If the Sept. 1 closure of Mister Smith's left a "Piano Man"-sized hole in your weekend plans, the solution arrives tonight, a few blocks west on M Street.
The Georgetown Piano Bar, which takes over the basement space that previously held the dance club Modern, was created by "a group of people who worked [at Mister Smith's] and said, 'We don't want this experience to end,'" after learning in July that the venerable restaurant was closing, says Georgetown Piano Bar co-owner Bill Thoet. All the employees at the new venture, from the servers to the manager, came from Mister Smith's, as did the two piano players. (The owners of Mister Smith's subsequently announced they were taking over the former Chadwick's restaurant at Wisconsin and K streets, but the employees had already committed to the new venture by that point.)
"This is based around the piano part of Mister Smith's," Thoet explains. "Not the restaurant part of it. Just the piano part." That's obvious from one look at the bare-bones club, where the most prominent feature is a giant cherry-red piano table that can accommodate dueling pianists at two keyboards. Customers can pull up a barstool, set a drink on top of the piano and interact with the performers while listening or singing along. Thick binders with printed lyrics for the most popular songs will be provided. (Does anyone really need a cue card for "New York, New York" or "Let it Go"?)
The new owners kept Modern's most memorable feature -- a round, sunken bar in the middle of the room that could seat 20 people -- as well as some booths for those who'd rather sit and chat before or between songs.
Hunter Lang, who was the featured weekend pianist at Mister Smith's over the past year and will fill the same role at the Georgetown Piano Bar, says there's one basic difference between the two establishments: "This is a piano bar. Mister Smith's was a restaurant with a piano."
Spencer Bates, who spent 11 years at Mister Smith's and will be playing at the new bar Sunday through Tuesday, agrees. "Here, we've been working for three-and-a-half months just on the sound. We can give such a better show. It will be much more interactive."
"It's so much better," Lang adds. "It's like the difference between hearing Billy Joel in the bathroom and at a stadium."
The two ivory-ticklers estimate that they know thousands of songs from memory, ranging from Elton John chestnuts and the Great American Songbook, to current pop hits. "I love it when people suggest obscure Disney songs," Bates says. (He then begins playing "Step in Time" from "Mary Poppins.")
"Whenever people request a song I don't know, I take the name of the song home and learn it," Lang says, "because I know that someone else will request it the next night." It doesn't matter if he personally can't stand the tune in question: "If I get three weeks of requests, like I did with "Timber," I suck it up and learn it."
The spacious new digs also allow the pianists to expand their showmanship. While studying at the University of Memphis, Lang says, he worked as a pianist at Jerry Lee Lewis' Cafe and Honky Tonk, where he learned how to pound the keys with his feet while performing "Great Balls of Fire." He subsequently came to Washington to work as an unpaid intern in Vice President Joe Biden's office, and when he needed money to pay the rent, he began performing at Mister Smith's several nights a week, catching catnaps between jobs.
The Georgetown Piano Bar will open at 5 p.m. daily, with pianists starting at 9 p.m. There's no cover charge, but you must be 21 to enter. While there's a full bar with $6 draft beers and $10 house cocktails (named after singers, of course), there is no kitchen. Customers are welcome to bring in carry-out from elsewhere in the neighborhood, and Thoet says that he's working on an arrangement that would have nearby restaurants deliver food to the bar.
While the pianos play for the first time tonight, the official grand opening will come in October. Thoet, who's chairman of the board of the ALS Foundation, says that party will feature an Ice Bucket Challenge-related martini deal, with all proceeds going to charity.
Georgetown Piano Bar, 3287 M St. NW. 202-337-1871. www.georgetownpianobar.com.