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That Bo Blair really knows how to pack ’em in. In just five years, the Georgetown native has taken a tiny basement bar with barely enough room for 85 people and transformed it into a spacious nightspot that can easily accommodate 200. And even a few more.
How’d he do it? Well, for one thing, he posted a sign: “MAXIMUM CAPACITY/220/STANDING ROOM.”
Unfortunately for Blair, owner of the now infamous Smith Point, that fancy brown placard isn’t enough to satisfy city regulators, who’ve threatened to crack down if he doesn’t scale back on the number of nighttime patrons.
Blair had promised back in March 2000 to operate only a small seafood place in the subterranean space along Wisconsin Avenue NW formerly occupied by Sarinah Satay House. Originally called Diver’s Down, the venue would be “a bona fide restaurant,” according to a written pact that Blair signed with Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 2E. Under that agreement, the fish joint he later renamed Smith Point would have “a maximum capacity, as established by its Certificate of Occupancy, of 85 persons, including standing room for not more than 11 persons.”
Of course, no bona fide restaurant in the District gets by on food alone, not even on the fine cooking of former Felix chef David Scribner. So the 32-year-old Blair, who also runs Georgetown Events, a party-planning firm that, according to its Web site, “caters to upscale, young professionals, 24–34,” started throwing parties for upscale, young professionals at the restaurant after dinner.
When you move some of those tables and chairs out of the way, it seems there’s suddenly a lot more room for people to party—anywhere from “75–200 people,” according to the restaurant’s Web site.
Soon, Smith Point became one of the trendiest nightspots in Georgetown—and one of the most exclusive: To get in, you’ve got to be—or at least be with—one of the 1,500 names on Blair’s guest list, which most notably includes George W. Bush’s own young-professional partyers, daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush. Of course, wherever the Bush twins go, the press will soon follow. Many national news outlets have run stories about Blair’s underground lair, which the New York Times dubbed “a haven for a hip young Republican elite.” And in its Jan. 24, 2005, issue, Newsweek went so far as to call it “a hangout for private-school Peter Pans who wish to relive those wild nights at the frat house.”
But reporters aren’t the only ones who’ve noticed Smith Point’s meteoric rise to velvet-rope prominence. So have some of its pesky neighbors, including ANC 2E Commissioner Bill Starrels, who, citing a “three-year history of gross overcrowding,” has accused Blair of violating the occupancy limits in his voluntary agreement. Ditto for the District’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA), which is charged with monitoring liquor-licensed establishments’ compliance with such legally binding pacts.
ABRA investigator Juliana Tengen dropped in on Smith Point a total of seven times in 2003 and found that the place “was always overcrowded, to the point where she would bump into patrons walking through the establishment,” according to a written report of her testimony before the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Board. On one night, Tengen noted, the venue had far exceeded its limit on standing room for not more than 11 persons; by her count, more than nine times that many were packed in. On two other nights, Tengen testified, a clicker-equipped employee counting the influx of clubgoers reported at least 170 patrons inside the club.
But when Tengen confronted the owner with this evidence of alleged overcrowding, Blair directed her attention to that all-important placard posted on a wall near the front door.
Such placards are required of any establishment with a capacity of 50 persons or more, says Gwen Davis, spokesperson for the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA), the agency that regulates such signage. To get the appropriate permit to post such a number, she says, a business must submit design drawings of the premises and pass an on-site inspection by one of the DCRA’s fire-protection engineers.
DCRA records show that Blair got his placard approved through the service of Logan Circle’s own “Mr. Permit,” Jim Smith, “a specialist,” according to his Web site, “in restaurants, sidewalk cafes, liquor licenses, building codes and permits, zoning variances…and some weird stuff in between.” As Blair’s agent, Mr. Permit, who charges a minimum fee of $500, paid the DCRA $60 back in October 2002 to apply for two signs, including a “[s]tanding room only capacity placard for 300.” As supporting documentation, Mr. Permit also submitted an architectural drawing of Blair’s 1,550-square-foot nightspot.
According to Tengen’s testimony, that’s “a different drawing—which included a patio diagram to enlarge the space—from the drawing in the Applicant’s ABRA Application File.” In fact, the outside patio area, like the inside dining room and bar, is highlighted in yellow marker. Within two months of Mr. Permit’s application, Smith Point was approved by three separate DCRA officials for a 220-person placard.
But the DCRA’s approval would carry little weight with the ABC Board when that panel ruled on the venue’s capacity issue last month.
Perhaps Mr. Permit had overlooked that part of D.C. law that states, “Before a licensee may make a change”—including plans to “[i]ncrease the occupancy of the licensed establishment”—that business “shall obtain the approval of the Board”—not just the DCRA. Such a request from Smith Point, according to the board’s written ruling, “has never been received.”
On Feb. 9, the board officially ordered Blair to stick to the 85-patron max that he had originally promised. And during a subsequent hearing on Feb. 23, ABC Board Chair Charles Burger told Blair, “We expect complete compliance.”
As of March 4, however, exactly how complete that compliance is remains up in the air—or at any rate, that 220-person placard remains up on the wall. Blair, who failed to return repeated calls for comment, told the Georgetown Current last week that he would adhere to the board’s decision. That is, at least until he can work out a new deal with neighbors to replace the old voluntary agreement—which is, after all, a rather outdated document that never even considered a second term for the Bush administration.
CIRQUE DU SILENCE
Last week, D.C. downtempo duo Thievery Corporation boasted its “most successful week ever,” according to a press release. Indeed: Adams Morgan–based electromaestros Rob Garza and Eric Hilton saw their latest offering, The Cosmic Game, debut at No. 1 in the Top Electronic Albums chart in the March 12 issue of Billboard magazine. Released Feb. 22 on the duo’s own ESL Music label, the album also landed at No. 6 on the mag’s list of top-selling independent discs and came in a respectable 94th in Billboard’s Top 100—edging out Waldorf, Md.’s, punky pop stars Good Charlotte but not quite matching strong sales of the amply lunged teen queen Lindsay Lohan.
“Marking a new high point for the genre-defining electronic group,” the album’s “unprecedented chart success” comes “on the heels of rave reviews and sold out shows,” the release states—not to mention the duo’s remix of “Le Rêveur,” which Billboard writer Margo Whitmire singled out as a highlight of the Tapis Rouge Solarium compilation recently released on the Cirque du Soleil Musique label.
Wait. Musique? Cirque du Soleil? D.C.’s coolest DJs have joined forces with something so unhip that it’s been sent up in both The Simpsons and an Expedia commercial? Is a traveling freak show of flamboyantly costumed street-turned-stage-performers really the kind of wannabe Eurotrash that Garza and Hilton want to be associated with?
S&T, for one, would like to know. Unfortunately, the duo refuses to discuss its comp contribution. Strange, too, given how much the two groups seem to have in common.
For one thing, the original “Le Rêveur,” comes from the Quebecois circus’s live show Varekai, which, through juggling, body skating, and head-balancing on canes, among other feats, tells the story of a young man who parachutes into “a magical forest.” According to the troupe’s Web site, it’s “a kaleidoscopic world populated by fantastical creatures”—a world not too unlike Hilton’s Eighteenth Street Lounge. Only with actual clowns.
The Tapis Rouge CD, which also includes circus-music remixes by such artists as Banzai Republic and Christophe Goze, is selling for just $19 on the Cirque du Soleil Web site—a mere $1 more than what Thievery’s own Web site charges for The Richest Man in Babylon on LP. And other items from Cirque du Soleil’s online boutique—such as the $175 silk-chiffon Techno Leaf Scarf and the $25 polyester-and-spandex Zumanity-labeled jockstrap—would prove a stunning wardrobe match to the group’s $15 Air Thievery T-shirt.
Not that Thievery’s publicist, Nick Baily, would ever make such connections. Baily—who found plenty to say about the group’s most successful week ever—rebuffed repeated requests by the Washington City Paper to interview the local artists about their recent collaboration with the circus, explaining, “The Cirque du Soleil thing…we just weren’t able to put something together for that one.”
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Now Showing At The City Museum: THE MOST UNDERUTILIZED BEAUX-ARTS BUILDING IN D.C.
The DC Independent Film Festival, “[l]ike most great inventions,” according to a press release, “came about because a void needed to be filled.” How appropriate, then, that this year’s fest takes place at the City Museum of Washington, DC—which could use a little void-filling of its own, following the cash-strapped institution’s decision to shutter all exhibitions last fall.
“Although officially closed,” the press release notes, “the City Museum of Washington, D.C. is specially reopening its doors for the festival’s 11 days in March”—as it would for just about any special event that’s willing to pay for the space.
DCIFF founder Carol Bidault says rent, security, and insurance are costing organizers about $1,500 per session—for more than 30 sessions taking place over a dozen days. Ticket sales to screenings, which run $7 to $9 a person, don’t even begin to cover it, she says, even though the museum’s 148-seat theater is currently screening such unusual flicks as Sun Young Moon’s 3-minute short “Doodoolee” and Sara Rashad’s 18-minute female-circumcision-themed drama “Tahara.”
Of course, the offbeat fest has also taken over other parts of the building. A makeshift box office and refreshment stand are set up in the Great Hall. And vendors’ tables line the lower level, showcasing the services of both Rockville-based Video Labs Corp. and the “natural healing powers” of Reiki master Mariann Hilton.
Here’s hoping, for the museum’s sake, that those powers happen to include resurrection.