Just as Wednesday happy hour is winding down, Caribbean Breeze begins to heat up. From 4 to 7, the Ballston restaurant's cherry-stained bar is the domain of office workers in suits and ties who sit around the U-shaped counter enjoying one of the neighborhood's best happy hours, with $2 beers, $3 appetizers and $5 mojitos. But as the clock ticks toward the end of the deals, Latin music begins to play on the far side of the room, and instructors Earl Rush and Maribel Soto begin to lead a group of would-be salseros through the basics of the dance: foundation steps, simple turns, how to lead and follow. Heads at the bar invariably swivel to see what's going on and even nod to the music.
Rush and Soto spend two hours working with a dozen or more students, who pay $10 each for the drop-in classes, and after the lessons are over, the instructors hang around to offer tips and private advice while students practice the moves they've learned. After all, they need to be ready for Friday's main event, when as many as 150 people pack the restaurant to hear DJ Andy spin salsa music.
After the Friday dinner rush subsides, tables are removed from a large portion of the restaurant -- the area with the hardwood floor between the bar and the doors to the huge patio -- and the makeshift dance floor becomes among the liveliest I've seen recently.
What really sets it apart, though, is the music. "It's a salsa night," Rush says. "Listen. There's no bachata, no merengue. If you're a hard-core salsero, it's hard to find that. Everyone else is playing reggaeton or something. I just wanted to do a night with salsa."
Rush began hosting Caribbean Breeze's Fridays in January. After spending a few years working at other people's events, he wanted to do something on his own. "We'd known about Caribbean Breeze, so we approached the owner, and he gave us six weeks to try it. I thought if we could make it through January, in the winter, then the summer will be easy."
Crowds did turn up, and though newcomers were asking about lessons, Rush says he couldn't offer them. "On Fridays, we don't have the time," he says. "The restaurant is doing good business, so we go from 10 to 2. If you try to put a lesson in there, you only have three hours to party." Two months ago, Rush began teaching beginner and advanced-beginner lessons Wednesdays from 7 to 9, focusing on the traditional "on 1" salsa as well as the New York style, known as "on 2."
Fridays have gone so well that, beginning this weekend, Caribbean Breeze is expanding its offerings to Saturday night, with a new Latin night that encompasses more than salsa; the patio, for example, will be a "Bolero Courtyard" with romantic music.
Dancing, though, isn't the only attraction Caribbean Breeze holds -- there's that happy hour. Every weekday, Miller Lite is $1.99, Dos Equis and other drafts are a dollar more. A selection of appetizers, including empanadas, "Jamaican Jerk" quesadillas, Caribbean-seasoned wings and "stamp and go" seafood fritters are $2.99 a plate. It's very similar to deals offered at Alexandria's Cafe Salsa, another of owner Mike Cordero's projects, but I much prefer the atmosphere here. Settling in on the cozy bar stools -- the seats are woven from orange and brown seat belt fabric -- it's evident that the owners were going for an airy, island look; windows that extend from high ceilings toward the floor provide a lot of afternoon light, and potted palms and other greenery add a festive tropical touch to the room.
The spacious patio, packed with dinner tables, is tucked along the side of the building, well away from the street, though commuters from neighboring offices frequently hurry past. It's not as noisy as some outdoor spaces in the neighborhood and is a good place to enjoy the sunshine with a cold drink.
Servers talk up the mojito, and though it's sugary, sparkling and has a decent amount of mint, there's too much lime that tastes straight from the can. (The lime and sugar-water mixture is poured from a plastic bottle. Coincidence?) Margaritas are also on the sweet side, but the pomegranate frozen version can be a knockout.
You'll need something to accompany the drinks, and you may want to choose a few plates from the happy-hour menu; although the empanadas and fritters are tasty, portions are smaller than you might expect; order the quesadilla and you'll get three triangles of tortilla stuffed with smoked beef and cheese. If you could stick them back together, you might be able to form a semicircle. Still, the price is right.
Service is a high point, thanks to the friendly bartenders who take your orders with a smile, don't let glasses sit empty for too long and come around to warn customers with a wink that "happy hour's almost over, but I can get you another." A hard sell to get people to spend more on another drink? Sure. But when the price shoots up by a couple bucks in a matter of minutes, such offers are appreciated.