FROM AFGHAN to Vietnamese, Bethesda has one of the highest concentrations of restaurants in the area. Too bad the choices narrow once you've paid your bill and are deciding what to do next. Quite often, the selection comes down to Irish pubs, sports bars and night spots dominated by singles on the prowl. Those options are fine for some, but not all.
A sample complaint: "You come to Bethesda, and everybody has restaurants . . . but after dinner, [if] you want to go somewhere sophisticated, sip a martini or a nice glass of wine, relax -- there's nothing," says Jacques Nawar.
But unlike others grousing about the situation, Nawar, the Marseille-born owner of Bethesda's Cafe Europa restaurant, was in a position to do something about it. When a neighboring hair salon became available last year, Nawar decided to take over the small space and add a "sophisticated" lounge to his pan-European restaurant. "I thought I would do something nice to the area -- a lounge with music, something different," he explains.
After months of work, Europa Lounge (7820 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda; 301-657-1607) made a bluesy debut on New Year's Eve with Johnny & the Headhunters and Sonny Boy Chung. Some of Washington's top jazz and blues musicians played the lounge (and its baby grand piano) over the following months, including vocalists Nicki Gonzalez, Pam Bricker and Liz Briones. Given the paucity of live music in Bethesda -- where choices are usually limited to rock or Celtic -- it was a welcome addition. During the week, Europa became the perfect place for a nightcap, where a mature after-dinner crowd stopped in to listen to jazz CDs and sip cocktails while soaking in the atmosphere, or just relax on a leather couch and chat with friends.
If I was told the place was inspired by a European lounge before visiting, I would have guessed much of the decor: a color scheme of warm red, stained wood, cream and black; a curving bar surrounded by 10 high-backed leather barstools, and a back bar designed to show off bottles of spirits; leather chairs and couches paired with smooth, low black tables; flickering candles; a clean, modern fireplace with small sculptures on the mantel. Europa Lounge is small (just over 900 square feet) and not too innovative, but it's smart and comfortable.
There are nice touches, including cozy, stylish armchairs and club chairs, which add a French art deco touch, and the loveseats that sit against the walls. Huge picture windows look out at Norfolk and St. Elmo avenues. A small loft-style mezzanine overlooks some of the action near the bar.
Classic cocktails such as a well-made dirty martini and sweet French martini are featured on the short drinks menu ($8.50 each), alongside short lists of Scotch and whiskey. Service is usually good, even when busy, though I was a bit worried when the bartender couldn't remember the ingredients for a Sidecar.
Despite the cool atmosphere and performances by some of the area's finest artists, Europa Lounge has not drawn the crowds Nawar hoped for, and he admits that sometimes his love of music sometimes overrides his business instincts. "For six months, I was committing [to concerts] all the time," he says, noting that there was always live music Thursday through Saturday. "I'd put bands on Tuesday, I'd even put bands on Sunday sometimes." Nawar sighs. "I'm a restaurateur, not in the music business."
August is traditionally a slow month for bars, so until September, Nicki Gonzalez's Friday night appearance with her band is Europa's sole weekly gig. She's not the only featured act this month -- pianist Spencer Bates takes over the baby grand Saturday night, for example -- but Nawar is clearly cutting back.
So imagine my surprise last Friday when a friend and I showed up expecting to hear Gonzalez croon some jazzy bossa nova only to find a DJ spinning thumping electronic disco more suitable for Platinum or some other huge dance club instead of a lounge with lofty aspirations. It was a young crowd, with women in bright, sparkly tops and guys in dress shirts and jeans, and the busiest I've ever seen the lounge. Sometime after 11, colorful disco lights began sweeping across the floor, and the music got louder. We finished our drinks and left.
I worry more when one manager suggests that, beginning next month, there may be more weekend DJs, with jazz pushed back to happy hours and midweek gigs. "[Jazz] just isn't being supported," Julia Vtyurina explains.
Nawar later puts some fears at ease when he explains that last Friday's event was a birthday party for a regular, who wanted to bring in a DJ for the night, and not the end of Gonzalez's engagement. "She has a beautiful voice!" he says. "I want to go with jazz. That's my vision." But, he admits, some of the younger members of the staff have been pushing for "DJs and hip-hop" to bring in crowds on weekends. "I ask them because they're in their twenties, and I turned 40," he says, adding that no decisions have been made -- yet. "I don't know what [will happen], but I'd like to stay with jazz."
JED'S WATERING 'HOLE'
While hanging out in Bethesda with some newly married friends, I keep winding up at Uncle Jed's Roadhouse (7525 Old Georgetown Rd., Bethesda; 301-913-0026). Off the beaten restaurant-row path but only a block from the Metro, this eight-year-old neighborhood tavern offers cold beer and all the trappings of a sports bar -- three huge screens, 20 televisions, pool tables, darts and an all-too-rare air hockey table. Nightly beer specials (5 to close) are an easy lure, and my acquaintances rave about the enormous chicken fingers.
But what attracted my interest -- as soon as I noticed it, anyway -- is Uncle Jed's unusual new outdoor bar, located just below its existing sidewalk patio area and hidden from the view of passersby. Owner Alan Emery calls it "The Hole."
A steep brick staircase leads down one story to a brick-walled courtyard with a simple setup: a long bar, 15 barstools, two 20-inch televisions mounted overhead. The view is of the high brick walls leading to the sky above, plus the occasional street-level diner leaning over the railings to see what's going on. While nice and secluded, without all the cars rushing by or the pedestrian traffic, it feels a bit like being down a well-fortified spider hole -- albeit one with beer and ESPN. "There's not much to look at," Emery admits. "Honestly, it's a chance for people to smoke and watch the games," he says. He claims Uncle Jed's has lost business since Montgomery County's smoking ban went into effect, and hopes this will be a way to lure sports fans back.
Emery's not the only one looking for creative outdoor options; earlier this year, for example, Saphire Cafe (7940 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-9708) converted its small, parking-lot-view back deck into a thatched-roof tiki bar and dinner seating. Emery tells me that it's against the law to have a bar on a street-level patio in Montgomery County, which is why outdoor bars are rare. There are two others in Bethesda: the rooftop at Tia Queta Mexican restaurant and the enclosed courtyard at Tommy Joe's.
Later this year, Uncle Jed's will expand to the basement level of its building -- indoors as well as out -- and Emery is hoping to bring live music back to at least one floor, leaving the other for the fans who want to watch the Redskins, Maryland Terrapins and Oakland Raiders. At the moment, though, he decided to take advantage of the space. Despite the run of good weather, Emery says, "there's not enough business right now" to keep the lower patio open every night, as I found one Friday when meeting friends at Uncle Jed's. Well before midnight, the bar was deserted, and the TVs were moved inside. Arrive early to make sure it's open.