Since last summer, the Black Cat’s Red Room bar has been a prime topic of discussion for a certain slice of Washington bargoers. The venerable cash-only punk-rock dive was an outlier on 14th Street NW even before all the developers and restaurants began pouring into the neighborhood, but it even became an extension of the District’s group houses: the site of countless first dates, birthdays, going-away gatherings, even wedding parties.
And then owner Dante Ferrando announced in September that it was going away — moving upstairs and becoming part of the main concert hall, while the first floor, which was housing the Red Room, the Backstage performance area and the Food for Thought Cafe, would be converted into retail.
“A lot of people freaked out about it,” Ferrando says. “It was the same as the last time we moved.”
He’s got a point. The Black Cat opened in its current guise in 2001, moving out of a smaller venue just up the block. Washington Post Nightlife columnist Eric Brace visited that new Red Room on opening night, just days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and reported that “longtime regulars were heard to complain of its spaciousness (it’s much wider than the old Red Room) and its slightly brighter lighting.”
They won’t have that problem this time. The third iteration of the Red Room, which officially opens Friday, was carved out of the back corner of the concert hall, a square-ish area separated from the main room by a blood-red wall that can open accordion-style when needed. And although some regulars might have worried that the bar would feel like an afterthought, tacked onto the concert venue without a personality of its own, it’s far more compact and welcoming than the downstairs version, which stretched and meandered like a hallway. The three-sided central bar has no more than a dozen stools, while two-top tables and a couple of couches occupy a space down a couple of stairs.
The pinball machines and a smaller, but still killer, jukebox are there, but this new bar is dark and intimate by design. “The Red Room was great when we had a big night,” Ferrando says, because there was so much room for overflow crowds. “But it didn’t work so well on a slow Tuesday when there were only 20 people. . . . We want it to be a good bar on its own.”
There are some Easter eggs for Red Room regulars: The marble bar top moved upstairs, as did the cafe’s bar, which has been repurposed as a counter with a trio of bar stools. Perhaps the most obscure relic are two classical statues flanking the huge mirror behind the bar. Ferrando purchased them at auction, where they came with a bar that was purportedly owned by gangster Al Capone. They were fixtures in the original Red Room (which opened at 1831 14th St. NW in 1993) but have been in storage since 2001: “When we moved, we thought they were too fancy for the new Red Room,” he says.
What’s really new is the old tube TV hanging in the corner, which will show cult movies and old VHS tapes. “Instead of everyone staring at individual screens, everyone’s staring at one screen,” Ferrando says. “It’s going to be something people can talk about and comment on,” adding that the movies probably won’t be titles anyone would want to watch all the way through. (When the Black Cat does host movie screenings or events, they’ll be shown on a proper screen mounted on the wall.)
The biggest question is how the new “backstage” performances will work. Ferrando says they will be driven less by bookings of the potential next big indie names, with “more local faces and small acts we like.” (Guitarist Anthony Pirog of the Messthetics is the first scheduled musical act, on March 1.) The low stage can be tucked under the stairs when it’s not in use, and the sound system is decidedly lower-tech than the main stage’s. Ferrando hopes it will be “set up more like a band practice than a concert.”
This all sounds like a return to the club’s roots — the days when a “backstage” show meant bands playing in a curtained-off section of the main venue. A tighter, more retro experience could capture the spirit of the original space. “Something about moving on encapsulates a time period,” Ferrando says. It will be interesting to see how this new one unfolds.
The Red Room at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW. Open 9 p.m.-1 a.m. Tuesday through Sunday. Free admission, except during sold-out shows.