EVEN IN THE anything-goes world of nightlife, this sounds unlikely: Five guys who've worked at such riotous bars as Tom Tom, McFadden's and Adams Mill Bar and Grill -- favorites of students, interns and kickball squads looking for a post-game pitcher -- join forces to open their own place in Glover Park. Within a month, Town Hall (2218 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-333-5641) is on its way to becoming the new Smith Point.
Smith Point, for those out of the loop, is a Georgetown restaurant-cum-nightspot that became very famous outside of Washington when Newsweek, the New York Times and USA Today revealed that it was a favorite spot for Jenna and Barbara Bush and numerous preppy young Republicans who needed a place to let their hair down. That you could only get past the velvet rope and into the basement-level party if your name was on the list gave Smith Point a bonus level of cachet in certain circles, even if the experience -- drinking out of plastic cups and talking to guys in khakis who went to Auburn or Washington and Lee -- was more akin to a fraternity party than hanging out in a VIP room. That low-key atmosphere was part of the appeal.
Times change, though, and Smith Point's luster has dimmed. It looks like the void will be filled by a restaurant and tavern about a mile up Wisconsin Avenue, on a strip where entertainment options include two gentlemen's clubs (Good Guys and JP's), one very cool neighborhood bar (Bourbon) and a grungy rock 'n' roll club that has been hosting bands for decades (the Grog and Tankard).
It's an unlikely scenario, especially because Town Hall is not a nightclub -- at least the way most people think of one. It's a pleasant enough modern American restaurant during the day: Huge plate-glass windows let in a lot of natural light. Soft yellow walls are decorated with arty photos of alternative Washington landmarks such as Ben's Chili Bowl, the Albert Einstein statue and a hand bearing a blurred, inky stamp from the 9:30 club. A heavy dark-wood bar takes up one side of the room, with a long leather banquette along the other. Wide, high-backed booths are an inviting place to sink in, grab a drink and gossip with friends.
Those high, round bar tables and chairlike leather barstools are in place and in use after midnight on Fridays and Saturdays, though just about every other free square foot of space is filled with young professionals (late twenties, early thirties, more J. Crew than Urban Outfitters) who are talking (or, given the noise, shouting) to friends, glancing at "SportsCenter" and doing what seem to be endless lemon drop shots at the bar.
Up a short flight of stairs, there's another dining room with another bar, more chairs and more tables. That's where we found Jenna Bush last weekend, hanging out with a group of friends.
What surprised me most about Town Hall is that it doesn't have a dance floor or a DJ. Instead, it's a pre-programmed mix of MP3s that runs the gamut from indie guitar rock (Hot Hot Heat and Bloc Party) to Kanye West and Jay-Z's booming beats. No matter what's playing, the large crowd is clearly here to socialize.
"We don't need a dance floor," explains Paul Holder, a partner who spent three years at Tom Tom. Besides, he says, a dance floor "just keeps people from talking and makes guys think the only way they can communicate with a woman is to get her onto the dance floor. We wanted it to be implied in the name Town Hall that this is a meeting place without the pretensions that you find at D.C. nightlife establishments."
Besides dancing, Town Hall avoids a number of other usual trappings -- there's no cover charge, no list, no dress code. (Unofficially, at least; most guys are sporting polo shirts with the optional popped collar or have their oxford shirts tucked into stonewashed jeans. The women, on the other hand, have made an extra effort to look good, with satiny tops, plunging necklines and trendy bags that would fit in at most clubs.) Of course, you can also stop by on Saturday or Sunday afternoons to watch football games on one of the high-definition flat-screen televisions. During the week, a mix of regulars -- again, twenties and thirties with a smattering of older clients -- nurses beers or glasses of white wine at happy hour.
"People are surprised by Town Hall because we [the owners] came from gin mills, for lack of a better term," Holder says. "In coming to this neighborhood, we were trying to do something nicer. Part of the reason I got out of Adams Morgan is because walking down 18th Street at 2:30 on a weekend night, you better be wearing a flak jacket. Coming out of a bar and trying not to get in a fight in the pizza line -- it's not something I want to deal with on a weekly basis."
They made the decision to go more upscale and try to hit an "underserved" area, which Holder believes is the source of Town Hall's sudden popularity. "A lot of young professionals are moving into this neighborhood," Holder says. "People who live in this neighborhood had to travel to Georgetown, Adams Morgan or Dupont. Now they can just come here."
Despite the weekend bar business, Holder says "the restaurant is a priority. We wouldn't have gone out and gotten an executive chef [Paul Madrid of Paolo's] if it wasn't." Though I haven't had a full meal at the restaurant, I've explored the small plates and found it pays to stick with the spicy -- chicken wings with jerk spices and a crispy golden crust, quesadillas with andouille sausage and sharp cheese. Another nice touch: The full menu is available until 12:30 on Friday and Saturday and 11:30 during the week.
The downside of the bar's burgeoning reputation is that it can get as crowded as those Adams Morgan saloons the owners left behind. At peak times, you're standing elbow to elbow with your neighbor, but the crush is only uncomfortable around the bar, where customers are three deep, waving cash and credit cards at bartenders in futile attempts to expedite service. Compounding matters, on one night I was there, only two guys were behind the counter, and one seemed to be paying special attention to a group of friends -- maybe favored regulars -- sitting together at one end, doing shots.
(In the bar's defense, Holder says that the owners have been surprised by the volume on weekend nights. They've added an additional bartender upstairs and probably will add more staff in the future.) What's strange -- and perhaps more worrying -- is that I've twice found myself standing in random shards of broken glass, even though the staff seems pretty diligent about cleaning up spills. Accidents will happen. At least here, when someone has bumped into me or moved a chair onto my foot, they apologized quickly and even made some small talk.
Town Hall's neighbors have become concerned about the growing buzz, and Holder says he and his partners are working to defuse any problems. Free parking is provided across the street at USA Parking to keep customers' cars off residential streets. Additional soundproofing was added, and, Holder says, he walks around the neighborhood at night to check the volume. Litter and noise on surrounding streets remain a touchy issue. There's a bouncer at the door to keep order when patrons exit. After all they went through to get the place open, Holder says, "we don't want to lose our license" because a patron walks out carrying a beer.
To encourage more local business, they offered free "get to know us" meals for their immediate neighbors.
For such a new establishment, Town Hall is doing a lot of things right. It knows its crowd, it delivers what they want, and they're flocking in droves to take advantage. Soon, we may even start wondering which bar is going to be the next Town Hall.