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Posted at 9:00 AM ET, 12/30/2008

Nightlife: The Year That Was

By Fritz Hahn

In 2006 and 2007, the major nightlife stories centered on the growth of the Atlas District of H Street NE and the influx of upscale nightclubs and bottle-service lounges to the downtown K Street corridor. This year, though, the trends were more widespread, and we saw noteworthy nightspots opening from Falls Church to Largo. Here are the changes we reveled in:


Josephine drew the biggest K Street crowds this year. (Jay Premack/For The Washington Post)

Unusual Venues
My favorite place for live music, DJs and drinks in 2008 wasn't a dive bar or upscale lounge -- it was the House of Sweden, the Swedish Embassy's riverside cultural center. Though the gorgeous building was unveiled in 2007 as a place for exhibitions and events, the House of Sweden After Dark series kicked off in February with music, open bars and lines around the block. Parties that followed featured DJs spinning everything from house to Swedish indie-pop, a Nudie Jeans fashion show, photography openings and concerts by a host of Sweden's finest musical exports: Jose Gonzales, Theresa Andersson, Ane Brun, the Division of Laura Lee, Hello Saferide and Firefox AK. Achingly hip crowds of European expats and style-loving Europhiles turned out in droves.

Carol Greenwood's pizza restaurant/place to play table tennis Comet Ping Pong overcame opposition to host rock, punk and funk shows in its rustic back room, and Kalani Tifford and Nick Pimentel of Gypsy Eyes Records booked the Apes, Child Ballads and Lou Pride. While bartenders served up cheap cans of PBR, the house-made pizza easily beat the grub offered at other local concert space.

Dahlak, an Eritrean restaurant at the foot of Adams Morgan, gave the neighborhood a much-needed dose of low-key hip with several cool monthly funk and soul dance nights, including Fatback and Moneytown, and weekly live shows by bands like the Jet Age and Exactly.

And then there's BloomBars, the funky little Columbia Heights venue that, without serving food or alcohol, captured the progressive spirit of 2008 with concerts by socially progressive bands like the Makepeace Brothers, screenings of politically conscious movies and a dedication to changing the world -- or at least minds -- through visual and musical arts.

The Rise of Cocktail Culture
The cognoscenti have been telling us since the late '90s that "the martini is back." What changed this year was a growing number of bars who looked to the classic cocktails of the jazz age for inspiration, then jazzed up the recipes with homemade bitters, syrups and other ingredients. This trend has flourished not in upscale lounges or hotel bars, but at venues that resemble speakeasies.

It's only on Tuesdays, for example, that you can ask to see a "Cocktail Sessions" menu at Bar Pilar, where Adam Bernbach explores cocktails using seasonal fruit, homemade bitters and obscure Italian vermouths and small-batch Scotches. Five new drinks appear on the handwritten list every week.

A similar philosophy guided the short-lived Hummingbird to Mars, a secretive cocktail nirvana that operated on the second floor of Bourbon on Sunday and Monday nights. Conceived by an all-star group of D.C. bartenders as a way to hone their craft and spread the word about the beauty of recipes harvested from 1930s drink guides, the short-lived Hummingbird started as invitation-only, then went reservation-only, as there were only about 50 seatings per night. But the cocktails listed on the chalkboard -- and the proper atmosphere, with dim lights and bartenders in ties -- were completely worth the challenges of getting in.

Hummingbird's spirit lives on at the intimate Gibson, a 48-seat bar where reservations are pretty much required on weekends because no standing is allowed inside. (If all the seats are full when you drop by, leave your number and they'll text you when something opens.) Here again, dim lights, dark wood and the lack of a sign outside make you feel like you're dodging prohibition. The reasons to come are the drinks: most notably the city's best Mai Tai, the London Special Variation, which smoothly blends gin, white port, fragrant bergamot syrup and a touch of champagne, and the Salad Days Sour.

If you want to play mixologist yourself, that's possible, too. At the New Heights restaurant in Woodley Park, the first-floor Gin Joint bar allows customers to create their own gin and tonics from a selection of more than two dozen gins and five wildly different tonic waters. Skip the Bombay and Beefeater to try out something like Broker's, Aviation, 209 or, if you're feeling lucky, some genever from the Netherlands. Bourbon's "Manhattan Project" took a similar tack, offering five connoisseur-friendly bourbons (Elijah Craig 12-year-old, Wild Turkey Rare Breed) that could be paired with any of five mixers, including Vya and Carpano Antica vermouths.

Change We Can Believe In
Every year sees its share of bars opening and closing, but in 2008, we saw a number of venues upgrade.

The long-running (but not very interesting) music venue Grog and Tankard made way for Gin and Tonic, a beer-and-a-burger tavern that probably serves more people between 11 and midnight on a Saturday than the Grog did in a week, thanks to a neighborhood crowd and a DJ spinning '80s tunes and hip-hop classics.

The Cowboy Cafe found new owners who kept the good parts of the Lee Highway dive while adding a Wii and a new menu to try and make it the kind of place where they'd like to hang out.

Blue Gin, once a trendy martini bar and lounge, had faded so badly that it wasn't a surprise when the owners reverted to the building's previous incarnation, a two-level sports bar called Champions, but kept the tables for bottle service intact.

The Common Share, which had been fading since its "Everything is $2" days in the late '90s, made way for the Blaguard, which soothed the not-another-Irish-bar news with friendly staff and a good clientele.

Gallery's owners finally saw the light and brought electronic music promoters 88 back to the Silver Spring nightspot for Loda, two years after replacing the top-notch house DJs with a succession of uninspired weekly events that went nowhere. Appearances by local heavyweights (Sam "The Man" Burns) and national names (Chicago's Roy Davis Jr. and the UK's Headhunter) followed.

Unlikely comeback of the year goes to the Republic, formerly Republic Gardens, which has once again became a space to watch on U Street.

Clubs Getting Shut Down
Five, Ibiza, Platinum -- three of the largest dance clubs in the city -- all had their liquor licenses revoked after incidents involving violence and/or underage drinking. Ibiza is the only one to have reopened, but it lost its regular dance nights in the process, which leaves us with fewer places to go out and party. Dear club owners and patrons: Please resolve to stop being stupid in 2009. Thanks.

My Favorite New . . .

Sports Bars
The Sideline
Former Redskin LaVar Arrington's temple of signed jerseys and flatscreens was more than a place to go before games at FedEx Field, thanks to weekend DJs and tables embedded with Xbox systems.
Other interesting new arrivals: Velocity Five | Thirsty Bernie's

Wine Bars
Cork
Yes, the no-reservations policy can make it difficult to get a table, but the wait is worth it when you've got a deep selection of wines by the glass, rotating flights, and some of the best cocktails in D.C., courtesy of manager Tom Brown.
Other interesting new arrivals: Enology | Sova

Lounges
Josephine
The most recent addition to the crowded K Street lounge scene has perhaps the biggest crowds of them all. Josephine combines elements of a nightclub (DJ appearances by globetrotters Roger Sanchez and Mark Farina) with an anything-goes attitude (stripper poles on the dance floor, servers in corsets) and a beautiful design that complements the pricey bottle service.
Other interesting new arrivals: Shadow Room | Layla Lounge

DJ Nights
Moneytown
DJ Nitecrawler is dedicated to spinning the lost funk and soul gems of the '60s and '70s, the kind that will get anyone loose on the dance floor. The host's tastes are especially focused on forgotten treasures that were made by bands from the D.C. area. Learning about local history has never been this much fun.
Runners up: Loda | Hometown Heroes

Marketing Gimmick
The "Innovations" at the Shadow Room
The lounge's futuristic tables, which let you order drinks, mixers, coats and even your car though interactive touch screens, are showstoppers, and ordering drinks from your iPhone is a very cool touch. My guess, though, is that 80 percent of the people dancing or gabbing at the bar have no idea or don't care -- they're just enjoying the scene.

Finally, farewell to:
Dr. Dremo's Taphouse
Play
Quizzo
Marty's

By Fritz Hahn  | December 30, 2008; 9:00 AM ET
Categories:  Bars and Clubs  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The Year in Nibbles
Next: State of the Art in '08

 
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Comments

Thanks so much for recognizing LODA. We're excited to bring in more top-notch, cutting edge talent and acts in '09. Keep a lookout for acts like: Mazi, Stacy Kidd, Daedelus, Jeremy Ellis and John Tejada within the next few months! DC's becoming the musical capitol it should be. Thanks to everyone that's producing, DJing and supporting! Keep pushing.

Posted by: davidfogel | December 30, 2008 10:16 PM | Report abuse

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