The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The hidden Georgetown enclave that’s becoming a church-themed bar

A large, empty concrete room under the Georgetown Park parking ramp is going to become Church, a bar run by the team behind Penn Social and Highline RxR. The mezzanine level, which has its own elevator entrance, is the raw floor at the far end of the photo. (Fritz Hahn/The Washington Post)
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I'm standing in a high-ceilinged, concrete-walled room in the lower level of the Georgetown Park shopping mall. The space is empty, except for some graffiti, some old HVAC equipment on the floor, and a tall ladder. Every time a car turns from Wisconsin Avenue into the mall's parking garage, there's a thundering rumble overhead: Part of the space is actually tucked under the parking ramp. (The acute slant of the ceiling is a giveaway.)

The overall effect is desolate and a little eerie: This is the kind of place you meet a reporter when you don't want to be seen, or the place the body of an informant is left after the wrong people learn about meetings with a reporter.

And yet this 7,000-square foot place, planted off a drab walkway between an elevator and the pedestrian entrance to the parking garage, is in line to be one of Georgetown's busiest nightspots. After all, if anyone in Washington could make this a destination, it's Geoff Dawson.

Dawson was a founder of Bedrock Bars, which turned basement-level spaces into city-wide destinations, including Buffalo Billiards, Atomic Billiards and Rocket Bar. His current bar development team, called Tin Shop, counts the large, subterranean Penn Social among its successes. "We're used to opening in hidden and obscure spaces," Dawson says.

This hidden space will be called Church, and by the time it opens this fall, it will be filled with old church pews, and salvaged mantles and fireplaces will be used to break up the large single room. "We found all these great wooden beams and chandeliers," says Peter Bayne, the co-founder of Tin Shop. "We're going to be a little nicer because we're in Georgetown." (He later refers to the "gothic industrial decor" of Church, which is not a phrase I'd usually associate with Georgetown.)

The name comes from Bayne's first impression of the space, with its high, slanting ceilings. "It reminded me of a cathedral ceiling," he explains. At the same time, "It's a little tongue in cheek, too. 'Hey, where are you going?' 'I'm going to church.'"

Space limitations mean this will be different than some of Dawson's better-known projects: No pool tables, no shuffleboard, no skee-ball machines. Instead, Dawson and Bayne are banking on old-fashioned amusements, such as board games and trivia nights. A 1,500-square-foot mezzanine, which looks down over the room, will be key: The mezzanine might be a good place for trivia night," Dawson says, "or an escape from trivia if it gets too big."

What makes Church different than other Georgetown bars is that Dawson and Bayne expect it to be open all day, not just from happy hour on. Dawson says they're partner with Vigilante Coffee to run a coffee bar by day. They're also outsourcing the kitchen, partnering with culinary incubator Union Kitchen and allowing one of its chefs or caterers to offer a seasonal menu every six months. The goal is to allow "someone who's proven their concept" to show themselves to a crowd of customers, Bayne says.

Bayne and Dawson first heard about the space from Michael Babin of the Neighborhood Restaurant Group, who recently opened the Belgian-themed Sovereign a half-block north on Wisconsin Avenue. Between that restaurant and the buzzing Chez Billy Sud a few streets away, Church's owners think that the long-dormant Georgetown scene may be gaining some steam. For Bayne, it's a welcome return. "This is the only place I could hang out as a teenager," he says. "'Let's go to the mall.' 'Let's hang out at Smash and Commander Salamander.' Georgetown lost its cool, but I think there's a desire to make Georgetown cool again."

Church, Georgetown Park, 3222 M St. NW. (entrance on Wisconsin Ave.) Opening "by early fall" 2016.