Wood floors. Dark-red walls. Sixteen-foot ceilings. Metal pillars. A grand iron staircase. When you walk into Gardel's Argentinian Supper Club you'll want to stand a bit straighter and stare -- mouth open -- at the stunning interior. And most likely, you'll want to dance.
Gardel's, which is in the old City Life Museum a few blocks north of Little Italy, does serve a full dinner and has an inviting wooden bar. But it is meant to be a place to strut to Latin tunes on the dance floor. For the not-so-smooth clientele, there are free tango lessons on Sundays at 3 p.m.
The grand opening is planned for the end of September, but the club is open now for dinner and dancing. Tango dancers from Philadelphia, New York and Washington already descend on the place for weekly milongas, or tango dances.
The establishment takes its name from Carlos Gardel, a French-born composer credited with popularizing tango in Latin America. A large portrait of him will hang near the staircase.
"We decided to bring tango to Baltimore," owner Adolfo Alonso said on a recent night. The conversation centered on this seductive dance.
"Tango is still an underground dance," said his wife, Josefina Alonso. "Some people say it is too sensual." She wore a stunning, short black dress with fringes, and blood-red shoes. "The music is so beautiful; it is the most romantic and personal music in the world," she said.
The Alonsos came to the United States from the Philippines more than 30 years ago and started dancing 10 years ago. They've gone at it with gusto -- befriending actor and tango lover Robert Duvall. In July, they threw a party at the club for the actor.
The Alonsos pay attention to details. The club's sound system is directed toward the dance floor, not the dinner tables -- a touch the crowd appreciates. "You can have dinner and can dance and don't have to scream at each other," said Zuli Russi, a Washington native.
Food is prepared by Russell Braitsch, formerly the chef de cuisine at Corks in Federal Hill.
There is a tiny but active group of tango addicts in Baltimore. They have an e-mail list of roughly 130 people, and they bring in instructors from New York and even Argentina
"This place is pretty much a miracle for Baltimore," said Mark Longerbeam, a Baltimore resident who has traveled to Washington for his tango fix.
But Adolfo Alonso is realistic. "This place will not survive by tango alone," he said.
In the next few months, the Alonsos plan to open another club and lounge, called Galaxy, on the second floor and a dance studio on the third.
By day, Adolfo Alonso is a plastic surgeon, and his wife is a pediatrician. They rely on their three sons to manage and promote the supper club.
"We've always been pretty close," said James Alonso, the eldest of the three brothers, who put his construction business on hold to do most of the renovating for the restaurant. "Six days a week you'll see me with a bandana and a hammer," he added.
And they do have more work ahead of them. The vision of a restaurant/nightclub/lounge/bar is grand for a town like Baltimore, which is not necessarily known for fancy establishments.
"Remember, my parents are immigrants," said James Alonso. "They're used to taking risks."
Gardel's is at 29 S. Front St. It is open for dinner and dancing every night. Tango dancing is on Wednesday nights. Call 410-837-3737 or visit www.gardels.com.
For more club events, see Page 30.