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Louie Bellucci’s gig drumming at the now-defunct Blue Mirror nightclub at 14th and I Streets downtown wasn’t ideal. It was the late ’50s, and the club, which had gained renown for booking jazz artists like Billie Holiday and Earl Hines, was becoming notorious for other sorts of attractions; Bellucci says he mostly played backup for comics and strippers. “The guys wanted to see the broads,” he says. “But the bread was good. About $105 a week, $115 when I became the leader.”
There were ways for Bellucci to supplement his income. Immortal stripper Blaze Starr would perform at the club for months at a time, raking in about $750 a week, Bellucci recalls. “She tipped all of us, man. She was a very, very sharp lady.” In those days, Don Rickles was a regular at the Wayne Room, a neighboring club. Bellucci says performers from both places would place bets on the comic’s safety. “He put those sailors and soldiers on something fierce, man. You wouldn’t believe it. He was so vicious.”
According to jazz historian W. Royal Stokes, the Blue Mirror was “one of the several main jazz venues of the early 1950s.” When he was still just a customer at the club, Bellucci got to meet Louis Armstrong, who kidded the young musician, now 71, that he looked like Gene Krupa (“Man, that was a compliment,” Bellucci says). The Mirror’s vibe was loose but elegant: Women wore dresses, and men, if they didn’t put on their best suits, would certainly sport coats and ties. It was a place to be seen. By everyone.
“I remember standing there and looking in the mirrors,” recalls “Wild” Bill Whelan, a musician who played at the club. “It was scary to see yourself play. There was mirrors all the way the around it, and they were blue. The stand was right in the middle of the place, and it was longer than it was side to side….When you stood up to play, you looked directly into this mirror. It was so close to you it was almost life-size.
It was a very strange feeling.”
Since that time of cigarette holders and startling reflections, the Blue Mirror name has made its mark on the District’s downtown entertainment and dining scene. In 1962, perhaps foreseeing the club’s eventual demise as striptease acts began outdrawing jazz groups, late Blue Mirror owner Ameen David diversified the business and opened his first restaurant under the same name at 1304 F St. The nightclub eventually closed in the mid-’70s, and the building was demolished to make way for the McPherson Square Metro stop. Over the years, the resilient Blue Mirror restaurant survived move (from F Street to 15th and E) after move (back to 14th and I) after move (to 14th and L), until finally, in mid-October, the Mirror served its last customer.
“The last seven years were not good years for the Blue Mirror,” says Ghassaw Fayad, the nephew of David who has run the Blue Mirror with his cousin Mike for the last 15 years. The Blue Mirror’s bread and butter were its regulars, but the restaurant’s mobility cost it some clients. Some former regulars at both the Mirror club and its sister restaurants are surprised to hear that the 14th and I location—without an awning or a distinctive sign, it was easy to miss—ever even existed. Fayad mentions current Federal Reserve Vice Chairwoman Alice Rivlin as one of his better-known regulars, but Rivlin says she hasn’t lunched regularly at the Mirror since the late ’60s. With the pool of downtown business types the Mirror counted on for business dwindling every year and, at the same time, competition increasing, Fayad says he could see the end coming.
“A regular customer that you even feel like you’re buddies with, you’re used to seeing him three times a week. Now you see him once a week,” says Fayad, a Lebanese immigrant. “The customer is not mad at me. I didn’t do anything wrong for him. He still likes my food. But if he has the choices, he’s not going to come eat with me every day. The number of customers are less everywhere. And on top of all that, they raised the rent.”
But there are factors that played into the Blue Mirror’s demise that have less to do with customer habits than cultural shifts. Just because the Blue Mirror changed its face over the years doesn’t mean it ever really evolved.
The Mirror always at least partially reflected the sensibilities of its past, which in some small way was good for business. When Hollywood, for example, decided to immortalize Starr in Blaze, the film’s producers approached Fayad for some consulting help.
But the Mirror’s link with history also directly contributed to its downfall. Fayad says the restaurant was known for its diner-style food, in particular its fresh-cut meats and rich desserts. It was also common for that typical meal, Fayad says, to be bookended by martinis and cigarettes; David even operated a nightclub downstairs from the F Street Mirror called the Champagne Room. So even while Fayad describes the Mirror restaurants as “breakfast-lunch-and-dinner operations” that served alcohol but were not nightclubs, he thinks there was a stigma attached to the Mirror name that didn’t play well with the more health-conscious customers of the ’80s and ’90s—who expect to be able to walk a straight line back to the office.
“Five years ago, 10 years ago, 15 years ago, people used to get drunk and go back to their office, and nobody asked. Nowadays, they wouldn’t dare,” Fayad says. “I have conversations with customers all the time. They tell me, ‘I don’t want to be seen in here.’ It’s as simple as that. Even if they aren’t drinking, the impression is that you are in a place that has a bar because you want a drink.”
Time tends to whittle away at clients inclined toward cocktail lunches. “We like to say most of their livers are buried over in Arlington,” says a longtime member of the National Press Club, which sits close to the old Mirror locations. A local historian says that Mirror regulars were generally the types of folks who liked to “hang out. And the fact is that most of the people who hung out aren’t around anymore.” Fayad mentions virtues guru William Bennett as an old Mirror regular; perhaps Bennett is now overcompensating for past wrongs.
Fayad doesn’t rule out the possibility of eventually opening another restaurant, but the Lebanese native has had enough of the District. Like many of the restaurant’s old clients, Fayad is seeking a drier life. If there were to be a new Blue Mirror, Fayad says it wouldn’t be within walking distance of the Hill. “Probably Tempe, Ariz.,” he says.
“The only difference when it’s like this is that the customers eat less salsa and drink more margaritas,” a Guapo’s waiter informs us, referring to the springlike weather visiting a November day. Our behavior pretty much falls in line with the norm, which is a good thing: The chips here are in need of a boost the salsa doesn’t provide, but the margaritas have got my friend seeing visions. “I’d swear we were on a lake,” she comments, though we’re sitting on a patio that boasts a view of a Hechinger’s. If you order right, a similar tone of serenity is set by the food, particularly the vegetarian fajitas, which include broccoli and carrots without sacrificing the aura of dietary transgression its more fattening cousins are famous for.
Guapo’s Restaurant, 4515 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 686-3588.—Brett Anderson