The owner of Eighteenth Street Lounge, the cherished Dupont Circle club that closed during the pandemic after a 25-year run, resurrects the local nightlife institution in Shaw’s Blagden Alley this weekend.
Farid Nouri’s two-level, 5,000-square-foot comeback project (1230 Ninth Street NW) is about half the size of the dearly missed original known as “ESL” by regulars. The anticipated reboot in Shaw, opening Saturday, September 10 at 2 p.m., shares similarities like an airy rooftop deck, full-service bars on each level, and ability to host multiple live acts at once.
Like any ambitious sequel, the new ESL isn’t a carbon copy of the first. Notable differences include a first-ever food program (Dupont didn’t have a kitchen) and expanded hours for things like happy hour and community events on-site. Its downsized address “is more manageable” in a post-pandemic world in comparison to its behemoth predecessor, Nouri says, with room for 250 inside and out. Hours start at 4 p.m. on weekdays and 2 p.m. on weekends (closed Mondays).
With a main entrance on Ninth Street NW, ESL Shaw sits in the thick of convention center and bar-hopping traffic that may want a bite between drinks. ESL’s short opening menu wildly swings from $7 parmesan popcorn and $14 panini to caviar-topped blinis with two glasses of house bubbles for $118.
“No one’s coming to ESL to eat dinner but it’s nice to have something,” says ESL director of operations Jordan Naber, who worked at the original towards the end.
Bands playing upstairs plan to wrap up by midnight, and DJs pick up the pace below through last call. Many of the same resident DJs, eclectic jazz, funk, and Latin acts, and popular weekly attractions like reggae Wednesdays and house Sundays that helped catapult the club to stardom are back.
American electronic sensation Thievery Corporation was famously born inside ESL in the mid-’90s, when its duo Rob Garza and then-ESL co-owner Eric Hilton bonded over club life and the same music. Nouri has gradually assumed sole ownership of ESL over the years. His fierce devotion to maintaining the brand’s legacy was demonstrated last spring, when he confronted new club owners opening a place called “The Lounge” inside ESL’s vacated Dupont building. Nouri accused the hospitality group of stealing ESL’s identity and fired off a cease-and-desist letter (they ended up changing the name).
ESL regulars should feel right at home in Shaw, starting with a dramatic staircase slathered in deep violet velvet just like the original. Elegant furniture and fixtures salvaged by Nouri also live on inside. Impressionist paintings of flowers and still life portraits in gilded gold frames above baroque couches should feel familiar. As will hand-carved wooden benches on the patio and dozens of flickering antique chandeliers dripping with crystals. Nouri meticulously hand-strung some back to life himself. “While construction guys were jack hammering, I was hanging chandeliers,” he says.
New design touches include live edge bar tops made from fallen trees in Pennsylvania and a handful of fireplaces that will start roaring next winter.
Happy hour a few days a week (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.) includes half-off bottles of wine on Tuesdays or $10 margaritas and $2 off DC Brau Seltzer on Thursdays.
Much of the new ESL is either run or put together by women. Along with Naber, that includes murals and street art from Corcoran School of Arts alumni Anna Le and Artis Moon; a design duo from Citadel Architects; and urban garden on the roof by Jessica Zadlo. Local charity partners include Ward 2 Mutual Aid and N Street Village.
ESL Shaw tacks on daytime and early evening hours to host mind and body wellness sessions, tango dance classes, and drag shows, and more.
“We’re expanding our horizons a little bit and coming back with intention,” she says.
After permanently closing the Dupont club amidst rising COVID-19 restrictions in mid-2020, Nouri scoured the city for a new location and picked the long-vacant home of Shaw cocktail lounge 1230 Restaurant last summer. The structural rehab of the old rowhouse was a feat in of itself, between the tedious bar demo work right above its year-old speakeasy neighbor Never Looked Better and real-world labor shortages and delays. (“It took three weeks to find a plumber,” says Nouri.)
A dedicated DJ nook framed with bay windows shields headliners and late-night partiers from the street with a sequin curtain. The downstairs level also carves out more room to sit across tall-backed burgundy chairs lining ledges, high-top tables, and the bar. Look for a more elevated wine list and six cocktails to start, including the “Mary Jane Girl” (Wild Turkey bourbon, black tea, lemon, peach liqueur, and mango) and an espresso martini built with Mr. Blacks coffee liqueur. A beer list that continues to stick to cans or bottles shows love for fellow D.C. pioneer DC Brau, whose owners are also DJs.
During its peak in Dupont, ESL commanded long lines on the street to come drink, dance, and catch multiple acts at once. If the demand is there in Shaw, both floors could open every night for shows. ESL is a bit of an anomaly, in that a lot of its longtime fans itching to come back are a little older (by clubbing standards, anyway).
“Anytime I posted something on Instagram [about the opening] I got like 90 messages,” says Naber. “We have no idea what to expect. People are going to show up, but what happens after that who knows.”