With “Mad Men” coming to a close, there is no better time to talk about a transplant right out of the chic ’60s: Blues Alley, located on 1073 Wisconsin Ave. At this formally informal brick-clad “supper club,” visitors can get a filling meal while watching performers tango with the controlled chaos that is jazz. During my night at the club, I enjoyed a performance by the Japanese Jazz group, the Chihiro Yamanaka Trio. The only parallel that can be drawn to this experience is the scene in 2004’s Anchorman in which Ron Burgundy wows a crowd of San Diegans with his deft performance of jazz flute. I would not bring that reference up if it were not so 100-percent incredibly accurate. It depicts exactly what a jazz supper club is like. Patrons sit at little tables in a room that looks like an enlarged British club, sip on wine and cocktails, and watch a performer play his heart out.
But the experience at Blues Alley goes beyond a nod to an American cult-classic; the restaurant is really phenomenal. The Jambalaya (recommended personally by my waitress) was extremely filling and flavorful. In fact, I had to take a break midway through my meal just to process and stop myself from overheating. It was spicy, tangy and crunchy — overall superb. From other patrons, the sentiments were the same; from the famous house ribs to the catfish, the food is off the charts. But one should note that these meals do not come without a steep price. A $30 ticket is compounded by at least a $12 cover charge in the restaurant. You’ll be looking at a menu that include a $9.35 Caesar salad and an $8 service fee of “rice and beans,” plus entrees that are almost exclusively more than $20. The frugal among us be warned, this may not be the experience for you.
However, if you have accepted the price and forfeited your week’s earnings, welcome to Blues Alley. It’s an experience that is one of a kind. According to the restaurant’s website, it has been called “the nation’s finest jazz and supper club” by The New York Times and Washington’s “best night spot” by Washingtonian Magazine. These accolades are echoed by the unique design of Blues Alley’s interior. There is a certain casual theme to the entire eatery, with checkered tablecloths and brick walls paneled with wood from another century. It’s almost as if The Tombs had been taken over by New York’s SoHo elite. As the club is celebrating its 50th year, its history is readily noticeable through the countless framed headshots on the walls of performers who have gone before. Between these frames are retired trumpets and signs that inform patrons of the strict No-Recording Policy. If nothing else, Blues Alley knows how to build a one-of-a-kind culture.
The jazz aspect of the club was nothing short of impressive, as well. Yamanaka’s trio was phenomenal. Emceed by the Yamanaka herself, the band went on to play adaptations of George Gershwin’s “Summertime,” Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five,” and even a heavily adapted rendition of “Fur Elise” (From Yamanaka: “To those of you who like jazz, I hope you enjoy. To those of you who enjoy Beethoven, I’m so sorry.”). The music could stop anyone in his or her tracks. Never have I heard such discordant music strike such harmony. The chaos and the confusion of jazz eventually became unified. It warrants a listen.
The near-prohibitive ticket and meal pricing of Blues Alley makes it a great “once-in-a-while” place. However, despite this bar to entry, the club’s attendance is still very diverse. There are twenty-somethings, there are forty-year-olds who are seeking a date night while their kids are with the sitter, and there are even senior citizens who are trying to rekindle the excitement from their youth. Blues Alley brings together an eclectic group for an experience that makes you feel both elite and down-to-earth. Visitors can sit in another world, sipping your wine (or Diet Coke) and listen to jazz. Blues Alley lets you get away. So bring a friend, bring an appetite and bring a large wallet, because Blues Alley mixes the best of jazz with an unrivaled environment to create an unforgettable musical-culinary experience. Don Draper would be proud.
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