On Friday, April 11, at noon, nightlife impresario Joe Englert will join us for an online chat. Englert, who’s been opening and running bars for more than two decades and is often credited as a pioneer in the revitalization of U Street, will discuss his recent string of offbeat bars in Northeast DC’s Atlas District and his take on the city’s nightlife. He’s even threatened to share details of his half-completed screenplays.
Want to know his plans for bars he’s got in development? His pick for the hottest nightlife neighborhood? What development means for DC? Ask him anything!
Before becoming a nightlife mogul, Englert was a freelance writer for publications such as the Washington Times and the Washington Post. Read our profile of him here—and don’t forget to submit a question!
That's all the time Joe has for us today! Thanks for all the questions.
For the full archives of arts & entertainment chats, click here.
So, what's the hot new neighborhood now that H Street's been more or less discovered?
Columbia Heights/Petworth……Wonderland, Red Derby, Looking Glass Lounge, Dommku, Hitching Post and Red Rocks Pizza Place on 11th. Soon Asylum will open up there, too.
What bars do you hang out at?
Swank hotel bars–Town and Country at Mayflower, Ritz-Carlton Bar at the West End. Lafitte's and Napolean House in New Orleans. Local 19, Stony Creek, New York
What are you working on now? Any new bars opening soon?
Enology on Wisconsin Ave. Doing a Voodoo Patio at Red and Black on H as well.
H Street Area
As a resident of the H Street Area looking for new options to eat and a place to shoot pool, can you provide any information on the status of Sticky Rice or the H Street Country Club (which I'd heard would have pool as well as the miniature golf)? I know that the economic situation makes this a lousy time to move forward with new ventures; but if either place is half-decent, I know of one customer they'll have promptly.
Sticky Rice is not mine but I am pals with the owners. A matter of weeks there. H St CC looks like it will done around Christmas '08. There is never a bad time to open up a tavern.
DISTRIC OF COLUMBIA
First,I would like to thank Joe Englert for all the energy that he has bought to the H street corridor.I was having dinner at Dr. Granvilles the other night and heard that there is a Tex Mex Resturant opening up soon on H street.If so, when and where.That would be great
H St. CC should be very Mexican but not too Texican.
Hello Joe, Artomatic is coming to 1st and M Street NE from 9 May – 15 June. Have any ideas on how we could shuttle people from our extravaganza to and from your burgeoning strip on H Street? Patrick Oberman firstname.lastname@example.org
We could help arrange shuttles I am sure. Contact me at email@example.com
I live in Brookland and although there is a lot of discussion of revitalizing this area's 12th Street Corridor, not much seems to be getting done. With a vibrant and varied community and two universities in the area, would you be willing to invest in/develop this area? Thank you.
Brookland seems like a great opportunity. But my wife wants me to buy her a new Airstream before I look into opening up any more bars.
Has the smoking ban had any effect on your businesses?
At some places yes, those with older clientele. Happy hours are down significantly. The hipster places too–dc 9 at first but now it has come back
I have this half-cocked dream of opening my own bar one day, but I feel like it's way more work than I'd be expecting. But still…I'd like to make it happen. If you've got a place in mind, what's the next step to opening your own bar?
I'd say work in one for a year or two years and see if it's really for you.
I think you should take a look at Bloomingdale for your next development projects! It's a perfect neighborhood: up-and-coming, full of friendly hipsters, and everybody is DYING for a bar. Any bar. Seriously. Give us a bar.
I really have my hands full with H Street right now. And in fact I'm looking to open up a wood-burning pizza restaurant (with bocce ball courts), a barbecue place with swing blues, and a red sauce Italian place.
What are other themed bars you'd like to see open in the city?
I think it'd be good to imitate the Rock 'n Bowl in New Orleans. Bowling with fantastic loud music and dancing. But with the price of real estate, I don't know where this location would be.
Joe, be honest: What's your take on the DC nightlife? Are we still pretty vanilla, or are we finally beginning to up the ante in terms of variety and style?
To be honest I think so much money is spent that places just aren't as creative as more low-budget areas like Richmond and Baltimore. There's so much money available here that people don't have to be creative. I guess also real estate is so expensive to rent or buy that a small arty type place has a hard time ever getting off the ground. Buildings are in such bad shape on H Street if you don't have 300,000 dollars it's virtually impossible to take a shell to a restaurant/bar stage.
Any chance you'll be investing in a spot in Virginia sometime? We really need you on this side of the Potomac!
I usually have a rule. If I can't ride my bike from my house in 20 minutes to the location I'm not interested in investing in that location.
Hi Joe! What are the best and worst parts of your job?
Best – taking a nap on my office sofa. Worst part is refereeing fights between employees.
How did you come into such a profession?
I used to write about DC nightlife in the late 80s. Discovered there wasn't much nightlife at all, to cover. And decided I should go ahead and take a crack at it. Especially after coming to the realization that probably the best thing I did in college was throw parties.
What is your favorite bar and why?
The Saturn Bar in New Orleans. Six jukeboxes, five that don't work. Old microwave ovens on tables. The owner's power tools on the pool table. A bathroom urinal that has been off the wall for a decade.
In DC I like the Raven. Late night at Wonderland. The Devil's Kitchen at the Big Hunt. And every single inch of Granville Moores.
When not busy opening a new spot in the city, what does the awesome Joe Englert do?
Play tennis, ping pong, throw batting practice to my sons, travel with my wife, tend to a serious crossword addiction, and do as much reading as I can get in.
I know it's probably like asking you to pick your favorite child, but if you absolutely had to, which one of the bars you've opened (or helped open) is your favorite?
I'm very biblical in nature. I often tell each of my two sons that they are the favorite. Sorry Big Hunt and Lucky Bar, but for now Granville Moore's is my favorite child with Argonaut a close second.
I'm a wannabe-entrepreneur and I was wondering if you could tell me more about how you went from freelancing to owning a string of bars. Any advice for those interested in getting into the business?
Unlike many businesses, the restaurant business isn't hard to figure out. Go to busy places, see what they do right. Then figure out why these places appeal to the general public or to a specific audience. Then copy as much as you can. I always travel and bring back the better or more interesting ideas and I constantly talk to successful operators and take as many suggestions as I can from them and apply them to my own businesses. Be it new inventory systems, entertainment, promotions, and computer systems.
What's a type of bar you've seen somewhere else that you'd like to emulate or bring to DC?
A gigantic cave restaurant/bar outside of Mexico City. You walked maybe a thousand feet into the earth's surface. I would love to start digging right now. It was probably about a 90 degree day but by the time you got down into the cave it was about 60.
Hey Joe, do you think this latest string of wine bars are here to stay or just a phase that will soon go away? What's the next big trend for DC bars?
Well I think when it comes to beer, bread, and wine, and now chocolate too, I think once people start getting used to quality products they're not going back to Mad Dog, Mondavi, or Fetzer. Apparently DC has the most wine drinkers of any capital in the entire world, so there's quite a pent-up demand.
I think we're in the middle of the next big trend – it's organic everything – organic or locally produced products. I think also the embracing of high quality food at almost any price point.
What's this talk about half-completed screenplays? Anything you might want to share about them?
I guess give me another year or two. I think I'll have them in shape enough to sell.
What do you think are some of the challenges or problems with DC nightlife?
You have a very backward mentality with how the government views businesses in general and liquor establishments in particular. In recent years, the ABC board has improved tenfold and hopefully DCRA will learn how to become more business friendly. Also, the way the voluntary agreement system is set up, it pits neighbors against bar owners. There is a constant battle between business owners and nearby residents. It would be refreshing to see a lot more diplomacy on both sides of the aisles with more responsible business owners and more understanding neighbors. Life sometimes can be messy and sometimes you just can't help when someone dumps a couch into your dumpster. It isn't the end of the world and any good business owner will see to the problem. Usually very quickly.
What's the one bar in the city you wished you owned?
For money? The Old Ebbitt Grill. For the drinks and food, Palena. For the back bar, the Irish Times. For the card tricks, the Town & Country. Before the smoking ban, the Fox and Hounds. There was just something so appealing about thirty years of cigarette smoke lingering about the bar. But I don't know if George Mallios and I would be good partners.
I hate the Adams Morgan scene, but it's so convenient that I end up spending at least a day of the weekend there. I was wondering what bars you'd recommend on 18th Street. Pharmacy Bar is a favorite, but I'd like to have at least one more spot to hang out at. Help!
Pharmacy Bar I'm very partial to as well. Maybe go to Asylum early? The Reef's rooftop is also very nice.
People often complain about the city's nightlife. We're too boring and so on. As someone with great knowledge of the business, can you tell us about something you think is distinctively good or special about DC nightlife?
It takes a little work, but if you read the Weekend Section and City Paper religiously, there is always some sort of incredibly unusual or interesting lecture, show, or concert in the city nearly every night. You just have to be willing to get out of your comfort zone once in a while. For instance, take a twenty minute trip to Pomonke, Maryland some Friday or Saturday night and visit Lamont's, a great soul and blues roadhouse with terrific national acts.
What are some of the dos and don'ts of the bar and restaurant business?
Your interior doesn't have to look like a pho joint in Hanoi in 1972. Lose the stacking church chairs. Go to Benjamin Moore. They have color palettes. And no need for eardrum shattering techno at lunch. You have to create an environment of something special for people.
Am I crazy, or over the last year or two, it actually seems like DC is getting…dare I say…cooler? Better bars are opening, better restaurants, more options. Can you confirm my optimism? Why is this happening, do you think?
Yes, you are right. All that dot com money had to be used for something. And almost every day, a dozen lawyers get up, look at their boring contracts, and realize, Shit. I should be in the restaurant business. I would be much happier if I cooked, if I was a host, if I was a DJ. Nothing could be as boring as the law.
What do you see as the next neighborhood that's poised for revitalization? Where are you setting your sights on next?
I'm not necessarily setting my sights on anything. My next big project is to buy a big old shell on H Street, explore digging three stories down for that cave-like bar. And if that doesn't work, continue working on my forehand smash. Honestly, I think a very far-reaching visionary would be buying up lots of Anacostia. All that waterfront, all those nearby highways – at some point is going to be a very desirable spot. 15 years.
What's the deal with the mini golf place that was buzzed about for H Street?
Unfortunately, buildouts always take longer than you would ever imagine. We took over an existing restaurant and in the timespan it took to procure our liquor license, many laws changed governing construction. One of them being any place that was two stories must be sprinkled – must have a water sprinkler system to prevent fires. We also have decided to do a much more serious effort to have a great restaurant on the course. So it is taking a lot more planning, money, and time, but hopefully it'll be your favorite new place of 2009.
Do you read neighborhood blogs?
Religiously. It takes every ounce of my being not to answer every smirky, misguided or meanspirited comment quickly and emotionally. I must hold the Italian in me in check. Also, my managers know I read the feedback and try to calm me before I call them when there are negative comments about service or experience about one of our places, especially on H. If someone makes a particularly good point or had a particularly bad experience, we like to reach out to those people and rectify the situation as soon as possible. The Frozen Tropics is remarkable for their coverage of H Street and I enjoy the continuing fights between the usual suspects. In fact I helped author the April Fools' page.
Any idea when shot and a cut at the Red & Black is coming back?
We are currently getting our cosmotology licenses – seriously. Then we will offer them again in our new Voodoo Patio backyard. Look for it in a couple of months if not sooner.
Any other music venues like rock and roll hotel or dc9 up your sleeve for the near future?
We would love to do an American music concept featuring music concepts uniquely American. Swing blues, bluegrass, honky tonk, etc. in a really intimate setting – 100-125 people with an outrageously good sound system and comfortable environment. Picture Preservation Hall meets DC. Hopefully a place that would find bands after their 9:30 show dying to come and play.
Joe, do you get the sense that property owners on the H street strip are starting to get a little more realistic about their prices for getting bought out?
They're not getting realistic. What is happening is the city is taxing the hell out of them at five times the normal rate because of the vacant property rules. Rumor has it that by October or November it'll be ten times the going rate. Things should start shaking out very nicely at that point for more entrepreneurs to buy their own buildings and launch their new concepts. It really is a sin how so many building owners on Georgia Avenue, 9th Street, and other parts of the city, have basically let block after block of what should be vibrant neighborhoods sit stagnant and drag down entire neighborhoods within. People think, "Oh, there's a metro there, oh there's five restaurants here, you don't know how hot this area is," and then of course everybody's great example or great pie in the sky is a Starbucks in the neighborhood. They think because Starbucks is paying 60-70 dollars a square foot, their building should command such top rent.
How do you brainstorm your ideas for themed bars?
It's an organic process, we have ideas, some that are farfetched, some that are too time consuming. You bounce them off fellow owners, and our resident artist, Lee Wheeler. You being build out, some things are just impossible, other ideas become grander, sometimes you just don't have enough time to complete everything you wanted to. But usually by the time it all ends, you forget whose idea was whose and your total goal is just to create a special one-of-a-kind place.
What happened to the shuttles in H Street?
All of a sudden cabs are using H Street a lot more. There's customers for them. Also a surpriing amount of people actually walk to H Street from Capitol Hill and the surrounding area. Those people were always there they were just never in the habit of making H Street a destination – they always went to other parts of town.
What's up next for H Street?
Our bid will be having special monthly events featuring a centralized theme – love, ice, it'll be multimedia, live entertainment, art shows, food, entertainment where 7-10 of us will offer special entertainment or food for the night. Frank from Sova will be coordinating the monthly event. He already has a ongoing poetry and spoken word night and it's something we'd like to expand upon and bring to the entire street. This sort of event takes place on Broad Street in Richmond I think for the last seven to ten years and it's their busiest night of each month and is looked forward to by hipper Richmonders every month. This'll start hopefully within the next couple of months.