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Bar Review: Black Cat

Submitted by on June 11, 2010 – 11:42 AMNo Comment
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1811 14th St.
Washington, DC

Hours of operation: Sun. – Thu. 8:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m.
Fri. – Sat. 7:00 p.m. – 3:00 a.m.

Best time to visit: For a good show – or just for a good beer.

The distinctive, dark, gritty atmosphere one expects to find in a rock club usually only comes with the purchase of a concert ticket.  That can be achieved at the Black Cat, with two stages that are regularly occupied by local favorites and big names alike, and with good beer on tap to boot.  But a very nice dive-y rock’n’roll bar is also on the premises, and can be entered without a cover charge.  The atmosphere and beer can thus be enjoyed minus the live music.

On the way into the Black Cat one passes the vegetarian-specializing Food For Thought café, which serves as the club’s “quiet space” – good for meeting up before showtime, and for enjoying some healthier-than-normal-pub-fare chow.  Inside the club proper, you can pay to head upstairs to the Mainstage, where bigger bands (The Lemonheads and Rasputina are both upcoming) and dance nights can be experienced.  Otherwise, a short corridor from the entryway leads to the Backstage – the smaller of the Black Cat’s two performance spaces, where local bands get a chance to play in a more intimate space (which still fits one-hundred fans comfortably.)

But on the way back is the sizable Red Room Bar, where there is usually a crowd regardless of who’s playing, upstairs or down.  The bar itself is long and fills the left of the room, but can still be difficult to reach when the crowd is at its thickest.  But eventually beer can be attained, and the selection is more than adequate.  A changing variety of hearty Belgian beers, offerings from microbreweries (Flying Dog, etc.), and rarities (i.e. Shiner Wheat) are supplemented by many of the usual suspects – Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Newcastle – plus the Red Room Lager, which is tasty even though it probably comes from an unnamed big brewery.  At the least it is cheaper ($3.50) than the other beers listed, although most hover around $5.  This helps to make up for having no real Happy Hour (the bar opens at 8:00 on weekdays, after all).

The bar/club opened in 1993, funded in part by then-Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who felt the city of his formative years needed an alternative to the 9:30 Club, which had grown into a big-name-only venue.  After eight years in that capacity the Black Cat relocated a few doors down to the bigger space it now occupies.  The Mainstage area now offers room for over 500, but the Backstage still fulfills the role of providing a simple space in which lesser-known bands can perform without hearing echoes or crickets.

The Red Room is not a place to go to study, or to go alone, or to go for peace and quiet.  It is a great place to socialize, meet the local music fans, and maybe play some pool.  The excellent range of tunes on the jukebox is locally celebrated – come early if you want to hear your songs.  Seats also go quickly, so standing in line at the bar may become less a choice and more a default.

But the club has become one of DC’s favorite places to see live music, and the Red Room feels like a bar with concert halls attached, unlike the usual concert hall, in which the bar just feels like a money-making afterthought.

Pros: Rock bar without the cover charge

Crowds; lack of seats

Rating:   3.5/5