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If you compare Washington to a Mafia movie, it would be about two-thirds in when all the pieces line up perfectly and it looks like the main character will reign forever. About 20 minutes later, everything starts turning to shit.
That means that right now, there isn't a more representative glimpse of Houston's young, white professional at play than this corridor, which contains almost every tier of nightlife venue without marginalizing any of them. There are:
The Posh Spots: Pandora Lounge has been the only one of the Original Three to maintain most of its hipness. Citizen Lounge has reopened as District Lounge, which should give it a moderate shot in the arm; the Drake still draws a crowd, but has lost most of its initial appeal. But a few new noteworthy clubs have sprung up in their stead: Ei8ht, the Roosevelt and one or two more that probably opened while that last sentence was being written.
The Pseudo-Posh Spots: The Reign Lounge-type places, gaudy and dire. Although these clubs are in the minority, they're what most people picture when they think of Washington. When the Drake starts openly letting 18-year-olds in, it will join them.
The Somewhat Posh Places, Intentionally or Not: Your Block 21s, your Darkhorse Taverns and, occasionally, your Sawyer Parks. These types of places usually emerge at least a year after the initial boom, when someone decides that they should open up a place where people can experience that "I'm hanging out in the trendy part of town" vibe without purporting to actually care about it.
Amalgams of All Three: Brixx, which has done well since opening three months ago, is the first place to completely pull this off. (To be thorough, occasionally Pearl Bar falls here too.) Its upscale icehouse ambience means Brixx can accommodate just about anybody wandering around the strip. "When we started designing [the bar] we knew that we had to have everything," says Brixx owner Chase Lovullo. "I had a feeling that that whole glitzy, $12-drink thing wasn't that good of a deal to anyone anymore."
The "How the Hell Are You All Still Open?" Bar: Walter's is really the only current Washington venue you'd just hate to see go. Pam Robinson, the only owner it's ever had, also owned the aforementioned Silky's and Mary Jane's before selling them off. That block of Washington was then affectionately referred to as "PamLand."
The Ironic Yet Surprisingly Enjoyable Spots: Rebels Honky Tonk and the newish Taps House of Beer, which smells like sawdust and peanuts, spearhead this category.
The Wine Bars: Wine bars are actually on the way out, but Max's and Cova fill in this niche well enough for now. Corkscrew was probably the most enjoyable, but closed February 9 due to "oversaturation in the market." Holistic/organic bar Bee Love, owned by the same group, will soon take its place and likely foster a similar trend.
The Almost Neighborhoody Spots: The Dubliner belongs here, but Washington Avenue Drinkery is the best example. When the Corkscrew/Bee Love owners opened it in June 2009, they gambled that Washington's swankier clubs were losing their draw, and hoped to become the strip's John Everyman bar: no pomp, no posturing, no pretense. The Drinkery's opening was the signal that the Washington everyone knew was changing.
"We opened with the intention of being a place that battled that stigma," says co-owner Andrew Adams. "Our main thing was we wanted to be a place where everyone would go to have a good time, not be seen having a good time."
In Season 3 of HBO's The Wire, one of the main police chiefs legalizes drugs in one area of Baltimore, a district known as "Hamsterdam," in an effort to curtail crime in the other parts. All of the drug dealers, fiends, hookers and so on end up migrating there because everything they need is there, open and available. Health-services workers and academics follow, to study and help a largely elusive population all at once.
Right now, Washington Avenue is Houston's Hamsterdam. Almost all aspects of the culture — white, young, professional nightlife culture, that is — are there. But it won't be like that for too much longer.
Not much longer at all, maybe. All the additional traffic Washington Avenue has been drawing lately has also drawn more scrutiny from the City of Houston's building inspectors. Several Washington-area bars, including the Drake, District Lounge, Washington Avenue Drinkery and Corkscrew Lounge, were recently issued red-tag citations, which could be for anything from an inadequate number of sprinklers to too much distance between a venue and its designated parking area. A red tag can be serious enough to force an establishment to shut down while it corrects the problem, a decision that rests with the inspector issuing the citation.
More troubling to Adams is that the citations issued to his bars came after they had already passed inspection — sometimes long after — and, he believes, Washington-area bars are being held to a different standard than venues in other parts of the city such as Montrose or the Museum District. Adams also believes one inspector has a personal vendetta against his landlords, a complaint he outlined in an e-mail to City Councilman Edward Gonzalez obtained by the Houston Press; at press time, Gonzalez's office had not replied.