Night Life

The Russians Are Coming

Starting this week, the Swank Lounge (910 Prairie) won't be so swanky anymore.

Swank, located above the tapas restaurant Solero, was one of the first trendy clubs to hit downtown, and since its opening in September 1997, it has been a snug fit for NoDo clubhoppers. That's probably because the place is so small you automatically feel you're in someplace exclusive. But now the compact club is getting a face-lift, an overhaul, a Joan Rivers, if you will. On Friday, March 16, the Swank will officially anoint itself the Czar Bar. It's a catchy name, with a sort of poetic Russian snap, but what the hell does it mean?

"It's gonna be a vodka bar," reveals co-owner Arturo Boada. Inspired by the watering holes of our comrades, the Swank management has decided to remodel the establishment and give it an Eastern European slant. It'll offer 71 different vodkas -- including ones infused with jalapeño, orange and mint -- to honor the 71 Bolsheviks of the First European Communist Party Conference, so says the bar's PR folks, who apparently don't know the difference between czarist Russia and communist Russia any better than the owners.

"There aren't any vodka bars in Houston," continues Boada, who runs the future Czar Bar and Solero with Sharon Haynes. "We need a change to something new. That's the demand of the business. Change is always good."

The idea originally surfaced when Boada and Haynes thought about opening another downtown hangout. Instead, they opted to revamp the popular lounge. Despite the new Soviet motif -- even the lounge's signature melted-candy bar top will be adapted to fit in with the communist-red decor -- the owners insist the spirit of the Swank will live on in this updated version. In other words, all you old Swankers should continue to show up and buy those expensive martinis.

"It's still a funky room," certifies Haynes. "It's still got the same character. It's kind of giving a new, fresh outlook on something familiar."

The Swank is not the only club that's revising its script. Last Thanksgiving weekend, the folks behind Kaza Cozo decided to re-envision that place as an after-hours haunt, now known as the Rubber Room (3101 Fountainview). Patrizia Barretto (with an assist from her mother, Maria) runs several popular Latin-themed venues on the southwest side, including Crystal Nite Club (6680 Southwest Freeway) and Extasis Night Club (6300 Hillcroft), which were passed down after the stabbing death of her brother Alvaro in late 1997. Barretto felt the Spanish rock format that worked at her other clubs wasn't getting any love at Kaza.

"I felt that the music at the club wasn't effective anymore," says Barretto. So she's switched to a lot of dance, hip-hop, house, trance and techno -- you know, the usual suspects. And as you can tell from the name, the club is very liberated. In fact, on Friday and Saturday nights, the place caters to those patrons looking to indulge their favorite fetish; Fridays are devoted to latex lovers, while Saturdays are given over to the vinyl crowd.

"I love controversy," explains Barretto. "If people aren't calling me or talking about me, then I'm not doing something right. That's how I look at it."

Regardless of the clientele or the neighborhood, club owners usually make dramatic changes for the same underlying reasons. "Every time a club opens, it's like an hourglass turning over," says Doug Harris, a marketing consultant at Creative Animal. Harris believes that even popular clubs like Swank need to be one step ahead in order to hold on to patrons. While neighborhood joints like Rudyard's (2010 Waugh) may never feel the need to reinvent themselves, Harris says the trendier clubs constantly have to change their profile.

"We are talking about a very fickle consumer group," says Harris. "Attracting a nightclub consumer is no different from attracting a fashion consumer or a movie consumer or an automobile consumer. You have to do something new and fresh in order to bring them in."

Last Call

The two biggest shindigs of the week are as opposite as night and day, oil and water, computers and the elderly. Fetish boutique Dare Ware is helping the folks at Prague put on The S&M Ball on Friday, March 16, at the club at 402 Main. There will be an after-party at the aforementioned Rubber Room, so if things don't necessarily get freaky at Prague, there's a chance that spot will pick up the hanky-spanky slack. For more information, call (713)953-9393. For those young folks who like to have a good time without feeling obligated to spank an old white person, you can attend Gravity Zero on Saturday, March 17, at the International Ballroom (14035 South Main). This is one of those old-fashioned rave blowouts. Just take a gander at who's on the card: Jesse Saunders, Punisher, Angel Alanis, Frankie Bones, Disko Kidz, Ethan Klein, Kung Fu Pimp and so on. The lineup virtually assures that no one will be disappointed. But more important, you don't have to worry about chafing from those rubber drawers. For more information, call (713)867-9028.

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Craig D. Lindsey
Contact: Craig D. Lindsey