Waiting To Inhale

The latest West Coast fad at a Mount Vernon bar is a breath of fresh air

August 12, 2002|By Tori Campion | Tori Campion,SUN STAFF

Let's see, what kind of bar should we try tonight? Brew pub? Sports bar? Martini bar? Scotch bar? Tequila bar?

Maybe it's time for a breath of fresh air - well, as fresh as one can get in even the fanciest saloon. How about an oxygen bar?

Yes, in the depths of Baltimore's ozone-saturated summer, an oxygen bar has opened for business, and its patrons are lining up for hits of filtered, flavored, $10-a-pop O2. Talk about rarefied air.

"After a while," says a deep-breathing Michael Totin, from Essex, "it's euphoric."

The new oxygen bar is located within another recent addition to Baltimore nightlife, the Spy Club on Centre Street off Charles. Co-owners Nathan and Trish Beveridge, from Hampden, and Larry Hienze, from Ellicott City, opened the nightclub in December and wanted something unique to add to it.

"It's innovative and neat. A lot of young people have them in Colorado and California," Nathan Beveridge said.

Innovative yes, but not entirely new. O2 bars began serving up cleaner air in Japan before moving through Canada and then sweeping into the United States in 1996. Celebrity bar owner and actor Woody Harrelson brought O2 bars into the spotlight in 1998 when he opened his bar - named O2 - on Hollywood's Sunset Boulevard. Now there are more than 100 nationwide.

The Spy Club is above the Midtown Yacht Club, also owned by the Beveridges and Heinze. Beyond the peanut shell-covered floor, behind a door disguised as a bookcase, the club features more than five different rooms, each with its own spy elements.

The small oxygen bar sits unobtrusively but intriguingly in a corner of one of the club's many nook and cranny rooms. It looks something like a mad scientist's fantasy with its hoses and nose masks.

The two-station bar, which cost its new owners $4,300, takes oxygen from the bar's own air (usually between 21 percent and 25 percent pure) and filters out most of the impurities in it, leaving it somewhere between 87 percent and 98 percent pure. The filtered oxygen is then pumped through aromatherapy scents and to a disposable nose piece. The aromatherapy scents each have their own flavor, and customers control how much of each is used. The flavors are changed perhaps every two weeks.

The offerings on a recent night included Cloud Lime, a lime-flavored scent that smells like Kool-Aid and is "equalizing and refreshing," according to literature at the bar, and Fresh, a cranberry scent that seems to be the least favorite of the women but a big hit with the men and described as "refreshing, harmonizing and elevating."

And, no, you don't have to have a doctor's prescription to use this pure air. While prescriptions are needed to use an oxygen tank, there is no federal regulation for this type of purification, at least at present. However, according to a spokesperson from manufacturer Oasis Oxygen Bars, the Food and Drug Administration does regulate the equipment and makes sure bars aren't making any medical claims.

There are many doctors and skeptics who believe the oxygen bar at best offers a placebo effect. Nathan Beveridge disagrees. He noted that football players often run off the field and hook up to oxygen, and flight attendants often breathe it for 10 minutes before flights, especially if they stayed out late the night before.

"They call it the hangover helper," he said.

Jon Abbott, visiting from Washington, agreed. "It's definitely not psychological," he said. "I do feel different. It's like light-headed. A cloud nine feeling."

Officially, though, the Spy Club's owners agree that O2 bars have no actual medical benefit. But some customers appear eager to offer testimonials anyway.

Jimmy Wilson, a musician from Bolton Hill, says he's indulged at the new oxygen bar four times during its first three weeks in operation. "It's trendy but it's good," he said. After he and Trish Beveridge exchange pleasantries - "Hey, Jimmy. We've got new flavors today" - Jimmy whips out his nose piece (yes, he has his own) and sits back for his 10-minute fix. "If you stay awake, you feel good. If you sleep, you're well-rested," Wilson said while mixing the new flavors into a bubbling frenzy. "It's safe and it's fun."

Some others, not as O2-experienced as Wilson, also found benefits to the experience. Dana Morris of Pasadena said she came specifically to use the bar. During her session, she seemed to be cooing. "This is so great," she gushed, before confessing, "OK, I'm light-headed now."

After her fix, she said, she felt great, more awake and was breathing better. Then she went off to have a cigarette.

Some, though, found the experience less exhilarating. Said Zury Mansur, from Baltimore: "I liked the scents, but I didn't feel anything different."

But not everyone at the Spy Club was ready to breathe to a different drummer.

"It just seems very trendy," said Patrick Kelley of Towson. "It's a dollar a minute. Oxygen is free." He also found the required nose piece a little weird. "I don't like sticking things up my nose."

Michael Salconi, who lives downtown, said he had better things to do with his money. "It's not as good as a real good cigar, and it's not as good as a real good book, and it's not as good as a real bad woman." Kensington resident Jimi Dennison agreed. "I feel like I'd look like Darth Vader and I know it would do something [to me]. I don't want to be a light-headed Darth Vader."

From the Beveridges' point of view, the O2 bar has been a hit. And arrived just at the right time.

"There is usually a five- or six-year lag time [before Baltimore gets the latest trends]," Trish Beveridge said. With this, she said, "We caught the wave in Baltimore more quickly."

So why do the Spy Club's owners think Baltimoreans are embracing the bar? Is it the scent, the refreshed feeling, or maybe the hip nose pieces?

Nathan Beveridge has his own, very Baltimore, suggestion.

"It's a novelty, they had to come and see it. And to make fun of people from L.A."

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