Two new high-end clubs have low-end attendance


August 28, 2008|By SAM SESSA | SAM SESSA,

If you're going to open a high-end lounge or club in this city, do your homework first.

Don't try to bring Washington to Baltimore. That doesn't work. If we want a swanky, expensive, pretentious Washington club, we'll go to Washington. Plenty of us already do.

Want to charge a $10 cover? You better deliver. And if you want to keep your club full, you have to bombard Baltimore with fliers, ads, radio spots - especially at first.

You'd think someone would do a little research before sinking millions into a high-end lounge. But tons of club owners have blindly tried over the years, and most have failed.

The latest to give it a go is Jon Han. In July, he opened a $2.5 million mega-club called Palma in the hulking Redwood Trust building at Calvert and Redwood streets and reopened Dubai, a high-end lounge, less than a block away. Han is in the middle of a club-opening spree. He debuted Ibiza in Washington last year and plans to open clubs in other cities in the coming months.

I went to both clubs on the same Saturday night a couple weeks ago. And from the looks of it, Han hasn't figured out how to make his clubs work in Baltimore.

At midnight, there was no one waiting in line outside Palma - a bad sign. The bouncer thoroughly patted me down (oh joy!), and I paid $10 for a bracelet that got me into both clubs. That's a good idea - similar to deals you could get at the nearby Power Plant Live entertainment district.

Inside, the bass from DJ Jen Lasher boomed so loud and hard my body buzzed. The lighting rig above the dance floor looked OK, but not nearly as fancy as I'd expected, considering it cost $600,000, according to Han.

I ordered an Absolut martini at one of the long bars on the ground level, but - get this - they didn't have vermouth. Yeah, you read that right. The city's hottest new club couldn't make a martini at midnight on a Saturday. Come on now. It reminded me of when I asked for the same thing at the (then) new Mosaic in Power Plant Live and the bartender gave me some orange concoction with a slice of lime in it.

Thwarted by absurdity, I asked Palma's bartender for a Bombay Sapphire Gin and tonic instead. It cost $8 and came in a small plastic cup with a slice of lime. A plastic cup? At the city's hottest new club? That's only acceptable when the place is slammed, and they can't clean glasses quick enough. And Palma was far from slammed.

An informal head count was easy, because there weren't many people there: I put the total number of clubgoers inside Palma at 75. That's including staff. And the 20,000-square-foot building can comfortably hold 1,500 people. Yikes.

It's a shame, because that building is a good home for a mega-club. The first level has more of a warehouse feel, with a hard floor and metal support beams holding up the second story. A couple dozen long vertical strips glow different shades of neon on the wall behind the DJ platform, and a lounge area with leather couches sits off to one side. The building also has a few soaring columns, which hold up a beautifully ornate ceiling.

All of that counts for nothing if Han can't fill the place. Watching 30 people bust moves on a mostly empty dance floor was depressing. So after finishing my drink, I ditched Palma for Dubai.

A couple clubs have come before Dubai in this space (are you sensing a pattern here?). Club X Ultra Lounge opened in late 2005 and lasted about six months. Then it was Xanadu, before becoming Dubai. Twin metal Xs - leftovers from the Ultra Lounge mini-era - are still attached to the outside of the building.

Han didn't make drastic changes to the two-story Xanadu before reopening it as Dubai. Upstairs, there is a long bar in the back, short bar in the front and dance floor in between.

At Dubai, Bombay and tonic still cost $8, but came in a bigger (though still plastic) cup with no lime. Dubai's gin and tonic was twice as strong as Palma's, and Dubai had more people inside. Correlation? Well, not too many more people. It's a much smaller club, and the first floor was closed. So maybe it just felt like there were more people inside.

Maybe it was a slow Saturday at clubs all around town. At 1 a.m., Red Maple looked deserted, too. Either way, two brand-new high-end clubs right across the street from each other should be slammed on a Saturday night. Palma and Dubai were all but empty.

Han's strategy has a few holes in it. Summer isn't the season to open a club - fall is. And while there was some buzz about Palma's opening, it wasn't nearly enough.

Now, Han needs to shift gears quickly. Otherwise, neither of these new clubs will be around long.

if you go

Palma is at 200 E. Redwood St. Call 410-244-1008 or go to Dubai is at 10 S. Calvert St. Entrance to both clubs is $10.

online Read Sam Sessa's blog at baltimore

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