Bijan Modaressi had envisioned Chelsea's as an English pub on the banks of the Potomac in Georgetown. So why is the place pulsating nightly to the commanding rhythms of salsa bands?
Modaressi discovered that the Washington area had few Britons but an abundant number of Hispanics.
By midnight a steady stream of mostly Hispanics, women wearing silk dresses and men dressed in three-piece suits and leather pants, fill the only nightclub in the metropolitan area that features live Latin American bands six nights a week.
The crowds come to hear salsa, the traditional Latin music that takes its name from salsa picante, the hot peppery sauce used in Latin cuisine.
Chelsea's crowds are varied in age and nationality. Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans, Peruvians, Panamanians, Cubans, Spaniards and North Americans twirl and gyrate to the intricate beats of merengue, cumbia or salsa -- hot sounds that demand participation.
"Our style is fashioned after the popular Latin clubs in New York," said Modaressi, an Iranian known to most of the regular patrons simply as B.J.
"We feature 40 minutes of live Latin bands, and then 20 minutes of both American and Latin records," he said. "We keep it going like that all night and the people love it."
When Chelsea's, a restaurant by day, opened four years ago, Latin bands played only on weekends.
After entering through the large double oak doors at Chelsea's, which is on the second level of the Foundry Mall at 1055 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, guests are greeted by several hosts neatly dressed in dark suits and bow ties.
One of the hosts, Juan Lubo, 28, a native of Colombia, greets guests with a friendly "Hola, como esta?"
For more familiar faces there is a light kiss on the cheek accompanied by the traditional abrazo, or bear hug.
"There aren't a whole lot of places around town where Latins get together," said Lubo, who frequented the club as a guest three or four times a week until he was offered a job four months ago. "This place is classy and that's why it attracts so many people."
The decor is simple -- rows of track lighting are set low and white candles glow on each of the 30 or so white and red linen swathed tables, most of which are arranged around the large stage and spacious dance floor. Strobe lights that flash from blue to yellow beam over the dance area.
Waitresses dressed in short black leather skirts and white blouses dash from the half circular bar to the tables carrying trays of drinks.
Chelsea's has a split personality. During the day and early evening it is a restaurant offering a continental menu featuring chicken, seafood, steak and Italian dishes, catering to Georgetown workers and shoppers.
"As a restaurant we don't have any particular ethnic crowd, said Modaressi, who worked as a mechanical engineer in Montgomery County for 14 years before he decided to start his own business.
"Once we start playing the music around 10:30 p.m. we get the Hispanic crowd," he added.
Modaressi originally planned to open a small English pub. "That's where the name Chelsea's came from," he explained.
But after some research, Modaressi said he discovered that 200,000 to 250,000 Hispanics live in the Washington area.
"The key to getting started was the music," he said.
He visited New York, Miami and Boston, looking for popular bands to play in Chelsea's. He also searched for local talent. He now claims his house band is the best around. "They're just as good as the ones in New York and Miami," he boasted.
The Washington area's lone Spanish radio station broadcasts the schedules of the bands playing at Chelsea's.
Modaressi, who speaks no Spanish, said when he first opened he was criticized by some Hispanics who feared he was an "outsider," a "businessman" who just wanted to make money off the Latinos.
"It hasn't been easy," Modaressi said. "I had to sort of prove myself."
But Chelsea's has been a success.
"This place has class, charm, good music, and it's in Georgetown," said Wanda Baez, who moved here from Puerto Rico four years ago to attend American University. "There are other places to go, but they just don't have the same quality of people and service."
"I come here because they have the best Latin band in the city," said a young woman from Venezuela, who gave only her first name, Gilda. "Peligro is definitely the best around."
Peligro, which translates into "explosion," is the popular nine-member house band that plays only at Chelsea's and usually draws the largest crowds during their performances.
Sherie Edwards, one of the few non-Hispanics sprinkled throughout the crowd, said on a recent night that she goes to Chelsea's at least twice a month just to dance.
"I have a lot of Spanish friends and this is where they all come," she said, just as she was grabbed by friends encouraging her to join them on the dance floor. "See what I mean. If you like Latin music and you like to dance, then this is the place to be."