Music without Borders: Clyde's restaurant chain plans concert venue in former downtown bookstore
by Chris Richards
If you descend to the basement level of the soon-to-be-closed Borders bookstore at 14th and F streets NW, you'll see a shelf of romance novels. Tom Meyer sees a stage. Diana Krall is standing on it, cooing "Quiet Nights" to an audience of 500.
Meyer is the executive vice president of Clyde's Restaurant Group, the local chain that plans to open both a restaurant and a 15,000-square-foot nightclub in the Borders space in late 2011. Right around the corner from the the chain's flagship, the Old Ebbitt Grill on 15th Street, Meyer's as-yet-unnamed restaurant is likely to be a hit. But the also-yet-unnamed nightclub downstairs?
"This is obviously brand new for us," Meyer says.
The Clyde's chain knows how to run a successful eatery. Including Old Ebbitt, it owns 13 establishments in the Washington area. But Meyer has zero experience in the music biz. He's just a music-loving nightclub-hopper who sees a niche that needs filling.
"If you come into town and you want to do some partying, that's the one thing that's missing down here," he says, sipping decaf in a rear booth at Old Ebbitt. "We're doing everything we possibly can to make it a premier venue - somewhere that artists would like to play and that people downtown would enjoy going to."
That means throwing plenty of Clyde's financial muscle into the venture. Once Borders moves out - the store closes Saturday - acoustic engineers will lay out plans to rebuild the retail space into a 500-person capacity concert space where the sound won't bleed into the dining room they're planning overhead. The venue will have terraced seating, a balcony bar and plenty of food and drink prepared by the restaurant upstairs.
Meyer envisions a "more adult" music club with a general focus on singer-songwriters. He hopes to book country acts and gospel artists. He hopes to curate free lunchtime concerts. He hopes to host local up-and-comers and marquee veterans. And, somehow, he plans to book it all himself.
He'll be entering a very competitive market. Meyer is eyeballing the type of talent that will put him nose to nose with the Birchmere in Alexandria and Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis. By late 2011, the field may be even more crowded. Next year, concert promoter Live Nation hopes to open its Fillmore Silver Spring venue, while the Birchmere is moving ahead with plans to launch a new nightclub in College Park. (Live Nation and Birchmere reps declined to comment for this article.)
"The only people who say [the Washington area] is becoming crowded with nightclubs are the people who own nightclubs," Meyer says. "Whenever I build a restaurant, people ask me, 'Who do you want as your neighbor?' . . . The best thing for me is another really good restaurant. . . . It keeps me on my toes."
Says 9:30 Club owner Seth Hurwitz in an e-mail: "The more clubs there are helping bands develop, the better it is for the music business, of which we are obviously a part."
Meyer's biggest challenge will likely be learning to book talent from scratch. "It's going to be extremely difficult," says Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the trade magazine that tracks the concert industry. "There's a certain trust factor that exists between talent sellers and talent buyers. It's more than money. Before a CAA or a William Morris sells an artist to you to put in your club, they need to trust you. . . . If you're a complete unknown, you'll have a hard time getting them take your calls, let alone accept your offers."
When it comes to networking, Meyer is still getting his feet wet but plans to dive in next spring. He'll be heading to the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, where he hopes to curate a showcase of artists and fill his Rolodex in the process. And while Meyer currently has no experience courting singers to his stage, he's confident about getting fans in his seats next year.
"My experience is just making people comfortable and happy. . . . I think I'm pretty good at that," Meyer says. "It's not like I'm a patent attorney opening a music club. There isn't a total disconnect there."
August 13, 2010; 11:50 AM ET
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