LAST SUMMER, developers shuttered the Saint, a stylish, popular 14th Street nightclub, to make way for condominiums. Owner Danny Davis decided to take some time off.
"I spent about a year traveling around the world, trying to get ideas of what my next venture would be," Davis says. He sought inspiration from nightspots in London, Paris, Dubai, Athens, Addis Ababa.
But it's not as though he's a newcomer to Washington's nightclubs.
Over the last decade, Davis has organized and promoted events at many of Washington's most fashionable venues, building a reputation among the city's young, upwardly mobile African American audience. He worked with Marc Barnes at the Spy Club happy hour and Blossoms back in the day, and moved on to host events at Dream and Republic Gardens.
Davis continues to throw parties, including Capiche, a Sunday night event at Fur nightclub, and lends his name, expertise and thick contact list to the ever-popular Flirt happy hour on Wednesdays at MCCXXIII.
Nor is his empire limited to Washington. "I do a lot of stuff in Miami, you know, and during the Super Bowl and [NBA] All-Star Weekend," Davis says matter-of-factly. "All the experience I've gained doing different events, I can put into my own place."
Six weeks ago, Davis and fellow promoter Mike Walker opened Pearl Restaurant and Lounge (901 Ninth St. NW; 202-371-0681) with a splashy Democratic fundraiser featuring Illinois U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama and a guest appearance by singer R. Kelly. Since then, Pearl has drawn a steady crowd of well-dressed 25- to-35-year-old African Americans who sip cocktails and dance to hip-hop and R&B DJs. (A new Friday night event called Prive debuted last weekend, with DJs spinning South American music, house and reggae, but Thursday and Saturday will stick with the urban formula.) Davis's globe-trotting is evident in the layout of Pearl's front bar, as attractive a space as anything that's opened in Washington recently.
The translucent bar counter glows a warm red before shifting to gold or cool blue. Colored lights simultaneously wash over tall glass shelves decorated with bottles of champagne and dotted with high-end cognac. Gauzy curtains hang in front of the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Cozy, egg-cup-shaped barstools and low leather couches and armchairs looked ripped from the pages of a European design magazine.
Of course, sitting on one of the chic sofas that line Pearl's walls -- not to mention raised areas cordoned off by velvet ropes -- means making a reservation and spending a minimum of $250 to $500 "depending where you want to sit," Davis says.
If only the rear half of the club was as appealing and inviting as the front lounge and the carpeted VIP sections. The dance floor, interrupted by wide columns, feels like it was shoehorned into a darkened corner of the room, away from the windows and amenities. You may as well be in a basement.
Along the rear wall, a small bar also has an expensive computerized light system, but its location next to the dance floor guarantees the area becomes fairly congested. Service is bound to suffer; one night, a bartender tried to placate grouchy patrons by serving extra-strong cocktails. My "mixed drink" was all gin, a drop of tonic and mostly undrinkable. The house drinks are more reliable; I like the Pearltini, made with Ciroc vodka, white grape juice and garnished with a single frozen grape.
Eventually Pearl is going to open daily for lunch and dinner, with tables and chairs sitting atop the dance floor, and an "American Caribbean" menu to cater to local office workers and guests at the neighboring Renaissance hotel.
In the meantime, Davis and Walker are going to keep throwing parties, both at Pearl and at other clubs. "I'm a promoter," Davis says, as if he has no other choice.
YOUR LOCAL WONDERLAND
Most of the blessed hole-in-the-wall joints we call "neighborhood bars" are actually on busy commercial strips, not in residential neighborhoods. The term is used to evoke nostalgia, a longing for a low-key bar full of regulars where Friday night doesn't find the place full of "randoms" who drove in from another state looking for a good time.
There are still a few true neighborhood bars out there, though. The latest treasure is Wonderland Bar and Grill (1111 Kenyon St. NW; 202-232-5263), an old-fashioned corner bar in the middle of Columbia Heights, sitting alongside single-family homes and numerous group houses populated by young professionals.
From the outside, the building looks as though it has been there for decades, and the well-worn patina is authentic. For almost five decades, this was Nob Hill, a gay bar that catered to middle-age, middle-class African American men. But business slowed down, and, earlier this year, Matthew McGovern, a former Madam's Organ bartender, and his wife, Rose Donna, purchased the bar.
Open since August, Wonderland has the edgy, alternative feel of the old Black Cat's Red Room -- back before 14th and U offered a strip full of pricey, cutting-edge home furnishing stores.
Most nights, the place is packed with young people in jeans and T-shirts. They sit at tables inlaid with the logo of "Popeye's Famous Fried Chicken" or booths constructed of bench seats scavenged from old minivans.
The eclectic decor also features a vintage tabletop Ms. Pac-Man game and huge signs promoting the shuttered DCCD record store and something called "Kung Food." (McGovern found the latter "on the street" in Detroit.) "It's my husband's sense of style -- the urban salvage look," Donna says. "We've just moved it from our house to here."
Wonderland's drink of choice is Yuengling; the Pennsylvania brewery's lager, porter and Lord Chesterfield Ale cost $2 before 8, and $3 after that. Hungry? There's a small menu of sausages (bratwurst is "part of my Midwestern Detroit heritage," Donna explains), sandwiches and salads, which may be extended now that Wonderland has a full-time chef.
"We try to keep things simple," McGovern says. "And who doesn't like cheap beer?"
Upstairs, the "ballroom" has a simple layout, with a low stage at one end and a small bar at the other. In between are tables and some thrift-store couches and armchairs that invite you to sink into them.
Old record album sleeves hang on the walls with binder clips: Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, the "Superfly" soundtrack, Sam Cooke, Julie London.
On weekends, the second floor is smoke-free. "The place gets so packed, so it's nice to have an area where you can dance without having to worry about smoke," McGovern says. (Smokers can step outside to the "Bohemian Beer Garden," which is little more than a mostly grassless patch of lawn.) Wonderland offers an eclectic mix of performers, from DJs spinning soul and hip-hop to acoustic singer-songwriters. Sometimes Wednesday is an open-mike event, but it could just as well be reggae night.
"We've even had a bluegrass band in here," Donna says. "Mostly it's been local neighborhood bands who come in and say, 'Hey, can we play here?' " But there's always great music in the main bar, thanks to my new favorite jukebox in the city. It holds 100 CDs, and one page alone includes the "Best of Sugar Hill Records" (featuring hip-hop pioneers Grandmaster Flash and the Sugar Hill Gang), the Buena Vista Social Club, the Smiths and the Velvet Underground. Scroll through, and there's OutKast and Dr. Dre; Jimi Hendrix and the Clash; Prince and the White Stripes; Johnny Cash and Motown hits. Unlike those digital jukeboxes with tens of thousands of tunes, this one has real personality.
"We fought 10 days tooth and nail about what goes in the jukebox," McGovern says. "It was my wife and me and a couple of friends. We all had really strong ideas. I had to fight really hard to keep the Beatles out. . . . I'm a Rolling Stones fan."
"We both like dance music," Donna counters. "He thinks Blondie is great dance music. I think Soundgarden is great dance music, or Wilson Pickett, or whatever. But we've left a few slots empty . . . and we'll take suggestions from the neighbors."
Wonderland has quickly become a neighborhood favorite -- some group houses are touting their proximity to the bar when advertising open rooms on the Web site Craigslist -- and I have a feeling it's not going to be overrun by "outsiders" anytime soon.
For a start, there's nothing else nearby, so a trip to Wonderland might be the beginning and end of the night. The three-block walk from the Columbia Heights Metro station is not pedestrian-friendly -- it's poorly lit and frequently deserted. (A quick survey of female friends and co-workers revealed that most wouldn't feel comfortable making the trip by themselves.) Parking is pretty easy to find, but cabs are few and very far between. All of this is fine by McGovern. "It's a neighborhood corner bar," he says. "It's first and foremost for the neighborhood."