When the 18th Street Lounge opened its doors in April 1995, Alex, a 27-year-old woman, rushed in to investigate the newest addition to D.C.’s limited menu of nightlife options. Alex was quickly taken by the club’s low lighting, plush couches, live jazz, and ambient hip quotient. After four or five visits, she began to consider the Lounge, tucked away behind an unmarked door near the intersection of 18th Street and Connecticut Avenue NW, her particular haunt.

One night last winter, though, she made a fatal fashion faux pas that rudely interrupted her flourishing romance with the newfound boîte. Bracing herself against the record-breaking chill, Alex donned a puffy, bright pink ski parka over her loungewear before heading over to the club to assume her place among those in the know.

She was stiffed at the door. “We were told we need a pass to get in,” she says, recalling her confusion. Alex had never been asked for a pass before and had no idea how to get one. Bewildered, she asked permission to go upstairs to let her friend know she hadn’t made the cut. On her way back down, she says, she saw others filing through the door—sans passes. “Were you asked for a pass?” she remembers asking a blond woman in black ascending the stairs. “No, not at all,” answered the woman.

Believing her pink parka had downgraded her from vested member of the hipoisie to nerdy wannabe, Alex confronted the bouncer and unzipped her coat, brandishing proper evening wear. The bouncer held fast and Alex found herself out of the loop, at least for the night.

“[The 18th Street Lounge] tries to mimic New York clubs because they think that by being selective, people will think there’s something special about the place,” says Alex.

It’s worked. From the beginning, the club’s four owners have shied away from press and public advertisements, relying solely on word of mouth for business. The deliberate underexposure gives the club an alluring cachet among local hipsters, who will go to great lengths to avoid hanging at overhyped, mainstream establishments. They prefer their hype by word of mouth.

The club’s decorative insouciance begins with mismatched couches here and there, and extends to the pretty people who are supposed to perch on them. The 18th Street Lounge follows a trend of New York and Los Angeles clubs that nurture a relaxed, loungey atmosphere and cater to the effortlessly stylish who want a place to preen and drag on their Gauloises cigarettes.

But while Washington may be hierarchical in its own way, it isn’t New York, and people here simply aren’t used to the kind of crowd editing that goes on every night in Manhattan. The Lounge’s aloofness and idiosyncratic door policy have infuriated a number of local clubgoers who can never quite know what will pass muster with the club’s bouncers. That’s probably just fine with a club that prides itself on being occasionally inaccessible.

The 18th Street Lounge is the kind of place that is supposed to give the lie to D.C.’s rep as a button-down geekfest, but those who do manage to run the gantlet at the door might be surprised by the towering averageness of the crowd inside. Frat boys with decent hair insinuate themselves into groups of women whose attire departs only incrementally from the banal Washington template of fitting in at all costs. Still, there are no couples slobbering on each other as they gyrate to “Karma Chameleon” under a disco ball, and you don’t have to worry about someone grabbing your ass while you try to buy a drink. It ain’t Plush, but it’s a nice spot.

After the 18th Street Lounge opened, Matt, a 26-year-old Washingtonian, went regularly enough to become comfortable there. But in the past year, he has been turned away three times, and each time he was told that he could not enter because the club was holding a private party. He has stepped aside and watched while the bouncer has asked other groups of patrons to present their IDs and then let them into these “private parties.” He has friends who have been told to go away, in a nice way, while other patrons pass right through the door.

Although he’s not on the cutting edge of fashion, Matt doesn’t think he fares so badly in the clothing department; he looks pretty much like any other District twentysomething out for a night. He finds the triage system at the door frustrating and whimsical. Although Matt, Alex, and others think they are in the know, the essentials of 18th Street Lounge hipness still elude them. They’d just like to head out for the night confident that they will pass muster.

Alex reports that the last time she went to the 18th Street Lounge was in March. She says she got into an argument with the man at the door over what she perceived as the arbitrary door policy. She recalls that after she called him a “snob,” the bouncer told her to “go back to the suburbs.” Matt believes that the club’s attempt to corral the hip international set leaves little room for folks such as himself.

“They are blatantly against certain people if they don’t look a certain way,” he says. “It leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.” Matt does not object to dress codes when they are evenly enforced, but he does resent the arbitrary rejection slips he’s been handed.

While disenchanted Lounge customers like Alex and Matt fault the club for arbitrariness and nothing more, Eric Brewer sees something else behind the joint’s selectiveness.

“I’ve always been looking for a club in this area that had an interesting mix of people….I had heard about the 18th Street Lounge, so I came on a whim, and I was really impressed with what I saw,” says Brewer, a 26-year-old African-American longtime resident of the D.C. area. “I pretty much thought that that would be my spot, because I had given up on everything else in the city.”

But as much as Brewer wanted to claim the 18th Street Lounge as his own, he says that the Lounge did not return the affection. One sweaty night in August 1995, he says he went to the club alone and was allegedly turned away for wearing shorts. Not astonished by the mention of a dress code, he went home.

The next night he returned, he says, this time wearing long pants. The bouncers waved him inside, where, he claims, he saw three white men wearing shorts, one of whom was also wearing sneakers. The men told him they had met with no resistance from the bouncer regarding their attire. Fed up, he headed for the door.

“They’re trying to shape their image….I decided that I wasn’t going to attempt to get in if they didn’t want my business,” Brewer says.

It’s not as if the 18th Street Lounge has hired Mark Furhman to police its door. The bouncers—whose cutting-edge credentials don’t seem to have much to do with what they look like—seem to find joy in turning away plenty of white people. The filter at the front door is subtle, mutable, and apparently colorblind.

After hearing complaints that black and white people were being held to different standards at the door of the lounge, Washington City Paper sent three black men, followed by a group of three white men, into the club on a packed weekend night. The men all wore similar attire. All were asked to pay $10 apiece and then were invited in. Whatever standards were being enforced didn’t seem to be based on race.

Eric Hilton, one of the co-owners of the club, calls any question of a racially discriminatory door policy “ridiculous.” When pressed to disclose the Lounge’s policy, Hilton declined comment and ordered me to leave the premises.

Regardless of the motivation, the turndowns come in many coded forms. “VIP membership,” “guest passes,” and “invitations” are ploys used by Lounge bouncers to weed out undesirables. And a sliding entrance fee leaves many patrons baffled. Sean Peterson, Kevin Davis, and Marshall Mitchell came to the club one night straight from their jobs on the Hill clad in suits. They were asked for $10 apiece. Perplexed because they had thought there was no cover at all, they hung back from the front door for about 20 minutes. During this time, they say they saw several groups enter without paying. Davis asked the bouncer why these patrons hadn’t been charged. “They’re members,” Davis remembers the bouncer saying. This was the first time any of them had heard of a membership policy.

The cover charge and “membership” policy appear to vacillate wildly from one case to the next. When I put in a call to the Lounge to find out what the cover was, the man who answered the phone informed me, “We have a cover charge, but we’re very lenient.”

That nonchalance makes for much confusion among would-be patrons who sometimes pay $5, sometimes pay $10, and sometimes don’t get to set foot on the plush red carpet at all. “They’re saying, ‘We like certain people. Certain people are our friends,’” says Matt. “It’s misleading; you think it’s open to the public, and then you get to the door, and they slam it shut.”

“People aren’t used to that kind of thing here,” says Matt, who has never had problems getting into any other clubs in D.C. But in spite of the confusion and outrage the door policy has caused in a city that even has a clause in its human rights code barring personal-appearance discrimination, the 18th Street Lounge continues to admit people based on a je ne sais quoi that many D.C.-ers apparently lack.

Even after two years, people have not gotten used to the Lounge’s fickleness. Perhaps we’re too provincial to understand the subtle distinctions between glam and gauche, what’s hot and what’s not, and most significantly, the right sneakers for day and for evening. If it all sounds too complicated, you can always elbow your way into the Madhatter. CP