At midnight most Saturdays, the line outside Eighteenth Street Lounge snakes 20, 30 people long. Women tottering in Louboutins. Young students from India, Nigeria, Germany. World Bankers. Tourists.
Every weekend, same ritual: up the longest, narrowest stairs you’ve ever encountered and into the pulsating void.
Sometimes it seems as if everyone who has ever lived in Washington has found themselves on the vintage sofas at ESL at least once. Celebrities have escaped their drab hotel rooms there. Politicos, or so goes the lore, have escaped their wives there.
Pat Riley once powwowed at the bar. Jon Stewart held court in the back before he was, you know, Jon Stewart. Matthew McConaughey was slapped with a $10 cover charge at the door because nobody recognized him.
Celebrities don’t end up at Eighteenth Street Lounge much anymore. This year, the venue turned 20, which is geriatric in nightclub years. Since it opened in 1995, a million D.C. bars and bed-themed lounges, sushi joints and megaclubs have opened and boarded up again.
R.I.P. Polly Esther’s, Chloe and Saki. R.I.P. Dream, Dragonfly and Republic Gardens. R.I.P. Nation.
The going-out people are fickle. For a year or two, you’re the hottest club in town, and then you get maybe five more years when the weekends still pop. Then everyone moves on.
So why has Eighteenth Street Lounge survived?
When they decided to open their own club with partners Yama Jewayni and Aman Ayoubi, Eric Hilton, a onetime bike messenger from Rockville, and Farid Nouri, an Afghan whose family had settled in Silver Spring, were DJs popular enough to fill smallish rooms on weekend nights in the District.
It was the rock-bottom post-recession rent — $12 a square foot — that landed them in a strange old mansion at 1212 18th Street NW, overlooking Connecticut Avenue. The guys were in their 20s, and no one had money to build out a new club. So they filled the maze of rooms with what looked like the detritus of some matron’s estate sale: dusty vintage sofas and chandeliers that seem to have been hung from every square inch of ceiling. They lit candles and filled the DJ booth with records, even though the rest of the world was spinning CDs. At Nouri’s suggestion, they didn’t put up a sign.
Hilton said: “We wanted it to feel like you were going to a really good house party, and not a public place.”
Perhaps, if they had gone ’90s modern lounge, with corny all-white acrylic tables and leather banquettes, ESL would have run its course years ago, along with that look. But the aesthetic “didn’t require money,” said John Roberts, who was roped into building the lounge and has since helped construct several Washington bars. “It required paint and good thinking. . . . That’s what made it cool.”
Also: “They gave away a lot of booze to the right people.”
The mid-1990s was the slick and suited post-“Reservoir Dogs” era. The woozy metronomic thump of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky — trip-hop, imported from London’s thriving scene — was the soundtrack. Cigarette smoke still smogged clubs, clinging to your clothes, your hair, your lungs. It would be years before anyone would describe themselves as a foodie.
If you wanted to see bands, you went to the 9:30 Club, which in 1995 was still in its old perch on F Street. Ozio, then on K Street, opened the same year, peddling its own kind of swank — bottle service and cigars. Perry’s, also still around in Adams Morgan, was where the cool kids went before they hit the old State of the Union, which blasted raw hip-hop on U Street.
The lounge was and is “a place where you come to be an adult,” said Carlton Wilson, who managed ESL until 2010. People who frequented the lounge wore suits, they sipped their drinks, they stayed until last call and then some. “Going out and drinking a ton and grinding up on someone — that’s fun. I’ve totally done that,” Wilson said. “But this isn’t that place.”
ESL had a way of telling you what was cool — of dictating it, if we’re being honest. (Mention the lounge to some in the District, and they’ll bristle and use words like “pretentious.”)
College bars played hits, but the DJs here spun nothing popular. “You would be here all night,” Hilton said, “and you wouldn’t hear one song you could recognize.”
The lounge even published its own snarky newsletter, which in 1997 called for the end of flannel shirts, coffee bars, New York and the Internet. (Though, unfortunately, it suggested that the future was Pierre Cardin, tea houses and Jamiroquai.)
ESL may also have started what was, for a time, a District-wide craze, for bouncers harder to get past than the Canadian border patrol.
Nobody’s dress code was more arbitrary than the lounge’s. Wearing sneakers? Flip-flops? Light-colored pants? Looked drunk/stuck-up/just plain weird?
Sorry (not sorry). It just wasn’t your night.
Rob “Kalani” Tifford, who worked at ESL in the beginning before joining the namesake music label, thinks the secret was this: “If you didn’t get into the lounge, it’s probably because you were a douchebag. . . . You just had to be normal.”
Even Robert Downey Jr. didn’t meet that seemingly low bar. “He made it to the top of the stairs” before he was turned right around, Hilton said with a laugh that suggested that he can’t believe he said, “Nah, man,” to Iron Man.
Washingtonians, it turns out, are masochists. The more the lounge tried to keep people out, the more they wanted in.
Everything about the lounge was like that. It was a real-life embodiment of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.”
Nouri and Hilton hired bartenders with no drink-slinging experience, recalled Lesley “Sasha” Byles, who frequented the lounge in the early years when she owned a boutique in town. Instead, “everyone who worked there was really beautiful, really interesting and really creative.”
Particularly when it came to what to charge for a drink.
“There were no prices. It just changed all the time, and there was no reason. Nobody knew what anything cost,” said Tifford, who would know because he was one of the bartenders. Sometimes, a vodka soda was $4. Sometimes it was $5. And if you were friends — or, as people in the lounge’s inner circle refer to themselves, “family” — you probably paid nothing.
Of Hilton and Nouri and their business partners, Tifford said, “They knew how to put on parties. I don’t think they knew how to run a bar.”
Sometime in those first few months, Hilton met Rob Garza, a musician. Soon, they were making music as Thievery Corporation, recording in ESL’s back rooms.
Thievery Corporation was music for the lounge. It was lounge music, a downbeat globalization masala of Carnatic music from India, Brazilian bossa nova, Japanese jazz and electronica.
Their first album, “Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi,” did extraordinarily well, and just like that, the crowds at the lounge began to reflect the band’s international fan base.
“I was working the door several times,” Hilton said, “when, like, a German guy would come up and be like, ‘Is Thievery Corporation at this place?’ ”
The band grew so renowned that Hilton left his post as discerning door guy to go on world tours. In 2009, it sold out the 9:30 Club five times over.
The “family” also started moving on. Hilton and Nouri and their partners have since opened nearly a dozen other bars and restaurants — Marvin on 14th Street, U Street’s Local 16 and El Rey, MXDC Cocina Mexicana downtown, to name a few — and closed a handful of them.
But at ESL, it’s 1995 forever.
Thievery fans still fill Eighteenth Street Lounge. To keep momentum going through the week, though, the lounge has added tango night on Tuesdays, which, before the current restaurant bubble, was D.C.’s go-to date night; reggae night with the bubbly house band See-I on Wednesdays; and Sundays for the house-heads, who come religiously in sweatpants and sports bras to sweat out a week’s worth of Washington stresses.
As for that Saturday-night line, the effect of nostalgia — for a kind of nightlife that doesn’t exist anymore, for dusty sofas and gilded walls, for a gilded era of the District — can’t be discounted.
In ESL’s heyday, “there was no Instagram or Skype, so you really had to spend time with each other,” Byles said. “If you wanted to know what was cool, you had to go out and find it.”
On the surface, ESL appears mostly unchanged (though managers swear that the sofas are regularly replaced). But Nouri and Hilton learned the ins and outs of running a bar. After a decade, they got a working point-of-sale system to actually tally the gobs of cash they were making. They set prices. They stopped, sometime in the mid-aughts, charging whatever cover charge fit the person asking to get in.
They added a sign, one so tiny it may be harder to find than the lounge itself. But true to form, they didn’t exactly go blasting their 20th anniversary in April. (With some prodding, they’re agreeing to celebrate seven months late, with four days of events beginning Thursday, and DJ sets from Nouri and Thievery Corporation on Saturday.)
“The standard definition of cool is a person who doesn’t try too hard,” said Wilson, the former general manager. That, he said, sums up the lounge. It explains why it’s still here, 20 years later.
“I think when people find it, they take ownership of the place,” he said. “Other places put up signs on the door that say, ‘Like us on Yelp.’
“If people like us, they like us.”