WHILE PREPARING to open a tiny lounge in Logan Circle earlier this summer, Ed Bailey and John Guggenmos knew they had a difficult task on their hands. Located on the narrow second floor of a former auto-repair shop, Halo holds barely 100 people. "It's a small space, so we had to create something very unique in order for it to be a draw," Bailey says.
Well, they succeeded. Halo (1435 P St. NW; 202-797-9730) is one of the most stylish nightspots in the city, combining the sleek lighting and leather furniture of a boutique hotel bar with a gently curving ceiling reminiscent of some futuristic aircraft. Portions of the tropical-flavored drink menu -- including frozen margaritas and mango smoothies -- are available with or without alcohol. Chilled-out electronic dance music plays at a volume low enough to allow conversation. And, since its second day of operation, Halo has been a smoke-free establishment.
It's that last point that has created much of the buzz and debate about Halo and sets it apart from most of the predominantly gay bars in the neighborhood. "We're not doing this as any sort of political statement, although some people may want us to be, or some people may charge that we are," Bailey says. His explanation is simple: On opening night, July 16, as smokers lit up around the room, clouds of cigarette smoke filled the air. Bathed in warm orange lights, Halo's bar resembled one of those hazy old photographs of Los Angeles covered in a blanket of smog.
Because it's a small space, Halo has "increased air-handling capability," but that wasn't enough to keep the atmosphere comfortable. Bailey, Guggenmos and their staff took stock that night and decided to make what Bailey calls "the one unknown, very complicated decision." Smokers who need to light up can leave their drinks with friends or the brisk, efficient bartenders while they step outside. So far, there haven't been any problems.
"I cannot tell you how relieved and excited I am to sit here and tell you what a smart decision it was on our part," Bailey says. "We could not be busier than we are on the weekends right now. . . . But we would have changed [the policy] if the bar was empty. You have to do that if the bottom line doesn't work out.
"But I can't tell you how much I'm saving on dry cleaning. It's so nice."
In spite of his new, fresher scent, Bailey doesn't support a blanket smoking ban for Washington's bars and clubs. "I'm glad I was able to make my own decision about this," he says.
Halo is full of Bailey and Guggenmos's wise decisions. Long, curving banquettes, leather couches and enormous orange ottomans provide enough seating for at least 80 percent of patrons. The bar's nightly schedule was standardized, eliminating themed events and rotating happy hours in favor of consistency. "We didn't want to format the nights to be different -- Monday is this, Tuesday is that -- so people had to figure out what night to go to the bar," Bailey explains. "If you like the product, we're here seven days a week at 5 o'clock."
Predictability can be a curse -- if you were at Halo last night, tonight probably won't be much different -- but at least you know what you're in for.
Bailey, a popular DJ, and Guggenmos have been involved in some of Washington's best gay clubs and events over the last 15 years, including the mega-club Tracks; the weekly Velvet Nation party at Nation, which draws thousands every Saturday; Millennium, a dance night that ran at the 9:30 club for a few years; and the hotspots Ozone (now Five) and Cobalt.
Both of the partners live in Logan Circle, and "as we've gotten just a little bit older, we've both had the desire to have a place to go and chill out and relax," Bailey says. "A place where you can sit down and talk over the music and get an interesting beverage."
So when they had the opportunity to build something in a small space on the neighborhood's new commercial strip, they took a chance and made the most of it. The main bar is backlit with a soft orange glow, and cool blue light cascades down the curved walls from recesses in the ceiling, playing off arty metal screens that divide the room. There's usually a crowd of fashionable guys standing around the bar cradling martini glasses.
It's worth a trip now to try Halo's summer drink selection, loaded with frozen tropical beverages, which can be served with or without rum or tequila. "I don't drink," Bailey says. "That's why we have the mango smoothies. When you go out, you don't want to order, 'a strawberry margarita, virgin,' or a Shirley Temple." Mojitos feature fresh fruit, such as blueberries or raspberries, muddled with mint leaves and rum. Bailey rightly points out that "a fresh blueberry mojito is not something you come across in a gay bar in D.C."
In a nod to the bar's primary clientele, there's a selection of "low-carb suggestions" made with sugar-free Red Bull or diet sodas. "It's not a secret that gay men are concerned with their abs or their love handles or whatever," Bailey says matter-of-factly. These mixed drinks are often simple -- try Effen's black cherry vodka mixed with Diet Coke -- but tasty, even for those of us who wouldn't know Atkins from the South Beach diet.
Halo's audience is gay men, but there's often a mixed crowd sprinkled throughout. "We get a lot of straight neighborhood couples who come in here, because it is in the vein of the kind of venues they'd like to go to," Bailey says. "And the kind of people who are drawn to this neighborhood are the kind of people who supercede the 'gay' label, who are drawn to this cool 'D.C.'s version of SoHo' we have going on in Logan Circle."
It's certainly a victim of its own popularity -- come by about 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and you'll find a line waiting to get in. Some will grumble, but think of it this way: At 1,500 square feet, Halo's about the size of a two-bedroom apartment. Everyone wants to hang out in Logan Circle's new living room.