Heist Nightclub Returns to Dupont Circle—Minus Bullet Holes in the Bar

The vault-like space is outfitted in brass, glass, and concrete.

Heist has a new look without all the bank robber gimmickry. Photograph by Jahns Chavez.

Gone are the bullet holes in the bar, jewels embedded between the walls, and gold-plated urinals. Instead, bank-robber-themed Dupont nightclub Heist reopened after a two-and-a-half year pandemic hiatus with a much subtler thematic approach. A staircase lined with black lava rock—aimed to feel like you’re entering a diamond mine—leads to a sleek, vault-like dance floor and bar outfitted in brass, glass, and concrete.

Former lobbyist Vinoda Basnayake took ownership of Heist in 2017, inheriting the gimmicky decor. Since then, he cemented the venue as the kind of VIP magnet where Michelle Obama celebrated her birthday and where the Nats and Caps popped bottles after their championship wins. At the same time, Basnayake prided the place on its irreverence toward exclusivity, nixing cover charges and dress codes and playing open-format music every night that would appeal to a wide crowd.

“You could have like a rapper sitting next to a bunch of sorority girls sitting next to an investment banker. That type of space where everyone feels comfortable and free is something that we’re very proud of,” says Basnayake. He also owns cocktail den Morris American Bar near the Convention Center, Cuban-inspired hot spot Casta’s Rum Bar in Foggy Bottom, rooftop lounge Ciel Social Club in Mount Vernon Square, and Persian/Arabic/Indian restaurant Leila in Tysons Corner.

Although Heist’s basement space had been closed since the start of the pandemic, it gained attention with a pop-up series on the rooftop of the Kennedy Center. Amid controversy and confusion about Covid rules and restrictions, the pop-up was cancelled in the fall of 2020 but ultimately returned in the summer of 2021 with a guest appearance by R&B superstar Jay Sean (Basnayake used to be his tour manager) plus a private event for comedian Dave Chapelle.

Heist's vault-like interior is filled with brass, concrete, and glass. Photograph by Jahns Chavez.
Heist got a makeover from its original designer, Brian Swanson, who’s created luxe spaces for retail stores, hotels, and celeb residences. Photograph by Jahns Chavez.

When it finally came time to reopen, Basnayake hired Brian Swanson of Swanson Design, who designed the original Heist, to give the place a makeover. Swanson has designed luxury retail stores for Cartier and Fendi, along with hotels, restaurants, and even Tyra Banks’ residence and corporate New York office. Basnayake told Swanson he wanted a design unlike anything else in DC that would be in the conversation nationally—or even internationally.

Swanson came back with a stark black, gold, and concrete look with dramatic lighting. The DJ booth, made of $300,000 worth of imported brass, has moved to the center of the club, and the two bars are wrapped in massive panes of textured glass.

Bottle packages still have names like “felony” ($3,000), “misdemeanor” ($2,000), and “infraction” ($800). But Heist has updated its bottle list to reflect current tastes. For example, tequila has usurped vodka as the party spirit of choice.

“Tequila has branded itself as an all natural agave drink, so there’s a perception that tequila is almost better for you and you don’t get as hungover if you’re drinking tequila,” speculates Basnayake, who is himself a tequila-soda guy, about its rise in popularity. “When we closed, we didn’t have mezcal on the bottle menu, because we just wouldn’t have sold any mezcal bottles. Now we have mezcal on the bottle menu, because mezcal has become a much more mainstream liquor.”

The club announced its return with a hacker-style takeover of @washingtonianprobs 300,000-follower Instagram account, where it posted memes poking fun of DC nightlife and gave a tour from architecture and real estate nerd Joe Himali, a low-key local TikTok celeb. Basnayake founded a social media marketing agency during the pandemic, which came up with the viral marketing campaign.

Meanwhile, Basnayake has a new day job. (Yep, running nightlife venues is just half of his resume.) He previously represented governments like Qatar as a registered foreign agent and lawyer for Nelson Mullins. He’s since become president of Aspiration in the Middle East. The company, which Qatar invests in, “helps countries, governments, corporations, businesses, sports franchises understand their carbon footprint, and then assists them with plans towards becoming carbon neutral,” Basnayake says. “I took that job in February, and have been living between Doha and DC ever since.”

Heist. 1802 Jefferson Place, NW.

Jessica Sidman
Food Editor

Jessica Sidman covers the people and trends behind D.C.’s food and drink scene. Before joining Washingtonian in July 2016, she was Food Editor and Young & Hungry columnist at Washington City Paper. She is a Colorado native and University of Pennsylvania grad.