The first thing I notice as I walk in to the opening party of SAX, the new Metro Center area restaurant and lounge, is not the luxury-goth club decor or even the writhing bodies behind plate glass above the bar. All of that comes later. What hits me first is that the average age of the patrons hovers closer to that of my mother than myself. Not unusual for a posh DC spot, perhaps, but this one has been over the top in marketing of their “sexy cabaret” theme concept, so I feel a bit uncomfortable, expecting to bump in to a woman from my mom’s book club around every gold-leafed corner.
People will call this crowd “diverse,” but it is a very specific kind of diverse. Which is to say, there are equal parts black and white, male and female, and rather a lot of gay men for a place selling so much female flesh. Really, though, they all seem just alike. Every woman looks like a high-price real estate agent or divorce attorney – or at least like they have one of each in their Blackberry contacts. The men wear shiny cufflinks and smirky, goofy facial expressions, but not ties. These are not my people and this is not my kind of place, but I knew that going in and cannot really judge them for it. These people and their ilk will throw each other many “fun” and “crazy” fiftieth birthday parties here and will enjoy themselves immensely, thinking they are just so outrageous.
Similarly, I predict a surge in bookings of SAX for the bachelorette parties of conservative Christian women who want to do something which involves no actual nudity. Because, it should be made very clear, SAX is not a strip club or a burlesque revue or anything of the sort. Every fifteen minutes or so dancers do perform in the glassed-in stage, but they do so pretty much clothed and only occasionally appear to even be attempting eroticism. Each show is different as the night goes on and mostly seem more inspired by Cirque du Soleil than strippers. At one point a woman in an outfit somewhere between Marie Antoinette and Little Bo Peep prances around a chair. In another show, a man and woman do something like Thai massage together, dressed in yoga clothes.
There are men in the performances, but only rarely. There are many men on the SAX staff – bartenders, runners, bussers, lots of security – but none as waiters. The servers are all young women clad in black corsets and tutu or petticoat style skirts and high heels. The outfits are at least as modest as the average Hooters costume but obviously prettier. Aside from the heels, it seemed like kind of a fun work uniform. The lack of similarly scantily clad men passing cocktails came as a genuine surprise to me given the heavily straight-female and gay-male crowd. If I ran SAX, I would send out some boy-toy cougar bait for those customers, too. (Note: I would not run SAX.)
Gender disparity aside, the waitresses are also legitimately fantastic servers. Charming, friendly, chatty but not obsequious, and eager to help. As I came near the final sip of one glass of Champagne, a man dressed in black asks if he can take away the glass, just as one of these lovely servers delivers a new one with a broad smile. This happens all night, no matter how crowded the places gets. Everyone seems to have anything they want, right when they want it. They are the best thing about SAX lounge.
That said, at SAX’s prices, one would want impeccable service. While I attended the opening party as a guest, on a normal night the minimum for a table reservation starts at $100 per person. A minimum which gets made up quickly with drinks priced around $20 – one of the most expensive cocktail lists I have seen around – and another $20 for, say, an arugula salad or $35 for a cheese plate. The cocktails are distinctive and involve some showmanship for your money. There is liquid nitrogen here and there, drinks with icy textures or ingredient beads and other pretenses to molecular gastronomy, but I did not actually find any of the cocktails I sampled to be delicious. I abandoned one after just two sips. I am told a cinnamon-infused drink was tasty, though I did not catch one of those myself. Similarly, I am told the food was good by people who seemed to be enjoying it. Again, though, it works for the clinetele it sets out to work for – that just is not fussy vegetarians who prefer their drinks simple and brown. I stuck to Champagne (Perrier-Jouët, the event sponsor) and it worked out perfectly fine.
Much has been made of the decor at SAX, particularly the murals depicting political “sex scandals” of the past. Most of them are fictional, of course – a painting of President George W Bush clad in nothing but cowboy hat, boots, and Confederate flag boxers, tossing WMD memos on the ground as a woman looks on from some kind of sex hammock, for example. Of note: Though I looked, I could not find any depictions of President Obama aside from one small, clothed, chaste Obama in a group portrait in the entrance.
Only one painting is genuinely offensive – in fact, it is the only truly tasteless thing about SAX: A painting which depicts Professor Anita Hill not as a colleague and victim of sexual harassment, but rather as some kind of saucy vixen trying to seduce Justice Thomas out of his Supreme Court robes. This hangs in a main stairwell of the club and each time I walked past it I was uncomfortable. Does whoever commissioned that decoration not know the difference between harassment and consensual, if adulterous, relationships? These are very different kinds of scandal and it really breaks a sense of lighthearted silliness which otherwise exists.
SAX wants to be sexy. Just like in real life, though, too much of sexiness is natural and innate to be contrived. The harder one tries to be sexy, the less it works. So, in the absence of genuine desirability, SAX settles for the next best thing: Money. Be it the bling dangling from women and men in the crowd or the gilded everything (160 rolls of gold leaf were used) or the prices, a certain kind of person will go to SAX to feel rich and be among the rich – though, really, they will be among the other aspirational upper-middle-class. They will clink their glasses full of every possible flavor, combination, and color of vodka, and be quite merry.
Upon leaving the party, I was texting with a friend about how he will now take all his first dates to SAX. He was joking, of course, but it would make for a pretty good litmus test, in a way. Because if you are offended by most of the faux-salaciousness, frankly, you are probably kind of a prude. Moreover, though, if you cannot find the absurd humor in the place, you may not be very fun. Because, especially as the drinks flow and a bit of cocktail-waitress glitter somehow rubs off on your skin, there is a sort of charm to the place. They are just trying so hard that you kind of want to give them a chance, clumsy as they are. Why is every surface shiny and flocked and brocaded and decorated to an inch of its life? Why is there a large glass box built into the wall on the lower level, full of cheesy red fake flowers, with zero explanation? Why is everything so woefully, unironically dated? It just is. In the end, one just has to giggle, knock back some Champagne, and take SAX on its own terms.
SAX Restaurant & Lounge is located at 734 11th St, NW. The closest metro stop is Metro Center (Blue/Orange/Red Lines). For more information see saxwdc.com or email email@example.com to book.