West End Glitz Blitz
There have been some unusual nighttime sightings on Washington Avenue recently. Residents and regulars are beginning to notice a new breed walking the street, which has for decades been home to many of the city's roots music venues. The Johnny-and-Jane-come-latelies are in their mid-twenties to early thirties. They wear designer black, but they're white as sheets -- except for the few who put on a nice bronzer. They come looking not for draft beer, blues, country or rock and roll, but for good company, swinging dance grooves and a satisfying cosmopolitan.
Who are these people? And what are they doing on funky old Washington Avenue? They are likely patrons of The Social Lounge and Patio Bar (3730 Washington), a new spot that's beginning to attract a well-turned-out crowd over to the blue-jeans-and-boots Sixth Ward. Located in a decades-old property that once housed a gas station, The Social is an indoor/outdoor hangout for those who want the fashionable gritty urban vibe of NoDo without the traffic, construction, parking hassles and the fear that valets will lose or wreck your car.
Although it's been open for just a few weeks, and with no ad hype of any kind, The Social has been getting its fill of nightly patrons. One recent Saturday, the place was so crammed that the doorman had to form a line outside. (Don't worry -- unlike most NoDo spots, the casual, no-cover lounge is pretty easy to get into.)
"Architecturally, we've always loved this gas station," says co-owner Lee Ellis, who adds that the spot took about a year to get off the ground. "We've wanted this place for years." Ellis and partner Carl Eaves, who also own Tonic (310 Main), know a thing or two about bringing the beautiful ones out at night. They went so far as to pick up a hand-carved, wooden doorway from Pakistan for The Social's lounge and an old-timey bar that has previously done duty in Chicago and St. Louis taverns. "Carl and I designed the place, and Carl built it, and we just looked for things that we liked," says Ellis.
What's surprising is you won't find many other proprietors on Washington crying foul about this new posh and heretical endeavor hitting their avenue. The thought of this place cramping the style of grittier venues -- including the city's most densely packed triumvirate of live performance spots, Mary Jane's (4216 Washington), Silky's Blues Bar (4219 Washington) and Walter's on Washington (4215 Washington) -- isn't much of a concern. This may be because the old-school club owners are trying to bring something new to the Washington scene as well.
Take Keith Evans, co-owner of The Rhythm Room (1815 Washington). A year ago, the place was Local Charm, a small down-home performance room that specialized in presenting local blues performers. The name changed when co-owner Rory Miggins departed from the brain trust last year, but the place still offers live music -- it's just broadened its tastes a bit. In addition to booking hometown artists like countrified rocker Opie Hendrix and visiting acts like the Stone Coyotes, the club has lately acquired the services of DJs like Ceeplus, who hosts the eclectic Tuesday-night spin session known as "Dynamite Lounge." The Room will even have a burlesque show (sorry, no nudity) on Saturday, May 4. "We try to make it look a little more diverse in here," says Evans. "We were doing just a rhythm-and-blues thing, but now we're trying to do a little bit more of everything."
So don't look for the folks at the Rhythm Room to hate on what The Social is doing. "It's pretty upscale," says Evans. "I think it might be a little ahead of its time for Washington Avenue, but it's really good and we like it being there. I think it's gonna bring more people to Washington Avenue, and that's what we want."
The same goes for Pamela Robinson, owner of Walter's. "How can you say something bad about it -- it's not a crackhouse!" exclaims Robinson. "It's an improvement! They took an old property that was not being used and made it very nice." Robinson herself is also looking to open up some new frontiers on Washington. She bought Silky's last October and is opening yet another club on the strip sometime soon. "Austin has its Sixth Street," says Robinson. "And Washington Avenue is not a Sixth Street, by any means, but it could be in the near future."
Across the street, Ryan Guite, bartender for that alt-rock temple Mary Jane's, can barely muster an opinion about the new spot. "They can do whatever they want, as long as it doesn't take away from our business, which I don't think they are, really," says Guite. "It is kinda weird that they opened up right there It's kind of a grungy area, and they're trying to make something all nice and hip and IKEA."
Kenny Abair, a 51-year-old blues and jazz musician who frequently plays Silky's and Walter's, says that while The Social is welcome on Washington, it shouldn't be forgotten that live music venues are preferable. "What needs to be done is reopening these clubs down here, man, and start having live, real musicians come in to perform," he says. "That'll open this muthafucka up."
It's difficult to explain, but when a woman steps behind a couple of turntable decks and begins gliding her fingers across those round discs and sashaying effortlessly from one relentless beat to another, it just makes a man sweat. That's why it's imperative for guys who love female DJs to convene at Club Space (799 St. Emanuel) Friday, April 12, to see San Francisco DJ/producer Sage do her thing in the drum 'n' bass room. In the interest of gender equity, some exotic cat by the name of Gaetano Parisio will be working the main room for the ladies. But the men will go where the Sage grows to get a taste of that jungle love -- oh-wee, oh-wee, oh!
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