The Velvet Rope, a troubled megaclub at Redwood and Calvert… (Colby Ware, Special to The…)
Last Saturday, I went to Dubai. No, not the glitzy metropolis in the United Arab Emirates; the club on 200 E. Redwood St. that opened in late January under a new name after two years as the troubled Velvet Rope.
With the change, the owners hope to distance themselves from a tarnished old name and associate themselves with the luxury that Dubai brings to mind.
But those aspirations might be too lofty.
If rebranding was all that a bad reputation needed, Hosni Mubarak might still be in power. And while in popular culture, Dubai might be linked to opulence, it's now a city burdened with a not-so-sexy $80 billion debt and a collapsed real estate market.
Dubai's owners might as well have called the spot Club Countrywide or Lehman Brothers VIP Lounge.
The club benefits from its handsome historic location and what seems to be improved security, but its insistence on passing itself off as an upscale club in a city that seems to be allergic to them raises doubts about its longevity.
The building at Redwood and Calvert streets is more than 100 years old; it even survived the Great Fire of 1904. Until 1993, it was a Mercantile-Safe Deposit & Trust Co. branch, and in 2000, a $2.5 million renovation turned it into the megaclub Redwood Trust.
The Velvet Rope took over the location after several incarnations, including another flop, Palma. In February of last year, some 300 people tried to storm inside after a promoter oversold a Yo Gotti concert, attracting some 50 police officers and a helicopter to control the scene. The club was fined $3,500 for the security breach, but it kept its liquor license after an agreement with the police and the liquor board to beef up security.
But that wasn't enough for neighboring hotels, three of which unsuccessfully petitioned to revoke the club's license a month later.
The uproar or the negative publicity over the club must have taken a toll; in December, owners closed their doors to retool, and when they reopened in late January, they wanted nothing to do with the old name.
"So much happened in 2010, and we were ready to put it behind us," manager Tracye Stafford told local blog thefabempire.com after the reopening.
Dubai's attorney, Paul Gardner, II, offered to allow a Baltimore Sun photographer to take pictures of the interior under the condition that the name "Velvet Rope" not be used in the resulting story. The offer was declined.
The owners' other attempt at rebranding is to bill Dubai as a high-end club, home to the "A-list," as its fliers brag. VIP tables for six cost $250. Access to the second floor, whose balconies overlook the dance floor, costs an extra $20.
There's even a photo studio where, for 10 bucks, you can get your picture taken against a wall plastered with the Dubai logo. After all, nothing says class more than a photo-op.
The dress code, the fliers go on to say, is "super fly: keep it sexy, no jerseys, no athletic wear, no sweats, no fitted hats, no butters aka timbs." That would be Timberland boots.
All that manufactured glamour doesn't appear to be yielding results. I walked in Saturday in jeans and a hoodie. And though the night's flier said cover was $10 until 11 p.m., perhaps because of the low turnout, I paid only $5 at the door.
The club's gymnasium-like dance floor was empty, save for two guys dancing in place.
Though the club had more business than Select Lounge, another troubled club seeking an upscale image, patrons mainly stuck to dancing in place or texting from the fringes of the dance floor. One of the bartenders made a point to serve me more vodka than she would otherwise because the club "wasn't hopping yet." It must be said, service was excellent and friendly.
On the first floor, there were two immaculate white couches for bottle service cordoned off by velvet rope, but they sat empty, at least by the time I left about 1 a.m. It was only around then that a line of some 10 people had started forming outside.
About the only thing that looks upscale here is the building itself. Its high ceilings have been preserved, its colors only slightly faded.
The dance floor is flanked by two columns and two bars staffed by guy-girl couples in all-black outfits. Perched high above the dance floor is a DJ booth, from where DJ B-Eazy segued from Kelis' "Bossy" to Lil' Wayne's "6 Foot 7 Foot." The high ceilings made for great, booming sound quality.
The bar was stocked with all the standard luxury vodkas, as well as Patron tequila. Rail cocktails start at $5 for vodka-cranberry drinks not much bigger than a Dixie cup. The beer list is short — Guinness, Corona, Coors, Bud Light — and offered only by the bottle, $5 each.
Security seems solid: two bouncers outside and one inside. All patrons are patted down as they come in, and jackets are forbidden inside. Police seem to also be keeping an eye on the club: three officers were at the intersection at 11 p.m., and two on horseback were still there when I left.
Still, it won't be easy for people to forget Dubai's predecessor, and not just because credit card receipts still list Palma/Velvet Rope as the vendor.
But then, if this place survived 1904 fire, maybe it can also rise above its troubled past.