The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In D.C.’s post-pandemic nightlife, these new venues signal a rebound

Three new spaces for D.C. music — the Owl Room, the Runaway and Eckington Hall — are up and running

The disco ball glitters above revelers at the Owl Room. (Mykl Wu)
4 min

For citizens of D.C.’s musical nightlife, the pandemic forced a painful spate of sudden goodbyes. No more getting your dancing shoes dirty at Velvet Lounge. No more getting your mind blown clean at Twins Jazz. No more higher-plane human communion on the dance floor of U Street Music Hall, one of the greatest music rooms the city will ever know.

These permanent closures still hurt. But over the past year — even over the past week — an assortment of new music venues have begun daffodiling across the cityscape, giving us fresh space to gather and listen, or maybe even project our optimism. On Friday night, I breezed through three of these rooms in hope of a glimpse into the District’s musical future. Here’s what it looked (and sounded) like.

Eckington Hall. 7:48 p.m.

At first glance, you might not clock Eckington Hall as a music venue. What does it look like, exactly? Hard to say. Tucked into a ground-level corner unit in the Eckington Yards mixed-use development in Northeast, the high-ceilinged retail space contains mobile racks of vintage clothing, a small shelf of used records, an upright piano that people are encouraged to play, a bar in the corner that serves beverages and snacks (liquor license forthcoming), and plenty of loud paintings on the walls. Owner and curator David Ross describes his elastic romper room as “an art-forward bodega” that’s adaptable enough to host comedy nights, gallery openings, workshops and live music.

As for the music programming, it’s been sporadic but eclectic. Since opening last March, Eckington Hall has hosted folk singers, DJs, even bands whose members live in the apartments overhead. (The next performance is from Hall Williams on Saturday, part of a biweekly residency for the roots-rock songwriter). But tonight, the space remains relatively quiet until a regular from the neighborhood cracks open the front door a few minutes shy of closing time. “Did you want to play?” Ross asks, pointing toward the piano. At Eckington Hall, sometimes the music happens on short notice.

The Runaway. 9:57 p.m.

The Runaway is still a few days shy of its first anniversary, but the intimate Brookland nightclub has already asserted itself as one of the city’s most reliable rooms to catch area bands specializing in indie, punk, hardcore, metal and more. By day, it’s a two-level bar and restaurant that opens up early enough for breakfast most days. But by night, it’s a rock club through and through, with performances taking place on the 100-capacity ground floor — just the right size for bands who lean loud and intense. Runaway owner Christine Lilyea says that was pretty much the idea: “not too big, not too small.”

On this Friday night, patrons pack that Goldilocks zone for a performance by Cinema Hearts, a District band merging girl group melodies with garage rock moxie. As singer-guitarist Caroline Weinroth sings about some cheapskate ex (“Love’s not enough to pay the rent!”), the red sequins on her dress seem to sparkle in tandem with the shimmering gold curtains that hang behind the Runaway stage — a tasteful splash of glam in a room where the black paint and exposed brick feel fundamentally rock-and-roll.

The Owl Room. 12:02 a.m.

It’s opening night at the Owl Room, and the place is packed — with happy party people, with sumptuous club anthems and with half-smudged memories. If it feels familiar in here, it’s because the two-story, 300-capacity dance club inhabits what used to be Marvin, the landmark 14th Street NW bar and bistro that closed abruptly in 2020. Okay, so then why does it feel like U Street Music Hall, too? Because the Owl Room’s managers used to work at U Hall, and thankfully, they appear to be renewing that venue’s commitment to hosting the area’s very best DJs in this relatively luxe new nightspot.

In the weeks ahead, that means sets from James Bangura, Nativesun, Jacq Jill, Beautiful Swimmers, DJ Lisa Frank and other leading lights in the District’s dance community. Tonight, it means Baltimore’s Deep Sugar crew — Rita Burns, Wayne Davis and the house music icon Ultra Naté — who seem to have effortlessly permeated the club’s main room with a sense of cozy euphoria. There’s a second dance floor upstairs, too, plus a separate lounge area for anyone who might like to catch their breath while gazing at the gigantic disco ball spinning slowly overhead.

And right now, a little after midnight, everyone gathered beneath that twinkly orb seems to be either laughing or hugging. For the Owl Room, it’s a grand opening. For the people, it’s a reunion.

Eckington Hall is located at 1611 Eckington Pl. NE, Suite 170.

The Runaway is located at 3523 12th St. NE.

The Owl Room is located at 2007 14th St. NW.