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.
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.]