ESL was set to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year, Nouri says, and he was in negotiations with his landlord about extending the lease, which ends this month, when the pandemic hit. The latest offer, he says, “wasn’t what I wanted to make it a viable business. I was in a position to choose yes or no, so I decided not to accept the offer that was on the table. … I don’t want to commit to pre-pandemic market terms for a post-pandemic market."
Closed to the public since mid-March, ESL has gone virtual, with DJs streaming live sets online while asking for tips for out-of-work staff. That’s the way it will remain for the foreseeable future: According to D.C.'s reopening plan, nightclubs can reopen in Phase 3 with a limit of “five people per 1,000 square feet,” which would have limited ESL to a maximum capacity of 50 people — and on a good Saturday night, you’d find twice that many grooving at the heart of just one of the Lounge’s multiple dance floors. Phase 4, which would allow nightlife venues to return to full capacity, will only arrive once a vaccine or cure for covid-19 is widely available, which experts say probably won’t be until the second half of 2021.
“The near-future potential for this hospitality business looks pretty dim — especially nightclubs and live show venues, where we rely on density and socialization,” Nouri says. “These businesses need critical mass for them to be viable, especially with D.C.'s exorbitant fixed costs,” such as rent and insurance. “Any reduced capacity for these businesses is not going to work out, moneywise or energywise. The idea of going to a live show or a dance club or a lounge is to be around a crowd of people. That’s the energy that people feed off of.”
Eighteenth Street Lounge, opened in an old mansion in 1995 by a team of partners including Nouri, Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton, Yama Jewayni and Aman Ayoubi, lasted for a quarter-century because it felt like crashing an amazing house party, from the velvet sofas to the golden chandeliers hanging overhead. There was no sign outside. Customers dressed up in vintage suits and dresses in the hopes of making it past doormen — including Hilton — known for turning people away because they didn’t like their attitude or the color of their pants. The sounds and crowds diversified over the years — jazz upstairs on the weekends, live reggae on Wednesdays, and deep house with the legendary DJ Sam “The Man” Burns, who died in March, and whose memorial was the last major pre-covid event at the Lounge.
But while Nouri is worried about the immediate future of nightlife, he is already planning his post-pandemic moves. “I'm not done with this business,” he vows. He sees himself “coming back on the other side, with a new version of Eighteenth Street Lounge at a different location — a reincarnation of ESL, continuing the music selection and the vibe and the energy we've built so far."
A new version of Eighteenth Street Lounge might not have trouble attracting a crowd — “There is a market for adults who want to go to a nightclub environment but don’t want to be rubbing elbows all night long, or having their drinks spilled while they wait in a bathroom line, you know?” he laughs — but there are a lot of variables to consider, once ESL has left the comfortable old mansion on 18th Street NW. “I think there will be a need to go back to basics,” Nouri muses. “Maybe more like a dance club with a really good sound system and a good bar selection. Maybe a different neighborhood, because downtowns might not be as viable as they were before, so maybe closer to a residential area to have foot traffic, day business, or happy hour business.
“There’s a vision in my mind about the future, but I think for now, it’s not the time — if one has a choice — to continue in this business and hope for the best. It’s going to be tough for a while.”