Washington, D.C. Opening: The Gryphon

Meet the Gryphon, a mythical beast that’s half eagle, half lion new sports-centric Dupont Circle gastropub from David Karim and Rich Vasey (Lost Society) and Tony Hudgins (Capitale) that’s classy enough for date night, but won’t make your lager lout friends feel self-conscious during the playoffs. No more surreptitious checking of the phone for scores: 31 TVs ensure there are no bad angles from which to take in all manner of athletics, from the big leagues to the weird leagues (is cheese rolling televised?). 

Interior is woody and wild, thanks to a collection of animal skulls and a chandelier made from antlers–all from animals Hudgins wrestled and killed with his bare hands, no doubt. The menu, from Lost Society chef Joseph Evans, features upscale takes on game day classics. Apps like cajun gator bites and Gryphon wings are easy to nosh while gesticulating wildly, while those in the mood for a proper chowdown can tuck in the napkins for mains like coco- and chipotle-rubbed sirloin and crispy Scottish salmon with roasted maitake mushrooms. Plenty of draft beers of the fancy pants and tailgate variety remind you of the joint’s gridiron DNA, but those with more discriminating palates will find that the bartender can mix a fine sidecar without looking it up on the drinks rolodex. 

[Photo: Travis Vaughn]

Related: BlackBook Guides Listing for the Gryphon; BlackBook Washington, D.C. Guide; How to Party Properly in Washington, D.C.; More by Victor Ozols; Follow me on Twitter

Industry Insiders: Tony Hudgins, Owner of Capitale in Washington, D.C.

Running a successful nightclub in Washington, D.C. requires a different formula than it does in New York, and nobody knows this more than Tony Hudgins, owner, along with partners David Chung and Ki Jun Sung, of the new Capitale on K Street. To cater to his intellectual crowd, Hudgins takes a relaxed approach to the door. "We don’t try to make people feel like they’re not important enough to get in until we decide they are," he says. "It’s a bit of a twist on nightclubs." It is indeed. We chatted with Hudgins to get the lowdown on his pinstriped background and food truck fetish, along an only-in-DC cocktail called Taxation with Carbonation.

 

Where are you from and how did you get into the nightlife business?

I’m Washington, D.C.-born. I didn’t come up in the nightclub or restaurant business. I was a lawyer, and I’m now a recovering lawyer. I was a criminal prosecutor for nine years, and a local government attorney for about three years. I was working in Arlington County as a commonwealth attorney and saved my money. I got together with a bunch of friends, and we were doing a lot of traveling. At the time there wasn’t a robust nightlife component in Washington, D.C. We’d go to New York, LA, Miami, Montreal, places like that, and we’d come back and long for bars like they had. So we pooled our money and opened up our first nightclub with my business partner, Sherif Abdalla, and that was Play Lounge. We took a minimalist approach to it, on a shoestring budget, and did really well. We had a lot of media people looking for places to go. We had all kinds of celebrities coming through, Jamie Foxx, David Beckham when he first came to the city to play against D.C. United. It became a hot place. I’m the first person to tell you that our success was more luck than knowing what we were doing, but we cut our teeth there.

What happened next?

We wanted to open a bigger place so we sold our interest in Play and moved across the street. We thought the city was lacking an upscale sports bar and lounge, so we opened up a place called Public Bar that’s still there, a three-story with a rooftop spot that had a sports component but turned into a big nightlife atmosphere after dinner. It took off and worked out really well, so we decided to take on another project.

Which was …

Which was Capitale, which we opened in the former K Street Lounge space. We were familiar with the K Street Lounge, which had been around a long time. Everything was stark white or dark and super modern, but kind of cold. It was all promoters, and open four or five nights a week. So we looked at that and felt like something was lacking in the DC nightlife scene. The nightclubs here are great, but, quite honestly, some owners are overreaching a bit in terms of the nightclub atmosphere and what they’re expecting from the clientele here.

What do you mean?

It’s still Washington, D.C., it is very much an intellectually-based community of people. They’re smart people. DC residents might go to Miami or New York or LA or Las Vegas and be willing to spend a lot of money on a night out, but they’re doing it because they left to go engage in that atmosphere. I think a lot of people who opened nightclubs in Washington, D.C. over the last four to six years thought that the same guy who will go to Vegas and spend $1,500 on a table will come here and spend $1,500 on a table. Quite honestly, living here, working here, and even having the money to do that, it’s just not the mentality. We felt like there needed to be a nightclub that met more directly with the clientele, a nightclub that’s considerate of the fact that it’s not a travel destination city.

Sure it’s a travel destination.

Yes, but people don’t come here to party and engage in nightlife. That’s not to say that certain people don’t do it when they travel here, but that’s not their primary reason for coming. When you go to Vegas, even if you’re there for a conference, you’re still planning your nights out around where to eat, what show to see, that kind of thing. People don’t come here and do that. They come to a conference, or because they have to do something on the Hill, or some business with the law firms and consulting firms that are here. It’s a hopeful afterthought that they’ll find some good nightlife, but I don’t think they plan it that way. And so we opened Capitale.

How is Capitale different?

Our clientele is a lot of people who live here and this is their backyard. They want a nightclub that fits with the idea that this is their backyard. What that means is, people don’t want to walk up and be cajoled into buying a table, or needing a better guy-to-girl ratio, or we’re going to make you wait outside in line so we can build up the crowd and make it look like a hot night even though there’s only ten people in the club. So we changed some things. Personally, I was getting tired of the super-forward, hyper-modern look. I wanted something a bit more classic, something that looked as if it had been here for a long time, even though it was brand new. It would look warmer, more comfortable, more inviting. We were trying to do something comfortable. A little Harry Potter, a little library, a little mansion.

And then there’s Happy Hour, right?

Coming from a restaurant/bar perspective, happy hour had become important to us. It’s a significant stream of revenue, but most nightclubs don’t focus on happy hour at all. They’re a 10pm-to-close business. I tell everybody who works for me that I pay rent 24 hours a day, so I’m trying to get as much as I can out of those 24 hours. We feel that there’s a gap to be closed for a lot of nightclubs in the business district where we are. We’re in a building where we have (law firm) Reed Smith above us. There are law firms on every corner of the street, and there are very few after-work options for the people who work there. We’re also right at the end of the budding 14th Street Corridor here, one of the fastest growing restaurant and nightclub communities in the city. Stephen Starr is opening a restaurant here, and we’re excited about it. So we changed some policies.

What did you change?

We don’t do a cover on the weekends, we do a relaxed dress code on the weekends, we do a one-in one-out policy on the weekends to try to put off this fear people might have when they walk up and they see velvet ropes and go into this immediate trepidation of, Oh my god, am I going to get in? Will my friend get in? We try to make it a bit more open. We don’t play any games or make people feel like they’re not important enough to get in until we decide they are. It’s a bit of a twist on nightclubs.

It certainly is.

I’m sure people in Las Vegas, New York, and Miami wouldn’t run things that way, and we do mix in other nights that are promoted. We let the promoters, at our discretion, treat the door more like traditional nightclubs. But outside of that, we control the business on Fridays and Saturdays by ourselves. We promote Saturday on our own. And happy hour is very important.

Food trucks play a role, don’t they?

We found what we think is an exciting concept for us, we call it the Mobile Kitchen concept. Again, coming from a bar perspective, food is a necessary component of happy hour. People are not going to engage in happy hour very well if they don’t have anything to eat, and we don’t have a kitchen. As we were doing the renovation, we realized that we’re across the street from a really great park, Franklin Square Park, and down the street from another park, McPherson Square. The food truck scene is really hot here. A lot of people pack the park for lunch. So we’ve started a rolling partnership with a handful of food trucks. We have an open door policy. You can walk out, get your food, and bring it back in.

Taxation with Carbonation Photo

Tell me about the cocktails.

We worked with Marco Maffeo Robinson on our cocktail program. We asked him to give us a hybrid menu. We still focus as a volume place, so we’re not going to do flair-type cocktails. But we have a lot of interesting ideas, such as custom sodas for cocktails. Marco does custom sodas of different flavors. Vanilla soda, cucumber soda, that kind of thing. They’re premade and come out of those pre-charged bottles, like a seltzer sprayer. It’s a straight mix over the alcohol. Whether it’s gin, bourbon, or vodka, it’s a quicker, faster component, but still an original cocktail. Another component where the soda fits in is with table service. With traditional table service, your options are alcohol or champagne, juice of some sort, tonic, and soda. But we can transfer the custom soda to the table. Now you can have a cucumber-flavored vodka and soda, or a vanilla-flavored vodka soda that isn’t based on a vanilla-infused vodka. It’s custom and done right at your table. There’s also a signature cocktail called Taxation with Carbonation (blood orange juice, lemon juice, vanilla vodka, simple syrup, basil leaves, sparkling mineral water).

What else do you have on the horizon?

We’ve got a new gastropub opening soon in the Dupont Circle area called the Gryphon. It will be focused on food. We’re working on it, more on that soon.

What do you do to relax when you have free time?

I went to college to play soccer and I’m still kicking the ball around sometimes.

[Hudgins photo: Alfredo Flores; Cocktail photo: Vithaya Phongsavan]

[Related: BlackBook Washington, D.C. Guide, Listing for Capitale, How to Party Properly in Washington, D.C.]

How to Party Properly in Washington, D.C.

I earned my hangover by partying like a rock star. It made sense to recover from it like one, too, so I nursed my self-inflicted wound in the most baller hotel room I’ve ever stayed in at the W Washington D.C. hotel. They call it a "Wow Suite," but the expression my wife, Jenn, uttered when we walked in began with the word holy. Wow Suite 606 had a dining room table, a curved couch, a trippy chandelier, red LED lighting, two flat-screen TVs, two bathrooms (one was like a spa), a bar, and a massive bed. It was a corner suite, with views past the Washington Monument all the way to National Airport on one side, and the U.S. Treasury on the other, with the White House just beyond it. Supposedly there are snipers on the roof of the Treasury that keep a close eye on on the hotel’s windows. I didn’t notice any, but if they were there, I hope they enjoyed the show, as proper hangover recovery requires a holistic approach. Here’s how we got there. 

The Setup

What ended up being a weekend of serious and successful partying started innocently enough. We wanted to carve a mini-vacation out of the requisite family Christmas visit to Northern Virginia. I cashed in a bunch of reward points from my Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card on the room for the weekend (the upgrade was a pleasant surprise) and looked up a couple of nightclub contacts in DC. Just like that, two New Yorkers became temporary residents of the District of Columbia for 48 hours with no responsibilities other than feeding our own ids. And so we did.

POV Cool

Point of View

Our first official stop after unpacking was P.O.V. Lounge, on the top floor of the hotel. The point of view up there was even more striking than from the room, with a breathtaking panorama of the city as the sun set on the winter solstice. We toasted the deep freeze with tumblers of Blackstrap Snap (rum, ginger, fresh-squeezed lime, blackstrap molasses, nutmeg) and Washington Apple (bourbon, fresh-pressed apple, maple, smoke, Pork Barrel Aromatic Bitters). The world didn’t end, and our wild night was just beginning. Like the W itself, P.O.V. is a chic yet comfortable space. A large, high-ceilinged barroom is designed with views in mind, both of the city and the comely staff. Booths by the massive windows are low to the floor, while some interior tables are elevated, ensuring that your gaze never rests upon an unpleasant sight. I’ve not been everywhere in town, but I’m reasonably confident in saying that if POV doesn’t have best sunset cocktail experience in DC, it’s easily in the top 5. During the warm weather months, the large outdoor area must be sublime.

Bubbles

Upon returning to the suite, we noticed that a bucket of ice containing a bottle of champagne had appeared. Pop!

Lost and Found

And then we took a taxi to a fun and fancy steakhouse called Lost Society, where we met Tony Hudgins, owner of the new nightclub Capitale (our next stop) and a couple of his friends. For those who love steak but crave a bit more style than the corporate-card set can handle, Lost Society is a great choice. It’s trendy like some sleek Soho tapas joint but a thousand times more satisfying, food-wise. My steak was a perfect medium-rare, my wife’s scallop entree was flawless, and we massacred the fried Brussels sprouts side. The music rose, the conversation got louder and weirder, several rounds of shots appeared, followed by dessert, which included some gooey, decadent chocolate thing that the table went nuts over. The celebrations were well underway, and there were more toasts to surviving doomsday, until it blissfully passed as a topic of conversation. A quick stop at the bangin’ bar scene upstairs got us even further in a party mood (e.g. more shots).

Capitale Photo

Venture Capitale

It was time to finally head to Capitale, so we piled into taxis and giddily watched the ropes part for us. Tony and his business partners opened Capitale a few months ago in the space that formerly held the K Street Lounge, and it’s a sensory overload in all the best ways. A Hogwarts-meets-Hollywood aesthetic (oil paintings and book-lined walls) gives it a smart, cultured vibe, but the thundering sound system and lightning-fast bar staff keep the energy level sky-high. Good thing I’d heard about the massive tilted columns dividing the room in advance, as things were starting to look a little sideways to me by that point. A bottle service setup appeared and I helped myself, though on reflection I’m not sure who it belonged to. But we were all having fun and Jenn was looking sexy and we danced and drank and talked to strangers as you do at a proper party until one of us had the good sense to grab a taxi back to the hotel. My memories of Capitale, hazy as they may be, are of a fun, lively spot with great music, a young, attractive, multiracial crowd, dynamite drinks, and cool, interesting decor. Recommended for anyone wondering if DC knows how to party. (It does.)

The Hangover

I woke up first at around 6:30 to go to the bathroom and drink some water, then slept blissfully until 10:00. Jenn was still asleep when I got out of bed and explored the scene. Our clothes were scattered across the room. A container of fancy pretzels from the minibar sat open on the table. My head pounding, I texted Tony to see if I had anything to apologize for (all clear), then pulled on my outfit from the night before and headed out to get some air. I came back a half-hour later with a hangover-busting haul of coffee, juice, Gatorade, and some crepes from some nearby creperie. Jenn got up and we drank coffee and munched on crepes as warm sunshine filled the room. I crawled into the shower, still feeling awfully grim but enjoying my hangover, and turned the dial until warm water flowed from the rainfall shower head. Over the next 20 minutes, I must have done every position on the evolutionary chart until the purifying waters and fancy soaps, gels, and shampoos finally brought me to back to modern homo sapien. Jenn went to the W’s SWEAT fitness center for a run. I took a nap, then another shower.

Keytar

The Recovery

By about 2:00 in the afternoon, we were mostly recovered, and realized that the day was getting away from us. With more dinner and nightclub plans ahead of us, we had just one opportunity to do something cultural with our time, so we could tell people we did something other than party on our trip to DC. (Basically, we needed a cover story.) We bundled up and headed into the cold, walking past the Washington Monument and heading to the Smithsonian Museum of American History. Let me tell you, it’s the best place to walk off the remaining pains of a trenchant hangover. We saw the Greensboro lunch counter, the Emancipation Proclamation, a soul-crushing pair of shackles used for child slaves, Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Dorothy’s red slippers, a stoneware rum jug, Kermit, and a U.S. Army Jeep from World War II. I took a picture of Jenn standing in front of a keytar.

Back At It

We’re beer enthusiasts, so we had dinner at a beer-centric restaurant called Birch & Barley, which we loved. Our waiter, Carl C., was extremely well-versed in all the different varieties of beer they had, both on draft and in bottles. We ordered a cutting board of charcuterie, which included various different pork products from a whole pig they butchered in-house, and was delicious. And we were delighted to be able to order four-ounce pours of a bunch of different beers. It would be folly for me to recommend any one in particular, just tell your server what kinds of beers and tastes you like and they’ll sort you out as Carl sorted us out.

Heist 1

Thieves in the Night

Soon it was time to hit another nightclub, a posh spot called Heist. Heist used to be called Fly Lounge, but it’s been redone spectacularly to resemble a hideout for jewel thieves. Heist is the brainchild of partners Timothy Sheldon, Patrick Osuna, and Charles "DJ Dirtyhands" Koch (all three with interesting and varied backgrounds, look them up), and it’s a rather small room, comparable to something like Mister H in New York. But whereas Mister H has decor reminiscent of a Shanghai speakeasy in the 1930s, Heist is all about modern luxury with a soupçon of international intrigue. Design details beg to be dissected over a cocktail or two. In various recesses of the space you’ll find a collection of stolen art, a teddy bear stuffed with diamonds, and a suitcase with handcuffs attached to the handle. The bar itself is riddled with bullet holes. Closed circuit TV footage of actual robberies plays on a continuous loop on three small monitors. A gold-dipped water buffalo skull hangs on the wall behind the DJ booth. (Of course it would be the height of irony if Heist itself was robbed, but they’ve probably taken that into account.)

The result is a fascinating subterranean spot to sip a cocktail like the Gold Rush–whose flawless ice cubes sport beveled edges–and feel a bit dangerous yourself. We were among the early shift, drifting in at around 10:30 to chat with the owners. The real spenders started showing up at midnight, as Dirtyhands brought the beats (Biggie mixes, among others) and young women wearing short dresses served trays of vodka shots in crushed ice as sparklers lit their way through the silvery darkness. Heist seems to draw an upscale, sexy crowd of bottle buyers who love good tunes and ample eye candy. Compared to Capitale, which was a big-room blast of high-wattage fun, Heist is a more intimate environment, a chillout spot for the city’s coolest cats. Both are perfect when the night calls for them, and either would thrive in New York City, competitive with the sleekest spots in Manhattan or Brooklyn. As the crowd at Heist grew wilder and sequins and stilettos started slicing through the dance floor, we took our leave and scooted back to the W in yet another taxi. (DC has ample cabs, at least downtown.)

What Happened?

Armed with a late checkout, we slept in again the following day, sipping coffee and snarling as the mood struck, finally packing our bags and heading back to the real world in the afternoon. It was officially a whirlwind weekend of food, cocktails, music, dancing, socializing, danger, fun, and even some culture, and looking back from a week’s distance it’s impossible to pick a highlight. My recommendation: for lack of a better itinerary, do DC like we did: W Hotel – POV Lounge – Lost Society – Capitale – Smithsonian Museum of American History – Birch & Barley – Heist. You’ll love it all. And to my fellow New Yorkers, I heartily recommend Washington, D.C. as an easy weekend getaway. It punches well above its weight entertainment-wise, yet has a wonderfully laid-back vibe. And the hangovers are spectacular.

[Related: BlackBook DC Guide; listings for W Washington, D.C., P.O.V., Lost Society, Capitale, Birch & Barley, Heist]