Metro Weekly

From A to Be Bar

An exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the months-long creation of D.C.'s newest gay bar

Tom McGuire and Mike Watson are in the final stretch. Labor Day Weekend is set to mark the opening of their new lounge, Be Bar, on Ninth Street near the Convention Center. And while the definition of ”lounge” may conjure relaxed evenings in plush surroundings — exactly the style Be Bar aims to provide — the journey from Point A to Point ”Be” was anything but.

McGuire and Watson have faced myriad challenges as they worked toward their scheduled Sept. 1 grand opening, from location to licensing to angry laments. For anyone thinking of opening a similar venue, their story is either useful guidance, or a warning. For the rest of the community, it’s a look at how things work in Washington — sometimes smoothly, sometimes contentiously, always politically.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

IN TERMS OF the local gay community’s bon vivants, it’s fair to say McGuire and Watson fit the part. From Watson’s coiffed locks and spot-on fashion sense to McGuire’s ripped torso and perfect teeth, they are a charmed pair of entrepreneurs. At first glance, they may seem awfully privileged. Each man has, however, worked hard to secure his success.

McGuire’s story starts in Bucks County, Pa., a bucolic region known for historical landmarks and bed-and-breakfast inns. McGuire’s upbringing was, however, a bit grittier than the area’s antique shops and farmers’ markets. His parents divorced when he was young, and life with his single mother and three siblings involved frequent moves around the area.

The future home of Be Bar in winter 2006 — Scripture Cathedral Church, an opponent of the bar, is visible on the right.

He also received a decidedly religious upbringing.

”I went to Catholic nursery school, kindergarten, grade school, high school, college and graduate school,” he says. ”My grandmother was the president of the Legion of Mary.”

Watson grew up on a different path further north, in Rhode Island, where he lived until embarking for pre-med schooling at University of Massachusetts Amherst. But rather than become a doctor, Watson ended up working for a management and technology company. He moved to D.C. and met McGuire, fittingly, at the redhead’s annual St. Patrick’s Day bash in 1999.

”It was the first party I ever went to in D.C.,” says Watson. ”Tom is famous for his house parties.”

The two quickly became close friends — as Watson puts it, McGuire’s personality is ”very contagious.”

Though the two cemented their friendship early on, the Be Bar story might have ended by 2001, with both men moving separately to New York City. But they each missed Washington. Watson was first to return, in early 2003, when he started as a manager at 17th Street’s Cobalt. In late 2004, he opened his first D.C. business: a TCBY-Mrs. Fields franchise, just across the road from Whole Foods on the burgeoning 1400 block of P Street NW.

The former Salvation Army office needed major overhauls to begin its transformation into a hip and stylish lounge.

Although Watson was building his own business, his ”passion” remained with his continuing work at Cobalt. So he jumped at the first opportunity to sell his franchise and take the next step.

”I realized this was a great opportunity for me to move forward to what I really wanted to do, which was to open my own bar.”

Watson’s vision, however, was grander than anything he could manage on his own. While his stay in New York may have been short, he had acquired a taste for a particular type of venue that he believed was lacking in D.C. — casual enough for neighborhood regulars, hip enough to become destination spot, and versatile enough to offer a dance area alongside a more mellow seating area. His primary desire was to have an unrivaled sense of style — a necessity in New York, yet still a newer notion in D.C., where the lounge atmosphere of venues such as Halo had only recently premiered.

Serendipity came into play as McGuire chose this time to return to the D.C. fold. Watson quickly broached his idea of a partnership.

”We both realized there was a real void in D.C. nightlife,” says Watson. ”We wanted to create one venue that took the best elements [of the nightlife scene] and put them into one space, thus creating a new genre of lounge.”

Watson says that their initial plan was to lease a space. A possible location was at 14th and T streets NW, and the pair initiated a lengthy process of closing a deal on it. Instead of a venue, they got a lesson: It’s ”next to impossible” to rent a space while trying to obtain a liquor license. In what may have been foreshadowing of later difficulties, the pair were unable to negotiate a lease dependent on their obtaining a license.

”This really speaks loudly to how backward the process is,” says Watson.

While those months of wasted effort soured McGuire on the bar business for a time, Watson nevertheless kept looking for a space. But it was McGuire who spotted the next ”For Lease” sign one May morning in 2005, during his daily commute down Ninth Street. He suggested Watson investigate. Near the Convention Center, however, a different sign caught Watson’s eye: ”For Sale.”

While Watson was immediately taken with the old Salvation Army offices at 1318 Ninth St. NW, McGuire was less enthusiastic. Their reactions reflect a relationship between them that balances their business efforts: McGuire as grounded and cautious, Watson as eager and passionate.

ANC 2C chair and Be Bar opponent Leroy J. Thorpe testifies at the April 19 ABC Board hearing, as ANC 2F Commissioner Christopher Dyer looks on.

”I had committed to opening a bar and renting a space — [but] this was just too big of an endeavor,” McGuire recalls. ”I was hesitant for quite a while, but finally he convinced me. I came around to seeing that the neighborhood had great potential.”

With a third, silent partner, the deal closed on Dec. 28, 2005. Watson puts the price at about $1.45 million. What they got was a two-story building with good heating and air-conditioning systems, plus solid plumbing and electrical systems. Less tangible, but just as important, they were situated a few hundred feet from the new Convention Center in an area of the Shaw neighborhood often deemed the successor to Logan Circle’s gay gentrification.

They also had plenty of new neighbors.

Meeting the Neighbors

ALTHOUGH BE BAR sits in Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 2F, Alexander Padro thought the proposed new business was right up his alley. While Padro is member of the adjacent ANC 2C, he also serves as executive director of Shaw Main Streets, a non-profit organization dedicated to revitalizing certain commercial sections of Seventh and Ninth streets.

Coincidentally, he’s also gay.

”I probably had an initial conversation with Mike [Watson] in January,” says Padro, who later offered some advice on hurdles Be Bar might face in the community. Specifically, he mentioned Shiloh Baptist Church at P and Ninth streets NW. The church had recently protested liquor license applications for two new businesses, Vegetate Restaurant and Lounge at 1414 Ninth St. NW and Queen of Sheba at 1503 Ninth St. NW.

”I told them it’s not inconceivable that Shiloh could protest the application,” says Padro. ”I told them that if that did happen, they should be prepared for a process that could take six months to a year to resolve.”

Padro, however, was optimistic about Be Bar’s chances because he believed there were no issues with the business being within 400 feet of a school.

”[T]here had been other liquor licenses that had been granted on the 1200 block of Ninth Street last year, where there were no protests.”

With Padro’s caution in mind, McGuire and Watson continued with the next logical step in the process: presenting themselves to ANC 2F, and other groups representing the community. Within contemporary D.C. politics, ”voluntary agreements” with ANCs are crucial to obtaining a liquor license. In this process, ANCs often file protests against license applications as a matter of form. Applicants then negotiate with the protesting ANC to come to terms on closing times, security, parking and other issues. Once an agreement is met, the ANC withdraws its protest, removing a nearly insurmountable obstacle to obtaining a liquor license.

”We first started off very positively with the Blagden Alley/Naylor Court Community [residents’ organization] and ANC 2F, all of whom are in our zone,” says McGuire. ”We reached out to all of them, and they were all very positive.” Be Bar even found a very enthusiastic ally in ANC 2F Commissioner Christopher Dyer, a fixture in the D.C. gay community.

On March 1, the six members of ANC 2F voted unanimously to protest Be Bar’s liquor license. The ANC’s March 6 letter to D.C.’s Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) made clear that, despite the protest, the commissioners were confident they would be able to work out an agreement with Be Bar. The commissioners added that they were filing their protest primarily to avoid completely losing their right to protest, because the final deadline, March 27, was fast-approaching.

A week after ANC 2F’s meeting, the four commissioners of ANC 2C held their own monthly meeting. An unscheduled guest, Bishop C.L. Long of Scripture Cathedral Church at Ninth and O streets NW, asked to address the commissioners.

”Bishop Long complained the personnel associated with Be Bar had approached him inside his church, insulting him and declaring that he could do nothing about the proposed nightclub,” read the minutes from the ANC meeting. ”Long indicated that his security had to remove the Be Bar personnel from his church.” It’s a claim that McGuire and Watson say leaves them baffled.

According to the minutes, Long also accused Commissioner Padro of conflict of interest for Shaw Main Streets’ support for Be Bar. The commissioners voted 3-1 that night to oppose Be Bar’s liquor license. Padro cast the dissenting vote.

Be Bar counsel Andrew Kline argues for the business at the April 19 hearing, alongside McGuire and Watson.

Padro says he questioned Long about the bishop’s account of being visited in his church and told that Be Bar would be ”for people from Maryland and Virginia [and that] there would be a bouncer to make sure neighborhood residents could not go in.”

”I proceeded to ask Bishop Long, ‘Who was this person? Do you know that this person was actually a representative of Be Bar?’ because it sounded extremely fishy,” says Padro. ”I was really suspicious of these allegations.”

Padro says the word ”gay” was not even discussed at that point, adding Long claimed not to be aware that Be Bar was planned for a primarily gay clientele.

”I can’t give that a whole lot of credence, because he’s never protested any of the liquor stores in the neighborhood,” says Padro. ”If he was so worried about alcohol being in proximity to his [Scripture Cathedral Church] Day Care Center, then he should’ve opposed the license for the Giant food store across the street that sells beer and wine. But Giant lets his church members park in their parking lot for free on Sundays.”

While Long provided brief statements to Metro Weekly, he did not agree to an interview, instead referring questions to his attorney.

ANC 2C’s March 8 vote to protest Be Bar’s liquor license was followed by two more protests before the March 27 deadline. On March 22, eight of Long’s congregants filed a protest against the bar’s license, citing Be Bar’s proximity to the church’s day care center, as well as issues of ”peace, order and quiet.”

Rev. Anthony Evans, president of the D.C. Black Church Initiative, filed his group’s protest March 27. Evan’s letter did not mince words: ”Granting the permit will undermine the moral character of the Shaw community, stain its tradition and send the wrong message to children and families,” it reads in part. ”The pending applicant in question will only promote an alternative lifestyle that runs counter to the values of the Shaw community.”

Animosity and Allies

WITH THE ADDITIONAL protests filed, Watson and McGuire’s friendly negotiations with ANC 2F became nearly inconsequential. These new protestants didn’t ask to negotiate conditions for Be Bar’s existence. Rather, they asked that it simply not exist — at least not in this neighborhood. McGuire and Watson were left with two choices: Amend their plans fundamentally by choosing a new location and starting from scratch, or fight. They chose to fight.

The first major battle was April 19 in the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration’s hearing room on North Capitol Street NE. An overflow crowd of about 70 people filled the room and adjacent hallway, largely a mix of African-American congregants of Scripture Cathedral Church on one side of the room, and mostly white, fashionable gay guys on the other. At first glance, issues of ”peace, quiet and order” seemed to be code for issues of race or sexual orientation.

However, an April 18 release from the D.C. Coalition of Black Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Men and Women made it clear that the city’s primary organization for the black gay community was behind Be Bar.

”Be Bar will encourage LGBT residents of Shaw to invest in their own neighborhood establishments, instead of being forced to travel to Dupont Circle or elsewhere,” read the group’s statement. ”The D.C. Coalition is concerned about the efforts of a few individuals to oppose Be Bar’s liquor license, strictly based on homophobia and heterosexism.”

Brian Watson, president of the coalition, elaborated at the time: “I let both owners know that whatever support they need from us, we are truly behind them. Evans and Long don’t speak for the whole African-American community. They just speak for their churches’ members. The D.C. Coalition is an African-American, black organization, and they don’t speak for us. We support the Be Bar…. I don’t see it as a black-white issue. I see it more as a sexuality issue. It’s not a race thing.”

He added that religion shouldn’t have been a reason to oppose Be Bar — he regularly attends Covenant Baptist Church in Southwest D.C. He even attended a few services at Scripture Cathedral when he first moved to the city.

”He’s a very good speaker and a very good minister, but I don’t agree with a lot of his positions,” Brian Watson says of Long. ”I chose not to join. There were little comments he would make in sermons. They weren’t obvious slurs against the LGBT community, but I could see that it was not an inclusive church.”

Bishop C.L. Long addresses the cameras after the April 19 ABC Board hearing.

That first battle at ABRA ended with no clear winner. Evans’s protest was dismissed on a technicality: His group is not incorporated. Attorney Andrew Kline, representing Be Bar, challenged ANC 2C’s protest by noting the commission never gave McGuire and Watson an opportunity to appear before them. Kline also noted that the protesting Scripture Cathedral congregants lived from nine blocks to five miles away from the bar’s location.

The board continued the meeting until May 3, with Alcoholic Beverage Control Board Chair Charles Burger saying the board would look into Kline’s points.

Throngs of Be Bar supporters and protesters then took to the crowded halls outside the hearing room, jockeying for space on the elevators and speaking with the media. Long, pressed on gay issues by local television and newspaper reporters, advised those concerned about gays to consult the Bible.

Even before the contentious ABRA meeting, a number of prominent politicos declared themselves on Be Bar’s side, including the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance, which sent letters of support to Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), who represents Shaw, and Councilmember Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chair of the city’s Committee on Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

At the same time Be Bar was stirring controversy, tensions between churches and neighborhoods flared in Logan Circle and other neighborhoods regarding the city’s proposed enforcement of parking regulations on Sundays, which would end the long-standing habit of churchgoers double and triple parking without fear of tickets.

The construction crew works to create the Be Bar components.

McGuire hosted an April 29 meet-and-greet with mayoral candidate and Council Chair Linda Cropp (D). Padro, among about 50 guests in McGuire’s 14th and Church Street NW condo, asked Cropp specifically about the Be Bar battle, and her ”vision” for dealing with these types of conflicts.

”The revitalization of the District of Columbia has a good side and an ugly side,” Cropp answered. ”There are many people who feel they are being left out, or that their neighborhoods are changing. Many people are often fearful of change, in part because they think they’re going to lose something…. [But] the city is big enough for all, for all kinds of establishments.”

Though Be Bar seemed to be picking up allies, the May 3 hearing at ABRA made it obvious that the opposition was picking up steam as well. Rather than a relatively even split, the hearing room that day was clearly tilted in favor of Be Bar’s opponents, many of whom held placards reading, ”We want peace, not alcohol.” McGuire even had trouble finding a chair when he arrived to take his place at a small table before the board. He turned to his opponents in the audience, and jokingly asked, ”Can we get another chair? I know y’all don’t want to give us one.” The stab at humor fell flat, netting some grumbling from the audience, but no chair.

Despite the numbers gathered against Be Bar, the hearing ended in McGuire and Watson’s favor, with the seven-member board voting unanimously to seat only ANC 2F as a protestant. Though the board’s decision was subject to an appeal period, with ANC 2F already registering support for Be Bar, this was a clear victory for McGuire and Watson.

The ”voluntary agreement” between ANC 2F and Be Bar was finalized June 19. The ABC Board issued its final order Aug. 16. All protests were dismissed, save for ANC 2F’s, which was withdrawn. The license was granted — sort of.

The Home Stretch

SINCE THE MAY 3 ABC Board vote, McGuire and Watson had been moving full-steam ahead, having every reason to believe the Be Bar license was nearly a foregone conclusion. But opening requires more than a license, and an Aug. 18 grand opening was pushed back to Sept. 1.

The main bar nears completion.

Standing in Be Bar Friday, Aug. 18, the space is clearly coming together. Light walls are nearly complete, the DJ booth is in place, the turquoise-tile pillars are finished. As the lounge evolves, so does the immediate vicinity. Watson worked with the city to replace the block’s neglected sidewalk.

In front of Be Bar’s door, the bar’s logo in stainless steel has been imbedded into the concrete, thanks to Michigan metal worker Matt Novakowski. His metalwork has been adding to the lounge’s signature style, which borrows, says Watson, from Baroque to mid-century modern. An adjacent car lot has received a facelift, thanks to McGuire, with weatherproof fabric covering the lot’s barbed-wire fencing, along with flowering plants and mulch. The bar’s own sidewalk tree-box has been filled in with smooth gray stones and a ”Linda Cropp for Mayor” sign.

An impressive staff of about 30 has been hired, on stand-by for the past month. At an Aug. 3 orientation and sampling of the Be Bar martini menu, these new hires met one another for the first time. Looking like an Abercrombie & Fitch-meets-Benetton hybrid of young and pretty men and women, both gay and straight, few seemed particularly concerned with the friction between Be Bar and some of its neighbors. They simply seem eager to get to work.

Leslie Vaughn, a first-generation American whose parents emigrated from Nigeria, and who will be working as a greeter, is one of the few who has an opinion about the opposition to Be Bar. In particular, she’d like to see those forces put their resources to more pressing issues.

”Religious organizations are influential,” she says. ”There are so many more important things. And I don’t like anybody standing up on a pedestal. That bothers me.”

McGuire and Watson say they’re grateful for all the support they’ve gotten through the process, pointing to Cropp, Graham and Kline in particular. But Be Bar’s allies have done their part. Now it’s up to McGuire and Watson alone to see Be Bar up to opening night. Standing in the space, both men answer the question about what’s left to do in unison: ”Cleaning.”

That’s not all. There’s still the matter of the liquor license. Though the ABC Board has made its favorable decision, there are still hoops of paperwork to jump through.

”We have to get all our final inspections — our final structural, our final fire, final mechanical,” Watson explains. ”You deliver all those ‘finals,’ and they issue your certificate of occupancy. [And then w]e also have health inspections.”

Be Bar’s new staff gathers to test and learn the bar’s menu of candy-themed martinis.

The liquor license comes last.

In these remaining days before the grand opening, the business partners are left to complete the final cosmetic touches to Be Bar. There’s also time to reflect on this process that began so many months ago.

”The reward is seeing the finished product that Michael designed,” says McGuire of their unique venue taking shape around him. ”It’s better than I ever could’ve imagined, and I imagined it being great. Chills go up my back when I think about it.”

Watson sees the reward of finishing as the culmination of everything they’ve worked toward and every obstacle they’ve overcome.

”From obtaining our space, to negotiating the lease, getting all those components in place, then moving forward into design and development — each phase had its own struggles. But once you jump over that hurdle, you seem to forget how high it was.”

With just a few finishing touches remaining, Be Bar is nearly ready for its Sept. 1 grand opening.

McGuire breaks in with a laugh: ”Because you’re already on to the next one.”

Despite the hurdles, neither McGuire nor Watson would warn others not to follow in their footsteps. Instead, they advise anybody thinking about a similar venture to be prepared for anything, to choose battles wisely and to ”just do it.”

With the end of the journey toward opening night in sight, McGuire and Watson don’t seem any worse for wear. On the contrary, they both seem to be bursting with enthusiasm for what they are about to unveil.

”We’re hoping we raise the bar, specifically for venues targeting the gay community in D.C.,” says Watson. ”I think we’re creating something very different than what they’ve had in the past.”

And should there be any question as to who Be Bar is for, McGuire is clear: ”We’re excited for the community to see our venue. We invite everybody to come.”

Follow Will O'Bryan on Twitter @wobryan.