After nearly four months of being dark, Public Bar re-opens today with renovations that transform pieces of the Dupont Circle sports bar into a live music venue and a lounge for bottle service.
Now christened Public Bar Live, the three-story venture is attempting to discard its identity as a dive-y spot in favor of something sleeker. The three-story venture is now owned by the team behind German beer garden Sauf Haus next door. Edwin Villegas, who was a majority partner at Public Bar, is also part of the Sauf Haus group.
“We wanted to keep the momentum going by keeping the name but we needed to rebrand,” director of operations John Issa says. “Our concept is 25 percent live music, 75 percent sports bar.”
The biggest change is a dramatic 24-foot stage that hovers over a newly built bar covered in subway tiles.
“We decided we needed to supplement slower [bar] nights,” Issa says.
To pack the house during off-nights, the owners are going full throttle on concerts.
Sauf Haus is familiar with putting on open mic nights and smaller acts, but Public Bar Live is aiming to book bigger names. Part of that goal included building a green room next to the stage.
There are three bars: one underneath the stage, one near the stairwell, and another on the second-story space. The rooftop will add two more into the mix when it opens later this summer. The renovation includes opening up the space for 150 drinkers overlooking Connecticut Avenue NW. The total capacity is 410.
A mezzanine level upstairs is all about bottle service, featuring a glass railing overlooking the stage below. The former U-shaped bar on the first floor was completely demolished to make way for the stage, which has a bar wedged right underneath it (cue bartenders wearing ear plugs). The stage was intentionally built high so that mezzanine ticket holders have prime sight lines.
“It’s a little unique and hopefully it will work,” Issa says. Deciding whether to keep it open during shows, he says, will be a “trial by fire.” So if it’s a packed house, the bar will likely be closed.
The food menu is heavy on tacos, with core bar fare like wings, beer-battered fries, nachos, quesadillas, and tequenos (Venezuelan mozzarella sticks) sprinkled in.
“We are keeping it simple,” says Issa. “Shake Shack is right there, so we aren’t trying to reinvent the burger.”
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Hours will kick off daily at 5 p.m. to start until last call. A weekday happy hour will run until 7 p.m. with $3 knocked off bottles, drafts, and cocktails (and $2 off from 7 p.m. until 9 p.m.). Late-night food will be available on weekends.
Swatchroom (Morris, Sakerum) was charged with refreshing and updating the space. Upon entry guests are greeted with a colorful cityscape design, and a bright blue-and-yellow mural is splashed along a brick wall inside above booths.
When there’s no live music, the downstairs will be more sports oriented. Bottle service comes with a reserved table, but otherwise, tables on the second floor lounge area are on a first-come, first-serve basis.
“Our prices won’t be as extravagant as clubs, clubs, so it will be a better model,” Issa says. The price list will be released closer to the grand opening in late summer 2019.
There are 12 tap lines — eight at the stage bar, and four in the back bar — and the second floor will just have bottles. Issa says to expect a lot of cans and plastic cups for drafts, “9:30 Club style,” because the owners want to limit the potential for broken glass.
They hope to draw a different demographic than its next-door Sauf Haus, which lures a steady steam of recent college graduates looking to guzzle beer out of a boot.
“We like to think of Public Bar Live as Sauf Haus’s older sister,” Issa says.
There are 48 TVs for sports, and some will also be connected to the audio and video of performances, so they can project the night’s act if they want.
A new sound system from Goldpants was put in, and the same designer from Rock & Roll Hotel and Pie Shop handled the high-tech lighting (there’s also a smoke machine).
To start, Public Bar Live will book regional and local acts with Brad Pugh from Sideshow Productions. He says Public’s concert capacity is on par with that at Rock & Roll Hotel.
Since the opening date kept getting pushed back, they didn’t lock in acts for fear they’d have to get bumped. Tickets will be sold at the door and online, with a built-out will call booth coming soon. For now, look out for smaller-scale performances at Public (tonight’s soft opening will have a band, for instance).
Full-blown concerts will start going live once its grand opening period kicks off in August. That’s when its renovated roof will also open with frozen drinks and a “bougier” feel than before, says Issa.
“We want a dance party up there,” manager Sam Smart says. “There’s a better flow. Last time it was kind of like herding cattle into shoots.”