A popular D.C. nightclub with a history of hosting celebrities has announced plans to move out of its underground location in Dupont Circle and onto a prominent outdoor space, offering a glimpse at how a beleaguered nightlife business can operate in a pandemic.
This weekend, Heist will begin a Saturday night residency on a 20,000-square-foot section of rooftop at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Foggy Bottom. The weekly “pop-up lounge” will include bottle service and prerecorded playlists, but there will be no dancing or live performances from DJs. There will be 60 tables, each with a six-person maximum (360 people total).
D.C.’s Phase 2 reopening orders limit mass gatherings and parks and open spaces to 50 people, but restaurants have a little more wiggle room. The city’s guidance states indoor and outdoor seating must be limited to half capacity and include 6 feet of distance between tables. There’s no standing allowed, and no counter service from bartenders.
Protocols in place during the COVID-19 crisis require all alcohol to be served with food, so Heist will have snack trays and dessert from Occasions Caterers to go with Red Bull vodka and Moet. Instead of passing around carafes of cranberry and orange juice, there will be single-use mixers.
Reservation sign-ups will go live every Tuesday at 10 a.m. for the following Saturday night. The weekly series has an indefinite run date, with heaters in place and an overhang to protect customers if it rains.
Access starts at $240 per table for “VIP” level tables. The most expensive option comes with a $1,000 minimum. Heist owner Vinoda Basnayake says tickets for the first night of the residency (Saturday, October 3) sold out in less than 20 minutes.
“I don’t think anyone on the team in their wildest imagination thought it would [sell out] in 15 minutes,” says Basnayake, whose Versus hospitality firm also runs Casta’s Rum Bar in the West End and Morris American Bar in Shaw.
The rooftop will bear a resemblance to Heist’s normal Dupont Circle location, with high-tech lighting, artistic projections against the Kennedy Center, and a robbery theme.
There’s private elevator access for each group. Visitors plug in their orders for the evening when they book tables.
Heist has been closed since March, but Basnayake has been pitching the idea of a lounge pop-up at parks and other outdoor spaces. “We contacted everyone we could think of in the city,” he says. Basnayake is a lawyer and lobbyist who served on D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ReOpen DC advisory committee.
Over seven years of business, Heist has developed a reputation as a scene-y spot, entertaining the likes of NBA superstar LeBron James, Adam Levine, and Drake. The Washington Capitals and Washington Nationals also popped bottles there after winning the Stanley Cup and World Series.
Considering Kennedy Center’s high-brow reputation in the arts world, Basnayake thought the unlikely pairing was a “long shot” at first. Big-ticket play Hamilton was supposed to enjoy a summer run. Most performances were cancelled through the end of 2020, with some planned programs moving to spring 2021 and beyond.
“We consider ourselves in the same industry,” Basnayake says. “At its core, nightlife is culture. It’s arts. It’s entertainment. It’s what they are promoting and it’s a fit, in a way.” He adds that the hospitality group was still “very surprised about their receptiveness.”
Basnayake says the pop-up — similar to Heist events at SXSW, Austin City Limits, and the Preakness — allows Heist to “bring all our staff back.”
Heist’s experimental series aims to prop up the club as the nightlife industry continues to struggle through the pandemic. D.C.’s reopening recommendations for nightclubs don’t call for a significant reopening until there’s a medical solution for the virus. The sobering reality sparked 19 local club owners to band together and ask the city for financial help this summer.