- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Humor is essential for life - and business. At least as conceived by the H Street Country Club, which opens Wednesday at the northern edge of Capitol Hill.

“We’re having fun with the country club concept,” says Blair Zervos, who co-owns the “country club” with Ricardo Vergara and restaurateur-extraordinaire Joe Englert.

“It’s not what you expect,” Mr. Zervos says.

That’s for sure.

This country club - which features pool tables, a nine-hole minigolf course, eclectic art, quality dining by celebrity chef Ann Cashion, two bars and two dining rooms - is miles away from manicured greens, expensive memberships (no dues required here) and hoity-toity traditions and language. (Golfing and other instructions here come replete with sexual innuendoes.)

“It’s hard to explain. We’re full of contradictions,” Mr. Vergara says and smiles slyly.

Indeed, it’s very difficult to categorize. So far, the establishment has been compared to Dave & Busters, the national restaurant-entertainment chain. But that doesn’t seem quite right - D&B is all about formula, and there’s nothing predictable or formulaic about the H Street Country Club (www.thehstreet countryclub.com).

For example, all the art, including that on the minigolf course, is original work by local artist Lee T. Wheeler, who pushes the envelope with political satire (an homage to the famous sculpture “The Awakening” is installed at hole 8, featuring former Mayor Marion Barry emerging from the ground) and general wackiness (a mural has a UFO landing on a U Street row house and Godzilla munching on the Chinatown arch).

It’s fun, creative and entirely Washington-centric.

“We’re celebrating the city and having fun with it at the same time,” Mr. Vergara says during a tour of the course.

The second-floor golf course takes up about a quarter of the roughly 6,700-square-foot, two-level space; the rest of the floor is devoted to high-quality Mexican dining by Ms. Cashion, including chilaquiles with roasted duck and lamb enchiladas. Entrees are priced up to $22.

The second-floor dining room, too, is eclectic, inviting the eyes to wander up and down walls and across ceilings: Lamps made out of everything from old birdhouses to toasters hang from the skylit ceiling; behind the bar is a wall of golf balls captured behind plexiglass and small wooden boxes full of knickknacks and books such as “Alice Cooper Golf Monster: My Twelve Steps to Becoming a Golf Addict.”

“We want guests to discover new things no matter how many times they’ve been here,” Mr. Zervos says.

Don’t worry, they will.

Take the waiting area for minigolfing, for example. About three dozen people can play - at $7 per person - at one time, and the country club does not take reservations.

If there is a rush, people can sign up for tee time and while waiting can enjoy various libations and more kooky, creative art from Mr. Wheeler: His “anthills” behind glass feature cross sections of tunnels clogged with matchboxes from area nightclubs, dice, bottle caps, packs of cigarettes, miniature NFL helmets, plastic gold coins, cocktail umbrellas and, of course, golf balls.

But is it wise to combine alcohol and a confined space packed with prized art?

“I think people will behave,” Mr. Vergara says. “You have to be 21, and we’ll have cameras and security.”

Gaming is also central in the downstairs space, which features two pool tables ($15 per hour), two shuffleboard tables ($15 per hour) and two Skee-Ball games (coin operated). So is drinking. There are drink rails everywhere and a long, well-stocked bar.

(For families with children, the owners promise to host special family days.)

The first floor features an open, stylish kitchen and a small dining room offering entrees priced up to $11. The plan is to offer cooking classes and tasting menus.

In the end, will this elaborate, quirky entertainment space pay off? Is the “revitalizing” H Street ready?

“There’s been so much interest,” Mr. Vergara says. “The first day the Web site was up, we got 1,300 hits.”

He and Mr. Zervos, who also co-own another bar up the street, are not worried that potential customers will be turned off by a street still in transition. While new businesses open seemingly weekly, boarded up storefronts are many, and violent crime is never far away. (The neighboring Trinidad neighborhood had several homicides just last year.)

Instead, they take the cup-half-full approach, concentrating on the city’s improvements, vibrancy and sense of renaissance, of which H Street, which was devastated during the 1968 riots, is a clear example.

“We used to be the punch line of jokes in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Mr. Vergara, who grew up in the Washington area, as did Mr. Zervos, who lives just a few blocks from H Street.

“And now look at the city,” Mr. Vergara says. “It’s a place people want to be.”

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