Back in the day, all the hepcats knew to head to the Bohemian Caverns, at 11th and U Streets NW, to hear great music. With stalactites hanging down from the ceiling, a fireplace flickering in the back corner, and chairs made out of rough-hewn tree stumps, the Caverns captured the essence of underground.
The venue opened in 1926 as the Club Cavern, then became known as the Crystal Caverns when bandleader Cab Calloway and his sister took over ownership. In the ’50s, it became the Bohemian Caverns. Like much of the rest of U Street, the Caverns didn’t survive the riots of ’68. The building languished for nearly 30 years until developer Al Afshar heard about its history while shopping for real estate in the area.
“When I saw such a history boarded up and nobody paying attention to it, I said, ‘This is now my mission,’” says Afshar, who researched city records and the archives of the Afro-American to learn more about the once-famous club.
When construction began, in 1998, “the rest of [the history] started coming from the people living in the neighborhood who used to come to the Caverns,” Afshar says.
“They saw it when the first brick was dusted off,” says Keith Ailer, the club’s entertainment director, who has taken neighborhood residents on tours of the building. “This is considered a jazz shrine. There’s very few in the world, and this is one of them.”
Washington jazz legend Shirley Horn, who last played the club in 1967, stopped by to check out the new digs. “She loved the place. It brought back memories so, she almost cried,” Ailer says.
The restaurant’s $20 entrees and the high cover charges$20 to $50 to see acts like Jimmy Smith and Etta Jonesmay be too rich for the neighborhood’s older residents or the young hipsters who’ve taken over as of late. The renovated club’s exterior, with its jutting piano keys and oversized yellow saxophone, looks out of place on the “New U,” but inside, the joint has a classy
supper-club feel. Afshar and company have added the restaurant and a two-tiered nightclub to the original Caverns, which was basically a basement speakeasy below a storefront pharmacy.Holly Bass