MARC BARNES raised more than a few eyebrows last month when he announced that Dream (1350 Okie St. NE; 202-636-9030), the three-year-old nightspot that had become a regular party destination for hip-hop artists, professional athletes and thousands of local clubbers, would close on Aug. 20 and reopen as Love -- a humdrum name if there ever was one -- the following Thursday. Cynics (myself included) wondered if it was to distract from ongoing problems at the venue or to create some much-needed hype in the face of new competition from clubs such as Avenue or the K Street Lounge. Fans e-mailed to ask whether Dream was getting rid of its college night or ending its popular happy hours.
"People ask, 'Why are you changing? Everybody knows Dream,' " Barnes says. "People in Japan called [to ask about the change]." But, he says simply, "We're doing what we want to do."
In the nightlife industry, where buzz and reputation are everything, it's rare for a club to change its name without a corresponding change in ownership, but it's not unprecedented. Joe Englert changed Politiki into the Penn Ave. Pour House when he decided that Capitol Hill barflies were growing tired of drinking mai tais at the Polynesian-themed bar. DC Live became the VIP Club after a multimillion-dollar facelift; owner Abdul Khanu needed a moniker that reflected his desire to have everyone "feel like a VIP." And in the case of Buzz -- the massive DJ night that became Sting and is now known as Cubik at Nation -- changing the name served as an exorcism, after the event's reputation was sullied by some well-publicized allegations of drug use by patrons.
Perhaps Barnes and partner Masoud Aboughaddareh (the promoter better known as Masoud A.) had similar goals in mind.
Dream opened in November 2001, and Barnes estimates that more than 3 million people have come through the immense four-level club, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, Beyonce, Magic Johnson, Diddy, Steve Francis and the Roots. Cam'Ron shot the video for "Hey Ma" at Dream, and interspersed with scenes of the New York rapper and his crew dancing and sipping champagne, we the hoi polloi got a look at the penthouse suite, including the showers and rooftop hot tub.
Filled with warm mahogany walls, marble accents and well-appointed VIP rooms, Dream was the first Washington nightclub ready for a close-up on MTV's "Cribs." The first floor alone was a hip-hop millionaire's version of a Ritz-Carlton lobby: a huge island bar, soft carpeting, a concierge desk, coat check, raised VIP seating areas and large DJ booth. That's before you climbed flights of stairs to the enormous second-story dance floor, where hip-hop stars took the stage almost every weekend; passed through heavy red-velvet curtains to reach the plush, velvet-lined walls of the Red Room; or explored the vast outdoor deck -- which overlooked a school bus parking lot, but still managed to feel hip and tropical.
At the same time, though, Dream, located in an isolated industrial area off New York Avenue, has attracted more than its share of trouble. D.C. police took to calling the place "Club Nightmare," according to a March Washington Post story. A litany of crimes associated with Dream include stabbings on the dance floor; three people wounded when a security guard opened fire outside in May 2004; and numerous fights, muggings and thefts from automobiles parked nearby. Residents in the surrounding neighborhood of Ivy City complain about illegally parked cars, increased street crime on weekend nights, noise and trash. Patrons gripe about endless lines to get in, distant satellite parking lots and unpleasant doormen.
And while other clubs were opening with cutting-edge lighting, sound and design, Dream remained relatively consistent. That was part of its appeal but also what made it prime for a revamp.
Earlier this summer, Barnes and Masoud A. decided it was time for something new. To some degree, they admit that shaping Dream into Love is something of a public relations exercise. "People have focused on the negative things that have been said about Dream, not the beauty, not the 3 million people who came through," Barnes says. He says that he recognizes that Dream had its share of problems and that customers who encountered difficulty with parking, long lines or crowds didn't give the club a second chance. "Those are people we wanted to bring back," Barnes says, to demonstrate that his staff can do better. Problem is, "people want to go to a new place. . . . We thought by changing it to Love, we'd cause a stir. We thought more people wanted to see the new Love and not just the new Dream."
Masoud A. adds: "Some people didn't want to come to Dream. Now people can meet us halfway."
Construction began about a month ago, but, surprisingly, Dream kept operating on weekends while walls were installed and carpets were laid during the week. As a result, the "grand opening" came before everything was ready for prime time -- "There's more furniture that hasn't been delivered and we couldn't get that in the time frame," Barnes says -- and more changes will occur in coming weeks. (This also explains why you can still see some fixtures bearing the Dream logo, while in other parts of the bar, designers have slapped a swirly "Love" mark on anything that stayed still long enough.)
The transformation from Dream to Love isn't a dramatic change, but a combination of remodeling and redecorating, with a few nice touches thrown in, including shuttles from outlying parking lots and even downtown Washington.
New arrivals will find a larger concierge desk at the front door, which can direct you to various rooms or tell you when Ludacris is performing. Satellite bars have been added, shortening waits for drinks. Lighting is new and improved, and paintings by local artist Lorena Etchebarne hang on the walls.
The covered deck has been remade as the Cabana Floor, a dramatic space with red lighting and potted bamboo plants. The wooden floorboards, marketing director Gloria Nauden says, have been treated so that women's pointy heels no longer get stuck between the slats. (A female friend confirms this is an important upgrade.) A row of private couches, separated by gauzy scrims, lines the wall. In the center of the room are three king-size beds surrounded by red velvet ropes. These are the kind filled with foam -- you may have seen them on TV commercials -- where movement on one side of the mattress doesn't disturb drinks resting on the other side. They're certainly comfy. Rent one for the evening and you'll be $2,000 poorer, but you'll be the center of attention.
If you're lucky, you'll be able to climb the stairs to the fourth floor, another, more intimate indoor-outdoor spot that's popular for private parties. (Redskins running back Clinton Portis is closing down a floor this weekend for his birthday party, Nauden says.) Actually, many of the most notable changes involve areas for high-spending customers. A first-floor VIP area has changed from a couple of couches and chairs on risers into an enclosed space called "the Apartment" with a working kitchen (including a Viking refrigerator and stove), leather couches, a long communal dining table and a private bar. French doors provide a view of the rest of the crowd. Upstairs, the walls that separated the VIP room from the rest of the club have disappeared, opening the floor up further and adding an extra bar for the non-VIP customers. Overall, Nauden says, the number of "reserved" tables -- where you have to promise to spend a few hundred to a few thousand dollars for a guaranteed seat -- has increased by about a third, which she puts down to customer demand.
This all underlines a salient point: Partying at Love isn't cheap and is at least as expensive as -- if not more than -- many of its competitors. Yes, you can skip the $10 cover charge with passes from the Web site (lovetheclub.com), but once inside, beers cost $5 to $7, house cocktails are $9 to $11 and delicious Caribbean snacks from the kitchen of chef Lois Spencer -- mouth-watering coconut shrimp; delicate, spicy crab cakes -- are $10 to $12. That doesn't include parking ($10 in a satellite lot, $20 for valet) or coat check ($3 per item). High-rollers who want to skip lines and have access to the various VIP areas can pay $150 a year to make phone reservations on the "Love Line."
Love's biggest improvement over Dream is the free shuttle bus, which will run between the club and the southeast corner of 18th and M streets downtown every 15 minutes, Nauden says, adding that they hope it will attract customers who didn't want to go to Dream because of parking difficulties. It runs until 4 a.m., but the bonus is this: Nauden promises that anyone who arrives on the shuttle gets preferential "no line, no cover" treatment.
A friend and I tried it Saturday, and it worked perfectly: After some initial confusion about where to grab the shuttle (look for the executive mini buses with paper signs that say "Love" in the window), we traveled to Okie Street in less than 15 minutes, and when we arrived at Love, the driver radioed a staff member who whisked us past the lines and to the front door.
Despite these changes, the reason most people head to the club -- the music and the crowds -- follows the same formula: DJs spinning hip-hop and Latin music on Thursday's 18-and-over college night; hip-hop and R&B on Fridays; "international" Saturdays with hip-hop, house, Latin and world. Drinks are still free from 9 to 10 on Thursdays and Saturdays. Dress codes -- no athletic wear, baggy jeans or boots -- remain.
One holdover I'm glad to see survive: the wide-open spaces and walkways. With the exception of the main bar on the ground floor and the VIP beds, all the bars and seating areas are situated along the walls, meaning there's more room to dance -- and move around -- in the center of each room. (The edges of the dance floors, where everyone gathers to check everyone else out, can be an exception.) Barring the name, Love is a definite improvement over Dream, and the shuttle bus and new menu should lure a few doubters back. Expensive parking and cocktails, though, may not change too many minds.