LAST CALL, for most of Washington, means it's time to grab a jumbo slice and call it a night. For the house-music heads who flock to Red, though, the party is just beginning.
Red, a basement-level club in an unmarked, glass-fronted building on a side street south of Dupont Circle, has the look of a speakeasy and made its name as the District's premiere after-hours dance spot, offering a mix of deep, soulful and thumping beats late into the night -- until 5 a.m. or later on weekends, and even regularly drawing crowds that stay until 2 or 3 on school nights. The influential Urb Magazine named Red the "best intimate club" in America in 2003.
Despite a top-flight reputation and loyal crowd, Red (1802 Jefferson Pl. NW; 202-466-3475) is shutting its doors after this weekend. The closure, explains Red's Farid Ali, is a matter of economics. The club's lease was up for renewal, and "we got an increase in our rent, based on the market price," he says. "We've been there for 10 years, so there's a big difference in rates now, obviously. They wanted to double [the rent]. We weren't expecting that."
Ali, who also operates the nearby legendary Eighteenth Street Lounge, sleek minimalist sushi lounge Dragonfly and U Street's trendy Local 16, says he couldn't double cover charges and drink prices to make up the shortfall, "so we decided to go the way we have to go. It was kind of a shock."
His other nightspots, he adds, "have much longer leases."
Red has been a player on the scene for a decade because of its back-to-basics approach. "When we first opened up in '96, the whole idea was based on a sound system with four walls, with avant-garde dance music that's ahead of the curve," Ali says. "It's not like reinventing the wheel, but we were becoming a cosmopolitan area, so we had the need. I always had the idea of having a booming sound system, four walls, a little small bar and music, you know?"
That's Red in a nutshell: Red walls lit by a number of flickering candles, which drip wax onto the speaker cabinets and bricks below. A few sofas and chairs serve as the only furniture in the darkened room, with the prize spot an L-shaped couch next to a DJ booth. Red's sound system is one of the best around, with warm, rich bass that would shame a club three times its size.
When Kara Moller moved to Washington after college 10 years ago, she wandered into Red one night and soon found herself drawn back week after week to catch DJs Doug Smith or Sam "the Man" Burns. "It was the first place I felt connected to or comfortable with," she says. "I didn't know many people personally, but always seeing the same faces, I was always greeted with smiles and hellos from regulars. Soon I was greeted with hugs from people whose names I sometimes didn't even know."
"Red has a different vibe than you'd catch anywhere else," says Thomas Blondet (DJ Tom B), who has spun at places such as Five and Chloe but held down a Thursday night slot at Red for years. "The crowd seems more knowledgeable and appreciative. People really come there for the music and the dancing. You don't see that kind of involvement in other places."
Regulars prized Red's consistency, which included a number of DJs who speak of their residencies in years, not weeks or months: Tom B on Thursdays, Doug Smith (95 North) on Saturdays, Sam Burns's Underground Soul Solution on Sunday nights. Mustafa Akbar, the dreadlocked doorman known for the burning stick of incense as well as his role singing with such groups as Thunderball and Thievery Corporation, has served as "head babysitter" for eight years. For Burns, the loyalty the club showed the DJs was reflected in the patrons. They knew what to expect, and they gave as much as they got.
"People feed off the energy," Burns says. "It's like a basement house party. I give credit to the people who've been coming to that place for years. So many people became friends. You come here every week, and you become family."
For my money, there are few DJs that can work a crowd as well as Burns. It's after 1:30 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and a packed dance floor has managed to convince itself that a few extra hours of sleep is no match for a few extra hours of the Man. On Sunday night, his soulful disco thump pulled dozens of folks onto the floor: black and white, gay and straight. Guys dance salsa with other men, some women twirl, eyes closed, lost in the music, while others strut, rubber limbed, to Willie Hutch's "Brothers Gonna Work it Out." Everybody is smiling and having the time of their lives -- no wonder the regulars call it going to church.
For Red's last weekend, Ali is planning an "Irish wake," many of Red's house DJs (past and present) taking one final spin on the turntables. Ali and DJ Case handle Friday, but Saturday's marathon is the one not to miss: Burns, Smith, Oji (former host of the Underground Experience on Baltimore's WEAA-FM); Tom B and Deesko Rob, DJ Kostas and special guest Master Kev from New York City. It's scheduled to start about 10 p.m. and last until "real late, maybe 7, 8 [a.m.], maybe later," Ali says, adding that there's no cover charge. "I want to have all the residents, the ones who really made the place, I want them to be a part of it and give their best on one night. It's going to be an emotional night. We're just going to have a party, a going away party, and end on a good note."
Although Saturday is officially the final throw-down, Burns will take to the decks Sunday night for one more party before moving the Underground Soul Solution to Dragonfly. As always, Akbar will be at the door, Ed Robinson will be pouring drinks (including Red Bull and Vitamin Water for those who have to get up the next morning) and Burns will spin his usual set of sweet, soulful house. Red's regulars wouldn't settle for anything less.
WHO 'OWNS' WHAT
Red isn't the only nightclub to fall victim to Washington's booming real estate market in recent months. Neo-soul hotspot Juste Lounge relocated from Mount Vernon Square to Bethesda in September after a sharp spike in rent, which founder Juste Pehoua attributes to the opening of the convention center across the street.
"Anecdotally, we hear stories" about restaurants and bars being squeezed out, says Lynne Breaux, executive director of the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
Restaurants, bars and clubs go out of business for many reasons -- a lack of customers and revenue being first among them -- but in recent years, it seems like more are being displaced for offices and housing rather than simply failing to draw crowds.
Dr. Dremo's Taphouse in Arlington (barely) survived a recent plan by developers to turn its site into a giant complex of condos and retail space, while Flanagan's Irish Pub in Bethesda closed to make room for just that kind of development. The beloved downtown dive Stoney's will be torn down to make room for a new building owned by the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
The VIP Club was forced to leave 10th and F streets NW in January 2004, along with the rest of the occupants of that block; law offices and shops are going up in their place. A few blocks away, Polly Esther's and Tequila Beach could meet the same fate if plans go ahead to construct a 10-story office building on the site; Douglas Jamal owns the land at 12th and F streets NW.
Last August, developers submitted plans to redevelop Nation, the Southeast nightclub home to Cubik, Alchemy and Velvet Nation, into a 10-story office complex (it's conveniently close to the planned Washington Nationals ballpark). A number of gay clubs also would be displaced by the stadium construction.
It's not as if property owners can just terminate leases at will, but the easiest way to avoid getting evicted is to own your own land and business. So many of the people we call "owners" -- as in "this is so-and-so's bar," or that favorite rebuke to bouncers, "I know the owner" -- fit only half that description. For many restaurants, bars and clubs in Washington, the name on a liquor license is different from the one on a deed to the property. One problem, according to several bar owners, is that the capital required upfront puts property out of reach for many new entrepreneurs.
"Most people I know are on leases, but some people have managed to buy," says Mike Benson, who owns Cafe Saint-Ex and the neighboring Bar Pilar. "When 14th Street['s real estate market] went haywire, everybody wished they'd got in." Benson has long-term leases at both locations and hopes to purchase a building for his third establishment.
It's not just independent business owners who face the problem. Bedrock Management, whose portfolio includes the area's coolest pool halls -- Buffalo Billiards, Atomic, Bedrock and Continental -- as well as the Aroma lounge and two branches of Mackey's Irish Pub, owns only one of its buildings: Carpool, in Ballston. Instead, says Bedrock's Curt Large, the company relies on long-term leases with options for extra years; Buffalo Billiards is on its second lease. Getting priced out of a space "is a concern, certainly," he says.
Joe Englert, the nightlife mogul behind Lucky Bar, the Big Hunt and the coming wave of nightspots on H Street NE, takes the opposite approach. "I always own the buildings," he says.
Music fans can rest assured that a number of their favorite clubs are owner-operated, including the 9:30 club and the Birchmere. (The Black Cat's Dante Ferrando didn't want to comment on the Black Cat's status -- "I like to leave that behind-the-scenes business stuff quiet," he says -- but real estate records show the bar was sold for an undisclosed amount in May.) Marc Barnes owns the megaclub Love, while H2O has a long lease with National Capital Revitalization Corp., a public-private organization that brings businesses to underserved neighborhoods such as the Southwest Waterfront.
Peter Pflug and his partners at Clarendon Ballroom and Clarendon Grill don't own either space, but, Pflug says, they're on long-term leases, and "we have the right of first refusal if someone wants to buy the space. That's really important." But, he adds, "if this real estate market keeps going the way it is, I think a lot of people's favorite places are going to go away."