January 5, 2012 | by Patrick Folliard
Taste of New York

Flotilla DeBarge at ‘Speakeasy’ at L’Enfant Café & Bar. (Photo courtesy L’Enfant)

‘Speakeasy’ at L’Enfant Café & Bar

Beginning Jan. 14
2000 18th Street, NW
lenfantcafe.com

For L’Enfant Café & Bar co-owners Christopher Lynch and Jim Ball, boredom is the mother of invention.

After working all weekend, says Ball, he and Lynch sometimes like to go out on Sunday nights. Increasingly they became uninterested in what was offered so they decided to do something themselves. Together they’ve come up with “Speakeasy” at L’Enfant, a bimonthly supper club and cabaret featuring well-known, downtown New York drag artists.

The likable duo — who long ago switched from being boyfriends to business partners/friends — is recreating a vibe they once knew in Manhattan, where they lived prior to opening L’Enfant in Adams Morgan in 2003. They’re modeling “Speakeasy” on Bar d’O, the storied West Village lounge where legendary performance artist and drag diva Joey Arias headlined a cabaret of talented drag performers throughout most of the ‘90s and early 2000s.

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Initially Lynch and Ball aspired to find a “Joey Arias type” for “Speakeasy.” But then reconsidered and thought why not go for the real thing? In September, the canny partners contacted Arias via Facebook and pitched their plan. To their delight, Arias agreed.

So far, there’ve been two “Speakeasy” test pilots at L’Enfant: In late November, Arias and fellow Bar d’O alumnae Flotilla DeBarge and Sade Pendarvis performed two Sunday night shows of soulful song and hilarious banter for sold-out houses. Outrageous, smart, spontaneous and a tad messy, the evening was a success by all counts.

Then in mid-December, DeBarge (whose vitae includes Broadway and film work) returned with a solo holiday show. “Speakeasy’s” regular bimonthly Sunday night schedule kicks off Jan. 14 with both a 7 p.m. dinner show, and a 10:30 cocktail late show. Reservations are required (go to lenfantcafe.com). In addition to Arias and DeBarge, Lady Bunny of “Wigstock” fame is slated for upcoming appearances.

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Arias’ signature look is black lingerie and Betty Page bangs. He’s widely known for channeling Billie Holiday. His credits include a six-year stint as the Mistress of Seduction in “Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity” in Las Vegas, and this April he brings his well-received New York show “Arias with a Twist” to D.C.’s Woolly Mammoth Theatre.  Rarely does Arias do small “Speakeasy” sort of gigs anymore. But what keeps him interested in coming back, “is the idea of trying new material and experimenting with something new: Looks, jokes, new tunes and to see what works. It’s important to remember where you started and keep your chops up.”

Arias adds, “I’m also interested in [including] D.C. talent. But [they] have to sing live and be witty … not nasty! It’s not a drag show. ‘Speakeasy’ is a real cabaret with first class service and entertainment. No one does this anymore.”

Flotilla DeBarge is equally smitten with “Speakeasy”: “I take a little getting used to. I’m big and brash — a mix of early Bette Midler, Tyler Perry’s Medea and some Louise Jefferson. So far D.C. audiences seem to be embracing me, my humor, my whole persona. I’m very grateful to them and [L’Enfant owners] for giving me free reign with what I do.”

“Speakeasy” isn’t the first time Lynch and Ball have filled idle hours with fun at their intimate venue. When faced with dull Saturday afternoons a year ago, they perked things up with “La Boum” (which in French means “teenage house party”). Once a week, they close the blinds and serve a boozy brunch with loud music and entertainment. As very hands-on hosts, Ball successfully plays the comic to Lynch’s straight man. They appear to enjoy themselves immensely and work hard to ensure that their customers do the same.

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As restaurateurs, Lynch and Ball agree that a lot of what they do is theatrical. They liken opening their café’s doors to raising the curtain. When customers arrive, the owners and staff are on. For them, launching a cabaret at L’Enfant is a natural extension of serving food and drink.

“’La Boum’ is fully booked through April. People love it. Judging from early response, it looks like it will be the same with ‘Speakeasy’,” says Lynch. “We think it’s going to be explosive.”

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