WHEN THE multimillion-dollar VIP Club ceded the corner of 10th and F streets NW to a complex of upscale shops and high-end law firms last year, owner Abdul Khanu predicted "the end of the big spaces downtown. They're just too valuable to be used as clubs."
In the past 18 months, it has proved a prescient remark. Pubs and lounges continue to multiply and flourish in the heart of the city, but dance clubs are shunted away from the downtown core. Khanu's gigantic H2O, an upscale club favored by professional athletes, sits on the underutilized Southwest Waterfront. Fur, which brings in internationally renowned DJs such as Deep Dish and Tiesto, opened last year near New York and Florida avenues in Northeast, near the XM Radio offices, a new Metro stop and not much else.
Avenue (649 New York Ave. NW; 202-347-8100), which opened in April, operates on the fringes of the expanding business district, but the four-level, 12,000-square-foot club is steps from the new convention center and a little more than two blocks from the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station.
"I drove past [the building], and I fell in love with it," explains Henock Andargie, who runs Avenue with his sister Heban. It was a smart move on his part. Avenue's biggest asset isn't the DJs who spin hip-hop, '80s, reggae and Afrobeat on weekends -- it's the structure itself. Built in 1872 as a lumber warehouse by George M. Barker, the building has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places for more than two decades. The striking interior is the kind that New York loft developers see in their sweetest recurring dreams: 18-foot ceilings; tall, narrow windows; gleaming hardwood floors; exposed brick walls around every corner.
It's incredibly airy, partially because the Andargies decorated the club in an uncluttered modern style, leaving the focus on the spacious dance floors. On the upper levels, bars, couches and banquettes are arranged along the walls, providing more room to groove. Even when the rooms are full and lights flash overhead, the space never feels too crowded. Paintings by the siblings and other local artists cover the walls -- Henock Andargie majored in art in college -- and sculpted, textured panels cover the walls and columns.
Elements of the original building have been incorporated into the design -- the thick metal platform that supports each level's DJ booth is a remnant of the building's original elevator shaft.
Andargie worked in clubs in Madrid and Sydney after college and says his goal for Avenue is to be international and "a little bit different" by shaking up the schedule with fashion shows or live performers in addition to the usual roster of DJs. Most other clubs subsist on a similar diet, but Avenue's concert schedule is worth watching.
Neo-soul songstress Jaguar Wright took the small third-floor stage for an album release party last Friday, and hotly tipped R&B singer Keyshia Cole, whose debut single was featured on the "Barbershop 2" soundtrack, is scheduled to host "the Official Ladies' Night Out" Friday.
Actually, Fridays were already pretty solid, thanks to promoters Mad Power Unit. The group is responsible for Flirt, the popular see-and-be-seen happy hour that draws a large professional African American crowd to MCCXXIII on Wednesdays. Here, too, the early draw is an open-bar happy hour in the first-floor lounge, which is exactly what it promises. Print out a pass from MadPowerUnit.com, show up between 6 and 8, and most drinks are free. Top-shelf liquor and imported beers are excluded, but I've managed to grab Tanqueray and tonic, a Grey Goose martini and even a plain-old Bud Light for nothing. (Just remember to tip your bartender.) A soul-food buffet appears at 7, and again about midnight, while DJ Q sets the mood with hip-hop tunes.
As the night wears on, more is added to the mix. DJs Iran and Trini, known to listeners of WKYS-FM for live broadcasts from H2O and Platinum, spin hip-hop and old-school jams on two floors, while the middle level heats up with DJ Super Slice's mix of reggae, soca and Caribbean beats.
Saturdays have proved to be a mixed bag, despite a DJ lineup that includes Geometrix, skilled at blending Jay-Z, 50 Cent and popular hip-hop club tunes, and Adrian Loving, who plays everything from rare grooves to soulful house to Afrobeat. For whatever reason, it just doesn't seem to be taking off. Crowds have been slower, and nothing kills the vibe more than climbing a set of stairs to find music blaring in a cavernous, half-empty room.
Managers and bouncers realize this and try to avoid opening an upper floor until the one below has reached critical mass, but this staggering has the effect of frustrating those people who came to hear the third-floor '80s DJ, not the guy spinning old-school beats. Even then, most of the crowd favors one style of music (usually whatever's on the top level) while the other levels have less energy.
Andargie remains optimistic that Saturdays will work out. In the meantime, he says the club will start a Sunday event targeted at college students by the end of July and continues to host a monthly concert sponsored by Toyota Scion. Biz Markie and DJ Jazzy Jeff have appeared at those logo-heavy events, with mix-tape legend (and certified B-boy) Tony Touch scheduled to take to the turntables Aug. 4.
Avenue still has the feel of a club finding its feet, but the location bodes well for the future.
For me, hot weather usually heralds the return of summer tropical cocktails. Most bars have some sort of rum drink on their cocktail menu at this point, but there's no reason to settle for the usual when so many restaurants and lounges are crafting recipes that utilize fresh, seasonal ingredients. Here are a few that have caught my eye -- and taste buds -- on recent forays around Washington.
It's worth fighting your way to the bar at Merkado Kitchen (1443 P St. NW; 202-299-0018), a new Logan Circle restaurant that's aiming for an odd blend of Latin and Asian food and drinks -- yes, drinks, too; note the Korean soju mojito, which mixes the vodkalike Korean spirit with the minty Cuban mainstay.
Early impressions tell me that the cocktail menu at this loud, stylish little place will be worth keeping an eye on, especially if they can keep producing drinks like the Kokonut Kamakaze. Most bargoers will be familiar with Malibu, Bacardi Coco or other light rums blended with coconut; they're found in many drinks, including pina coladas. At Merkado, though, they don't rely on the prepackaged version -- they make their own.
Look at the rear of the long, snaking bar counter and you'll see a tall glass jar filled with coconut halves. The husks are steeping in rum, and when you order the Kokonut Kamakaze, the bartender pulls some of the coconut-infused liquid out of the container, adds pineapple juice and a splash of sour and shakes it into a martini glass. Similar to a pina colada, this is a cocktail with a soft, well-rounded character and the fresh scent of coconut flesh.
I've been seeing more and more bars pushing mango and pineapple drinks, only to be disappointed when the bartender whips up a concoction using mango rum or pineapple vodka instead of actual fruit. That's not the case at Halo (1435 P St. NW; 202-797-9730), the smoke-free lounge and bar next door to Merkado, where the seasonal drink menu includes blueberry, pineapple and strawberry mojitos. Order one, and the bartender grabs fresh berries or pineapple chunks from silver bowls behind the bar and muddles the fruit with mint before adding a healthy dose of rum to your glass.
Blueberry is the winner here, thanks to a subtle flavor that complements but never overpowers the mint. The sweet pineapple cocktail will lead you to swear off those pineapple-flavored rums in favor of the real thing.
Georgetown's Blue Gin (1206 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-965-5555) has a new cocktail menu, created under the auspices of bartender Sasha Carter, and my summer drink of choice there is the cactus margarita, which adds fresh cactus fruit puree to the usual mix of Patron Silver tequila and Cointreau. The fruit adds a sweet, almost melon flavor to the Mexican favorite, making it suitable even for those who don't like tequila.