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Posted at 12:40 PM ET, 06/13/2006

Freaks Come Out on H Street

By Fritz Hahn

Ladies and Gentlemen! Step right up to see the remains of the last living unicorn, an amazing beast that traveled the world with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus! Gaze with wonder at the bull with two faces! Be awed and horrified by the life-size wax statue of the Elephant Man! And enjoy a cocktail or cold beer while you're at it!

If I were a carnival barker, this is the pitch I'd make on the sidewalk outside Showbar Presents the Palace of Wonders, a two-story funhouse of the bizarre on H Street Northeast.

I was over on H Street last night for the soft openings of two bars connected to Joe Englert, the serial bar owner who's transforming riot-scarred H Street into the city's newest entertainment district. Ostensibly, I was checking out the Red & the Black, a new music venue run by the guys behind DC9, but I spent more time next door at the Palace of Wonders -- and why not, when there's so much to look at inside the vintage tavern? Sword-swallowers' knives and weapons are mounted in boxes on the exposed brick walls. Enormous glass cases on the second floor contain enough freaks (and frauds) of nature to engross anyone: a lamb with four eyes and two mouths! The head of an 18-foot python, which famously ate its snake-handler owner, preserved in a glass jar! An eight-legged goat!

Not everyone's going to go for the freak-show decor -- don't miss the mummified Oojiboo over the door -- but there's always the huge back deck, where some furniture is fashioned from old midway rides, including space ships and motorcycles.

Just skip the food, which is limited to hot dogs, popcorn and other simple foods. I had the Carnival Nachos, which were as edible as you'd expect to find at the state fair: corn chips smothered under a thick blanket of processed "nacho cheese," canned salsa and sour cream. (The limited selection of beers includes $5 bottles of Bass, Magic Hat, Heineken and the like.)

Everything will get more interesting in the next few weeks, says owner Englert, when the bar brings in sword-swallowers, fire-eaters, burlesque acts and even a cat circus.

The Red & the Black, on the other hand, follows such an established formula that it may as well be called DC9 East.

On the main level, the simple layout includes a heavy, dark-wood bar along one wall and booths lining the other. A staircase in the rear leads to a performance area with a stage at the far end of the room, facing a bar. Either it's supposed to evoke DC9 or the owners have one-track minds.

The difference, says Brian Deily, is the capacity and musical focus. Deily is responsible for filling the calendars at DC9, the Red & the Black and the yet-to-open Rock N Roll Hotel, and he wants the Red and the Black to focus more on alt-country, blues and singer-songwriters than the indie rock that dominates the other two venues. (It should also be noted that, with room for 125, the Red & the Black is the smallest of the three clubs.)

If you're thinking about checking the place out this weekend -- and the Can A Sista Rock A Mike? Festival looks like a good bet -- you should know that bureaucratic snafus have prevented the Red & the Black from obtaining a liquor license. It may be in place by Friday, but if not, you can freely duck next door to the Palace of Wonders for a beer. You might wind up staying longer than you planned.

-- Fritz

By Fritz Hahn  | June 13, 2006; 12:40 PM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
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Thanks for the write up. I've been eager to check out the Palace of Wonders since I first heard about the concept a few months ago. What a cool idea for a bar!

Posted by: fire breathing nymph | June 14, 2006 10:40 AM | Report abuse

Checked the Palace of Wonders out last night. As the writer of this article said, it's a pretty freaky place, a good way. I'm sure it will get better just like Argonaut down the street did (didn't have a lot of selection for beer). It's definitely the most..unique bar that I've been to here in DC.

Posted by: free2rant | June 14, 2006 12:12 PM | Report abuse

This sounds like the Dime Museum in Baltimore - I wonder if Englert is buying out their stuff? There have been rumors they would shut down. My one trip to the Dime did not put me in the mood to eat - most of the displays are fairly disgusting, but Englert has a deserved rep for making fun places, and I can imagine what he'd do with a circus freak theme. Will have to check it out. (see

Posted by: Michael | June 15, 2006 4:23 PM | Report abuse

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