BETHESDA HAS never been known for the diversity of its nightlife. Finding a place that's showing the Maryland game or a pub offering pints of Guinness is easy. Trying to relax on a couch with a glass of cognac, hear a DJ spinning the latest hip-hop and reggae hits or catch a hot local R&B band -- not so much.
All these problems can be answered in one fell swoop now that Juste Lounge (6821 Reed St., Bethesda; 301-656-3712) has moved from Washington's Mount Vernon Square neighborhood to a warehouse-like building near Bethesda Row that once housed the neighboring (but interconnected) nightclubs Lewie's and Chrome.
Stop by on a Friday night and you'll find a crowd of well-dressed folks enjoying live music (the jazzy soul group Sounds of Incline last week, the funky soul band Yamama'nym this week). The spacious, dimly lit main room has two bars, numerous leather couches and a large hardwood dance floor. Through a narrow doorway is the smaller side lounge, with its own bar, seats and a DJ spinning salsa.
When the band finishes, a reggae DJ begins, drawing more of the crowd onto the dance floor. Both sides of the club are packed, and bartenders are busily mixing martinis from the list of 38 house concoctions.
"We saw there are a lot of people in Gaithersburg, Rockville and Silver Spring who like hip-hop and R&B but didn't want to go into D.C. to hear that," says owner Juste Pehoua. He's clearly on to something.
Pehoua opened his first club -- also called Juste Lounge -- on Seventh Street NW in 2002. A hole-in-the-wall across from the hole-in-the-ground that would become the Washington Convention Center, word filtered out about the cool little joint with the long martini list, one of the few places championing neo-soul, a sultry style that recalls classic '70s R&B.
His lease on the space expired earlier this year, and "we were not in agreement with the landlord," Pehoua says, simply. Juste Lounge closed in June, and Pehoua had prepared to take some time off and figure out what to do next. "I was not going to do anything before spring 2006," he says, but fate -- and a building in Bethesda -- intervened. "I walked in here for a private party my friend was throwing," Pehoua says. "I'd never heard about it -- the Thyme Out Lounge, it was called then. No one was coming here. I thought this could be a great spot if someone did it right."
Pehoua spoke to the landlords, and "I wasn't ready to open a new place, but the opportunity was so good."
Now he's trying to re-create that urban vibe in Bethesda while also reaching out to new customers. "Friday and Tuesday are my nights -- neo-soul, R&B, the nights I've been doing so long," Pehoua says, and draw the biggest crowds. The Latin Jazz All-Stars play salsa on Saturday nights, while DJs spin hip-hop in the lounge. Brazilian jazz is featured on Thursday. Reggae and soca are the draw on Wednesdays, as they were on Seventh Street. Saxophonist Perry Conticchio provides his take on Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus on Sundays.
Eventually, Pehoua would like to bring in nationally known R&B acts once a month. "We're only about half done," he says.
A SHINIER HALO
One of my favorite additions to the local lounge scene in 2004 was Halo (1435 P St. NW; 202-797-9730), a sleek, smoke-free lounge near Logan Circle. Located in a second-story walk-up, the long, narrow room was closer to a minimalist boutique hotel bar than most other gay nightspots in the neighborhood. Bartenders poured seasonal mojitos while customers relaxed on leather ottomans and mingled around the glowing, back-lit bar.
The only problem was that Halo was too popular. Lines formed early on weekends, as demand easily outstripped capacity.
Halo owners Ed Bailey and John Guggenmos found the solution right under their noses. They were subleasing the property from David Lett, who owned the street-level Empire Video. "He was considering moving on from the video business, so he made us aware that if we were interested in expanding, we could take over the whole building," Bailey explains. The partners leapt on the offer earlier this year. The first floor opened in September, looking like an upgraded version of the upstairs. Higher ceilings and well-placed mirrors make the space look much larger than the upstairs, and the layout, which emphasizes standing room as well as sectional sofas, has made it easier to find room to talk with friends. It's also easier to get to the bar for mojitos muddled with fresh pineapple chunks or blueberries, winter cocktails such as the caramel apple martini or the staggering array of flavored rums.
(Drinks can be pricey -- about $11 for one of those wonderful mojitos -- so visit early, as everything is two-for-one from 5 to 9.) Bailey says that this is just the beginning. "Before the end of this year, we'll have redone the upstairs," he says. "We're going to change the layout, replace the furniture. . . . When we first opened, we were limited in the amount of money we could spend on the wow factor. The downstairs is what we had envisioned for this entire project."
One intriguing detail is the addition of a DJ booth in the rear of the room. Despite Bailey's accomplished club pedigree -- he has spun at Tracks and Velvet Nation, where he's working the turntables for the "I Love the '80s" party on Nov. 26 -- Halo rarely features DJs, preferring to use Bailey's laptop or mix CDs to set the soundtrack for an evening, almost always at a volume to get customers grooving but never so loud as to preclude conversation.
"We have no DJs. We have no plans to have a DJ. To this point, the only thing we've thought we might want to do is have a DJ on New Year's Eve. But down the road, you never know what you may need or what you think you may need. If after a few years we don't think we're ever going to use it, we'll make it a little tiny, ultra-fabulous VIP room for two people."
DIGGING IN ITS CLAWS?
Dante Ferrando is comfortable being the public face of the Black Cat, but he prefers to keep operational matters out of the spotlight. "I honestly don't like talking about behind-the-scenes business," Ferrando says. That's not surprising, as discussing the 14th Street club's ownership is a popular indie-rock parlor game; Foo Fighter Dave Grohl was one of the original investors, reportedly holding a 20 percent stake.
When I called Ferrando a few weeks ago to ask about the Black Cat, he was typically mum, providing "no comments" about ownership of the club and the building (1811 14th St. NW). According to the D.C. government's public tax and real estate records, the Black Cat is (or was) owned by a David Canady and was sold for an undisclosed amount in May. Cue lots of rumor and speculation.
No one was more surprised than Ferrando. He says he called the city to ask about the listing and was given a "Hey, these things happen" response. "It's a total [clerical] error," Ferrando says. "If I decided to sell tomorrow, it wouldn't stop me."
"Sell tomorrow?" Hmm.
In any case, Ferrando says, it's a moot point, because the Black Cat isn't going anywhere. "We just put $20,000 into the sound system," he says, and plans are moving ahead for a renovation of the backstage concert space. Referring to himself as a "cheapskate," Ferrando says, "I wouldn't be doing this if we were going to close."