Block 21 (2420 Washington), Washington Avenue's latest would-be nightlife king, is cool.
Understand "cool" is a relative term, vulnerable to interpretation. At most places, "cool" has a dress code. Cool in Midtown (big collars, $160 Diesel jeans) isn't cool in Montrose (vintage clothes, matted hair, unyielding devotion to the Smiths) and isn't cool in the East End (Corona Extra, jean shorts, metal). Not so at Block 21, where a broad spectrum of nightclubbers with otherwise divergent interests, attitudes and preferred hangouts have descended.
So sizing up the bar's identity in a pithy phrase or two ("douche bag central," "dollar wells") becomes nigh impossible. In any case, customers seem to enjoy the place just fine even if they can't quite put their finger on why.
21 Jump Street
"It's hard to say exactly one thing that makes [Block 21] likeable," says Quoc Tran, a 32-year-old engineer and Heights local. "The music is good, it's a real chill place — it's just cool, you know."
Somehow, despite having only been open since October 6, owner Ziggy Morrow's third contribution to Houston's nightlife panorama — laissez-faire The Flat (1701 Commonwealth) and shopping/drinking amalgam Dean's Credit Clothing (316 Main, which he sold in 2004) are his first two — has garnered mass approval from multiple social circles.
"I've been with Ziggy for about four or five months," says affable bartender Bernard Doherty. "I think [the bar] is a reflection of the owner. The only common links [among his venues] are the frozen mojitos and the DJs, but he's got loyals [who] have followed him from Dean's and The Flat."
Morrow, however, insists Block 21's welcome reception stems from its bucking the avenue's status quo.
"We were just trying to do something different than other Washington clubs," says Morrow. "I wanted people to have somewhere to go that was real low-key but still really cool. I don't know, how can you justify turning someone away because they aren't dressed right? Jeans cost more than suits now."
Block 21 is actually two rooms combined into one. The main room announces its clubby intention with noisy aplomb, while the Howard Hughes lounge in back — named after the eccentric Houston-born airline magnate buried down the street — is markedly more casual. Though trendy, Block 21 still manages a genuinely welcoming ambience, which may be its most impressive feat.
The midsize venue skirts both the cramped-hipster-dive label and oversized-nightclub-as-Walmart stigma. Upscale minimalism dictates the decor, with leather lounge seating and unfinished oak tables and bars playing the hearty substance to the massive wraparound video screen's flashy style.
The music, provided by a rotating lineup of DJs including local powerhouses Sun and Squincy Jones, is too loud but of high club quality nonetheless. The front room pulses to the energetic likes of Stardust and Armand Van Helden remixes, while the Hughes lounge's playlist rocks more toward a hip-hop center.
Not everything about Block 21 is quite as enjoyable, though; $10 for a glass of pinot noir is borderline ridiculous, and there are only two commodes per restroom. But these are nitpicky things, really. Ironically, Block 21's more immediate concern stems from its near-instantaneous success.
Shouldn't any venue immediately greeted as great inevitably lose its luster quicker? When an inordinate amount of hype accompanies a club's opening, it's got nowhere to go but down — look what happened to The Drake (1902 Washington).
"I know exactly what you're talking about," says Morrow. "But it's like I did at the Flat: I haven't had a bunch of grand openings or anything like that, I just threw the doors open. The first few weeks were not packed, but we brought it up slowly. That way, the right people find out about it. That's who we're looking to attract."
Morrow refrains from elaborating who exactly those "right people" may be. He doesn't have to — they're already showing up. Because Block 21 wasn't built with a specific crowd in mind, it isn't handicapped as such, unlike the brazen Citizen Lounge (4606 Washington) or pseudo-chic Zeppelin Lounge (3101 San Jacinto).
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In trying to be about nothing, Block 21 is open to everything. It's Washington's equivalent of a Radiohead song, except with better teeth. Cool, although vague, seems to be the only label that fits.
"It's not weird," agrees Farrah Ahktar, former City Editor at ENVY magazine and current woman about town. "It means they're doing something right."
The night that we hit up Block 21, we lucked into a backroom performance by former Houston Press Best DJ award winner Squincy Jones, who club owner Ziggy Morrow says spins about once every three weeks at the new Washington Avenue venue. We can't campaign for this guy enough. He hits on all levels; if you've never had the opportunity to see him apply his awkwardly all-encompassing wares, you're really missing out. Catch him in person as part of the Speakerboxxx DJ showcase Thursdays at The Backroom at the Mink (3718 Main). Then, when you get home, download his sick Nintendub Edits (specifically "Pop Trunk," featuring Wine-O), listed by Fact magazine as one of 2008's 20 best mixes, via his Web site, www.myspace.com/squincyjones. He's a badass boy. Some, like Wine-O himself, might even say his nose is runny.