Eighteenth Street Lounge, a Dupont Circle institution that’s hosted countless politicos, celebrities, up-and-coming DJs, and D.C. regulars over the past 25 years, is permanently closing instead of trying to weather the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“ESL” co-founder Farid Nouri says he couldn’t come to terms on a five-year lease renewal with the club’s landlord. The lease was set to expire this summer, and the 10,000-square-foot space has been vacant for the past three months. Nightclubs won’t be able to operate at full capacity until the final phase of D.C.’s reopening plan, which represents the “new normal,” when there’s a vaccine or a cure for the coronavirus. Cautious estimates from experts put a vaccine 12 to 18 months away.
“Staying idle for the foreseeable future, it makes sense to wrap up,” Nouri says. The quarter-century mark is an ideal stopping point. He says he owns the name, which could help a future comeback in a different location.
“It’s not the end of me or ESL,” Nouri says. “It’s going to be a few years of downturn in the industry. I don’t want to wait it out. I feel like there are going to be greener pastures on the other side.”
Tucked inside an old mansion overlooking Connecticut Avenue, guests climbed a narrow set of stairs to access a multi-story maze of bars lined with dusty chandeliers, vintage couches, and premiere sound systems (1212 18th Street NW). Thievery Corporation, now an international fixture in the music world, recorded its first tracks inside its back basement bar in the 1990s.
Along with Nouri, opening partners included Yama Jewayni, Aman Ayoubi, and Eric Hilton. Themed nights that commanded long lines out the door included tango Tuesdays, reggae music on Wednesdays, and DJ dance parties on Sundays — a shoulder-to-shoulder summertime fixture on its airy patio. The location banks on business from nearby office traffic, tourists, and hotels — all of which are currently obsolete.
Nouri is one of the 19 club owners who sent a letter to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and every City Council member last month pleading for legislative measures — like lease protection and rent relief — to help them save their businesses.
Alex Haje, owner of downtown’s Opera Ultra Lounge, mobilized the letter’s efforts. He says the mayor’s office is currently reviewing ways to potentially help the struggling sector. Haje calls the news of ESL’s closure “heartbreaking.”
“It really is a landmark, and in my opinion, one that shouldn’t have been sacrificed,” Haje says. “It has such a cool vibe and following. It sucks.”
Eighteenth Street Lounge easily counted 450 customers pass in and out on an average Friday night pre-COVID-19, Nouri says. According to the plan set by the ReOpen DC advisory group, clubs could start to reopen with limited capacity in the third phase of easing restrictions (D.C. just began Phase 2 today). The ReOpen DC guidelines call for clubs allowing five people for 1,000 square feet, Which means ESL would be limited to 50 customers at a time.
“That doesn’t make sense for any of us, who already operate on small margins and high overhead,” Nouri told Eater last month.
Nouri released the following statement regarding the closure:
“The well-being of our patrons, and staff has always been a leading priority for the ESL team, and given the current uncertainty of when we can welcome everyone back safely, we have decided to close the space indefinitely ... I want to thank the amazing patrons and dedicated staff who kept us around for more than two decades in the nation’s capital. We set the bar really high and we leave behind an untouchable legacy in DC nightlife. There is such huge potential in this market, and the closure of ESL does not mean I will abandon my roots in this city. Rather, I am taking time to listen to the science on public health and rethink strategies for the future of how we can deliver the best experiences to patrons moving forward.”