We withdrew from a busy, vibrant U Street on Saturday night into the deserted Ethiopian restaurant. I peeked around the corner of the dimly lit space and saw fully set but deserted tables. We followed the sound of muffled music and lively voices up a narrow flight of stairs into the bar area.
The room was narrow and packed to the point that it was hard to tell who worked there and who didn’t. One woman came up to collect the $10 cover for the concert, a clipboard the only proof of her authority. Despite a full house, one bartender was seated on a stool with a thousand-yard stare directed at her cell phone, taking one of the hookahs that sat atop the bar.
When I was able to catch the attention of the other bartender, I disappointedly shelled out for a round Pabst Blue Ribbons at $5 a pop. Not even tallboys. One more dollar will get you 96 ounces of the domestic lager at Whole Foods. Of course, drinks will be marked up at a bar, but even high-profile dive-bar-style venues like the Black Cat or U Street Music Hall will have 16-ounce PBRs for under $5.
I seemed to be in the way of a bunch of people carrying large music equipment through the five-foot space between the bar and the wall, so I squeezed myself into a space on the bench seating against the wall. Luckily, my friend seated next to me had been alerted to the absurd prices in advance, and came prepared with a flask of Jack Daniels. At first, we passed it back and forth covertly, but eventually realized no one seemed to care.
I went back for another beer as my friend’s band took the stage, but received nowhere near the correct amount of change for the $20 bill I paid with. A more contentious Bar Bro than I would have tried to explain the mistake, but that was nearly impossible in the crowded bar.
As the crowd pushed forward and the music started, the upside of this bar became clear to me: They book local acts. In this increasingly gentrified city with strict liquor laws and stacks of regulations, it’s harder and harder to find venues willing to take the risk of booking young, independent artists. Even venues that are celebrated hallmarks of the D.C. underground music scene have sacrificed this noble cause to make space for high-profile DJs and celebrity acts.
Mediocre service and questionable billing are a small price to pay to see humble, innovative, hungry musicians pour their creativity out on a stage with energy that can only come from someone desperate to prove their art is worth your time and money. It was something I took for granted growing up among a vibrant local music scene. Feeling that energy again was well worth the price.
But I definitely don’t suggest sticking around after the music stops and you’re left standing in a cramped bar with a lukewarm can of budget beer at a premium price.