Photography by Michael Wichita
Does anything quite say "urban sophistication" like the elegant simplicity of a piano bar? And if you throw around words like "urban" and "sophistication," can "gay" be anywhere but close behind?
Of course not.
Yet somehow in gay culture, the piano bar has been relegated to a stereotypical camp status that has no validity for anyone who's under 50 and doesn't know the lyrics to every Ethel Merman show there is. But if you buy into that misconception, you're missing out on a wonderful way to add variety to your social milieu.
We recently checked out five local piano bars (and found not a single raucous "Rose's Turn" sing-a-long among them, thank you very much). Some are upstarts, some mainstays, but there's bound to be at least one perfect for you -- as well as a good dozen or so more throughout the area from which to choose -- if you want to enjoy cocktails, conversation, and the sweet sound of tickling the ivories.
500 8th Street SE
The gay-oriented upstairs bar at the popular Capitol Hill restaurant is legendary as a longtime venue for pianist and singer Deena Javor, and for good reason -- she's a sublime talent to be enjoyed and treasured like a fine wine. You can catch Deena on Tuesday, Friday and Saturday nights, and a rotating roster of other musicians throughout the week. The ambience is perky, with the decorating scheme dominated by bright primary colors, strings of white lights, and huge greenery. But Deena grounds the room with her understated, evocative stylings. "Play 'Misty' for me" was the litmus test applied to every piano bar we visited, and Deena came through with a warm, lovely interpretation that left us misty, indeed.
1910 18th Street NW
Perhaps the newest addition to the piano bar scene is easily one of the hipper joints you could ask for, with a cool, subdued ambience accented with modern, comfy sofas and pop art-adorned walls. Grille 88 offers piano music Tuesday through Saturday evenings, and a DJ takes over to spin old records for Sunday Retro Brunch. The management aims for piano with vocals on Fridays and Saturdays, although a quieter weeknight with piano alone is nothing to sneeze at. The standards at Ralph Davis's disposal during our visit -- "Misty" included -- got something of a generic, plucky jazz treatment that could wear thin if you don't keep the cocktails coming. Another gin and tonic, please.
1701 Connecticut Avenue NW
"Bustling" is the word for the Dupont Circle venue where Francis Reich has ruled the white piano for more than a decade. Even in the quieter moments inside, the large windows in the bar keep you attuned to the whirl of humanity in the neighborhood. Francis favors jazzy takes on such standards as "The Lady is a Tramp," and he adds a unique, personal flair to something as overdone as "Memory." Plus, he can tear into "Misty" in a heartbeat. An old pro if ever there was one.
2401 M Street NW
The expansive, high-ceilinged lobby of this upscale hotel lends a particularly bright sound to the stylings of Vincent Franco we enjoyed on a Wednesday night. Another old-school pro, his "Misty" is heartfelt without being overbearing, and "The Lady Is a Tramp" is likely to pop up anytime he's working. And was that Peter Jennings we spied noshing behind that potted plant? Nice touch.
1150 22nd Street NW
Two words: sch-wank. This is where you go for The Royal Treatment. The cocktail service is impeccable, and the multiple seating areas surrounding the piano area are dark-walled paradises where you can ensconce yourself, oblivious to others, no matter how crowded the bar gets. A weekend visit found the husband and wife team of pianist David Allen and vocalist Susan Allen, a polished duo who can meet the challenge of filling the rambling space without overwhelming it. "Misty" isn't their strongest number, as they lean toward crisp, jazz-lounge takes on '70s pop. A Carole King medley? "You Don't Bring Me Flowers?" Oh, yes, bring it on. The Ritz-Carlton boasts piano music by a variety of artists seven days a week, starting around 6 p.m. daily. You gotta try this at least once in your life.