Young Man, There’s A Place You Can’t Go
When the owners of New York's Town Tavern announced a D.C. outpost of their Greenwich Village club last fall, they made sure to tout the joint's exclusivity. The bar's opening would be an "inauguration." Its spot between Bourbon and Columbia Station—formerly occupied by "Irish pub"/frat magnet Nolan's—would situate it at the "heart of the Adams Morgan Heritage Trail." The interior would be designed with "prowess." The décor would be "rustic." The televisions, "plasma."
The bar's discerning door policy [PDF] ensured that the clientele would also be top-shelf. No garden variety Adams Morgan sad sack would pass through the Town Tavern's "master craftsman" mahogany gates. In the Tavern, all men would wear collared shirts and avoid a laundry list of other gear: no hats, no visors, no do-rags, no tank tops, no cutoffs, no sleeveless shirts, no jerseys, no sneakers, and no combat boots here. Only those with two forms of government-issued photo ID would be admitted. All "rude and/or obnoxious" patrons would be ousted. No "unaccompanied groups of males" would be allowed in. And while 21-year-old women would be free to enter, only men aged 23 and up would be able to join them.
Those last couple of provisions may treat the Town Tavern's patrons to the highest level of exclusivity—discrimination. The 1977 D.C. Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in places of "public accommodation" based on, among other things, sex and age. The D.C. Office of Human Rights says it hasn't, in "recent history," fielded an age-discrimination complaint against the Town Tavern or any other D.C. bar. Neither has the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration tackled this gender-lopsided age policy. But John Banzhaf III, a District law professor who has brought suits against hairdressers, dry cleaners, and bars' "Ladies Nights" for sex discrimination, says the door policy is a clear case of discrimination. "The act says that an institution cannot base its rules upon either the desires of patrons or the stereotypical characteristics of the discriminated group," says Banzhaf. "It seems to me that this fails on both counts."
Sean Barrett, the 32-year-old general manager of Town Tavern, says that the exclusionary policy is central to the bar's success. "History has taught us that it's the packs of 21-year-old fraternity kind of guys who seem to be causing all the problems with the ambience and the scene we're trying to set," says Barrett, who came to D.C. after four years in the restaurant's New York location, which has the same policy. "We're trying to cultivate a more sophisticated, mature kind of audience. We don't want guys carving initials in the walls, making obscene comments....By and large, those guys have a very high propensity for causing trouble, and we have a very high interest in avoiding trouble."
The Town Tavern's door policies—along with its "copper bar top and antique brass fixtures"—were tested for the first time earlier this month, with an "inauguration" which preceded President Barack Obama's by four days. On the bar's opening weekend, the façade of exclusivity quickly succumbed to the power of Adams Morgan's paying crowd. IDs were not checked twice, collared shirts not even once. Groups of males roamed, unaccompanied. The hefty $125 sticker price for the opening weekend's highlight—a black-tie-optional "inaugural ball"—was disregarded; a quick survey of the packed bar found not one patron who had actually paid up. They got what they paid for: The night's promised entertainment—an appearance by "the cast of MTV's The Hills"—fizzled to rumors that only Doug Reinhardt, a late-season hired love interest in the reality show spinoff, planned to show.
Instead, men dressed in puffy superhero costumes danced with girls in party dresses to Journey's greatest hits. It was not unlike any other night along the Adams Morgan "Heritage Trail."
Barrett says the lax enforcement of the strict rules allows for exceptions to the stereotype of the neighborhood's young men. "If a well-dressed, well-mannered 21- or 22-year-old male comes to the door, they'll be admitted," says Barrett. In his time with the Town Tavern, Barrett has fielded many complaints from younger men that the rule is discriminatory. "If the complaint is issued as a polite inquiry, then we'll let them in," he says. "But loud, obnoxious complaints—an individual yelling at [a bouncer] about being 21 or 22 with any elevation of their voice or their body mannerisms—that's the kind of attitude we're trying to stop right at the door." Although it's breaking its own rules with a wink and a nudge, the Town Tavern may still be defying the D.C. Human Rights Act's higher order. It doesn't matter that the bar may have yet to turn away its first 21-year-old male. The act also makes it unlawful to "print, circulate, post, or mail" any "statement, advertisement, or sign" that indicates that "an individual's patronage of, or presence at, a place of public accommodation is objectionable, unwelcome, unacceptable, or undesirable."
Despite the quibbles from male patrons and human rights experts, Barrett says the rule's female proponents far outweigh its detractors. "We hear nothing but rave, rave reviews from women," says Barrett. "They seem to feel much safer in that environment—they're less threatened than the alternative, which is being accosted by those 21-year-old just-out-of-college guys. From a female perspective, we've heard of a lot of loyalty to the location for that reason." Charlotte, a 26-year-old Adams Morgan resident who hit the Tavern on the bar's opening weekend, was interested—if not entirely convinced—by the concept. "As far as the 'exclusivity' goes, the place still looks pretty much like Nolan's-right up to the upstairs platform where I played many rounds of flip-cup with my kickball team," she says. "I think it's great they are trying to be a more 'exclusive' bar, but putting 'Adams Morgan' and 'exclusive' in the same sentence is kind of an oxymoron," she adds. "Though, being 26 myself, it would be nice to go to a place where I don't have to deal with annoying, drunk college boys, so I don't mind if it stays that way."
But the fraternal impulse does not expire at age 23, and no collared shirt can rein in the booze-fueled indiscretions of a crowded bar. One group of men, who outdid the dress code on opening weekend with black jackets and silk ties, claimed to have gained access to the exclusive club through the "connections" of one very large, very drunk friend. The friend granted an interview before stumbling outside to labor over an ill-advised text message. "I hear you're the guy with connections," I offered. "If by 'connections,' you mean 12-inch cock, then yeah," he replied.
One unaccompanied male—who declined to be named due to a friendship with a manager's relative—said that Town Tavern's door policies were all part of a plan to make it "the classiest bar in Adams Morgan." Despite the lack of competition, the Town Tavern has yet to achieve the title. "I hate to say this, but I think they just want a reason to turn people away at the door if they want to," he says. "I'm not sure the whole 'exclusive' thing is working, though."