottles of wine or liquor, or for friends of the club who've become regulars."
The original vision was more egalitarian -- no ropes, no lines. Customers could move around with ease during the first few weeks, and most of them gravitated upstairs. "On weekends, people were crawling all over each other [to move around and get to the bar]," Umbel says. "It was too hectic."
So now Blue Gin is split into two parts, with no clear rules about who goes upstairs -- most people upstairs are standing, not sitting at the "reserved" tables -- which has led to some frustration. The problem, Umbel explains, is "Everybody says, 'Let's go [to Blue Gin] on Saturday night,' and if we overcrowd it . . . we ruin the experience for everyone."
An obvious solution is to hit Blue Gin earlier (in the week, in the evening or both), when you can skip Friday and Saturday's late-night $10 cover charge, sit down and sample the food or cocktails -- and that extensive drink list invites exploration. Blue Gin's house drink is the Blue Gin Star, a fragrant concoction of Tanqueray 10 gin, lime, elderflower syrup and Blue Curacao for color. A fresh slice of sweet star fruit floats on top, eventually diffusing into the drink. Order the watermelon martini and you can expect curious glances from anyone nearby -- it's served with a wedge of watermelon big enough for a backyard picnic. The slice balances precariously on the edge of the glass -- it's okay to take a bite while you're sipping to enhance the flavor.
The entire menu is full of flavors that would seem more at home in a high-end kitchen: A rose petal martini is built around Bombay Sapphire, pink grapefruit juice and delicately scented rose water. Other concoctions feature blood oranges, litchis or freshly muddled passion fruit. Depending on your palate, many are winners. (The key lime pie and chocolate martinis, for example, seem designed for those with a sweet tooth.) If this sounds more exotic than the typical Washington cocktail lounge, it should. Much of the menu was crafted by bartender Antonia Andrasi, a veteran of some of London's top bars, including the Sanderson Hotel, the Player, Detroit and Match Bar. (For cocktail lovers, this is the equivalent of having a French Laundry chef de cuisine open a restaurant downtown.) When Andrasi first came to Washington, she did reconnaissance work at area nightspots to see what was hot with the bartenders, and "all of them offered me a Cosmo or an apple martini," she says with a frown. Changing those attitudes will be tough, but not impossible.
De Francois -- no slouch himself -- says the cocktail menu will be more like those in Europe, where it changes often to add seasonal fruits and new liquors. All specialty cocktails cost $10. Regular mixed drinks are usually cheaper, and the bar's policy is to only use premium spirits -- gin drinkers can choose from Boodles and Magellan in addition to the usual Tanqueray.
De Francois is working on the wine list, trying to add great wines, not names. Chef Kenneth Hughes's menu is designed to play off the wine and cocktails, but the small tapas-style plates are really just tasty snacks -- a trio of mini lump crab cakes, glass bowls of shrimp ceviche, goat cheese and tomato on elongated croutons -- and cost as much as a drink, or more.
Blue Gin opens at 6 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, with a cover charge after 10 on Friday and Saturday. The usual dress code applies -- no athletic wear, sneakers, etc.
THE SOUNDS OF MUSIC
Outdoor concerts are an annual tradition in the Washington area, and this summer, music-lovers can choose from two series featuring national and local artists for $10 or less. Returning for a second year is Live on Penn (Fourth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW) outdoor concert series, which turns a section of Pennsylvania Avenue NW into a loud, rockin' block party every Saturday afternoon. Pop-punk band Eve 6 and alt-country heroes the Old 97s headlined the first show of the season last week; funky New Orleans-Washington hybrid Galactic and southern-fried hip-hop group Nappy Roots are featured Saturday, along with openers the Peoples Band and Cravin' Dogs. Music continues through Sept. 18, although there's no show Labor Day weekend (Sept. 4).
Live on Penn debuted on this same stretch of road last year, and some things will be familiar to those who ventured out to see Blues Traveler or Live in 2003. The Capitol dome is still the backdrop -- even the Old 97s turned around to admire the view from the stage. Some of the bands are making a return trip, including Galactic, Arrested Development and They Might Be Giants, who play with Fountains of Wayne next weekend on one of the series' better bills. Other dates to note: Sister Hazel and Virginia Coalition (Aug. 7), Cowboy Mouth and Better Than Ezra (Aug. 14). Arrive early, because local acts open every show.
Last year's crowds fluctuated with the band, and opening night was no different -- when the Old 97s left the stage, the hipsters up front were replaced by a much younger crowd with dyed hair and T-shirts. If you're staying for the day -- gates open at 4, and the headliner goes on after 8 -- consider bringing a folding campstool or lawn chair, but leave the coolers and bags at home. Proceeds from some concessions benefit the Hoop Dreams Scholarship Fund.
One change that's not for the better: admission. Last year's blanket $3 cover charge is now $7, or $5 if tickets are ordered in advance from www.liveonpenn.com. Bands start at 5, and everything's over about 10.
Before Live on Penn, Washington had an outdoor concert series at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum called D.C. Sessions. Its organizers are bringing it back to the area this summer, but it's now called Sessions at Merriweather, and it has moved up I-95 to the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia. Appearances by Evanescence (July 24), rapper Twista (Aug. 7) and chart-topper Big Boi (July 31) of Outkast give the Saturday night series a more Top 40 feel than Live on Penn, and the covered, general admission seats at Merriweather ($15, or $10 in advance through www.sessionsatmerriweather.com) have a definite advantage over standing in the sun. Saturday's show features Fuel, SR-71 and local boys evenout.
Next week's Evanescence concert, though, is different from the others: You can get $15 lawn seats only if you show proof that you've purchased tickets for another Sessions at Merriweather event. Pavilion seats cost $45.