There’s something undeniably homey about Montserrat House. Maybe it’s the easy-to-miss facade or the exposed brick; it could be that the venue across from the 9:30 Club sits in what was once two rowhouses; or maybe it’s because when you order a drink at the cash-only bar — say a vodka and Sprite — the bartender looks through the bottles before responding, “How about vodka and ginger ale?”
It all seems to make sense as the latest venture from ESL Management (the brainchild of Thievery Corporation’s Eric Hilton), responsible for the popular any-night-of-the-week neighborhood spots Blackbyrd Warehouse and Marvin, among a growing list of others.
“Sometimes spaces are created and it’s like, ‘We need to get as many people as we can in here as quickly as we can’ and, you know, ‘bottom line, bottom line, bottom line,’ ” says ESL Management’s Sheldon Scott. “It becomes like any place in the world, and you don’t want to go there. You want to go to a place where the experience is unique, the people are unique and the energy and the vibe that you get is unique.”
If singularity is the goal, Montserrat is racking up the points. Since September, the locale has hosted the cast of the musical “Fela!” and offered a stage for folky London-based trio Peggy Sue. But Montserrat also focuses on local collaborations, teaming up with the recently shuttered Govinda Gallery and hosting Irvine Contemporary’s exhibition of photography by musician Moby. You might think of it as curatorial couch-surfing; it can be freeing to let someone else take hosting duties, according to Martin Irvine, who operated a gallery on 14th Street NW for eight years before closing up shop last August.
“It’ll allow me to focus on the artists, the art shows, doing creative events and being more entrepreneurial and taking more risks than you can if you have to make sure you’re making rent every month,” Irvine says.
And while Washington’s art venues, bars and restaurants often get branded based on the crowd they attract, Scott says the scene at Montserrat changes to reflect the name on the bill.
The chill crowd during the recent AM & Shawn Lee show was a far cry from the energetic festivities when the band from “Fela!” took the stage. The group took a break from the refined crowds and pristine setting of Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Harman Hall to pay a visit to Montserrat.
“The cast came in, and they were like, ‘Wow,’ ” Scott says. “It’s like this really raw space, and they were right at floor level with everybody, and people were right up in their face and into the show.”
In a word? “Epic,” which made Scott proud to call Washington home.
“Everybody all around was thoroughly pleased,” he says. “And it’s something that people in D.C. remember, and it’s something that the cast and crew can take back to New York or London or wherever they travel the show internationally and be like, ‘Nobody did it like they did it in D.C.’ ”
-- Stephanie Merry (Nov. 17, 2011)