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Wine bar on 2200 Penn opens doors
By Ella Mitchell, Contributing News Editor • June 14, 2024

Nero Bar & Lounge owner plans to remodel basement into ‘elegant’ speakeasy

Tyara Estrada | Photographer
Vikram Bhalla, the owner of Dupont Circle’s Nero Bar & Louge, said his new speakeasy will be located in the basement of the joint.

The basement of Nero Bar & Lounge is used for extra storage. But the space will soon be transformed into a speakeasy with Greek-Roman inspired furniture and elegant cocktails.

The Italian-Indian fusion lounge located at 1323 Connecticut Ave. NW is nestled in a crowd of Dupont Circle establishments like Madhatter and The Gryphon DC. Nero Bar & Lounge owner Vik Bhalla said he was inspired to build a speakeasy three months ago after visiting The Gibson – a prohibition-inspired bar on 14th Street – and has been planning its construction ever since.

“Personally I enjoy speakeasies, I’ve been to a few, and I really love them,” Bhalla said. “So I was like, ‘Let’s try and see what we can do.’”

Bhalla said he wanted to take advantage of the empty basement space and create a more “elegant” atmosphere to the otherwise casual bar and lounge in Nero Bar & Lounge. Bhalla met with an architect about a month and a half ago and obtained a liquor license and electrical permit to move forward with construction, he said. Once the speakeasy is set, he said the converted basement will hold roughly 25 to 30 people.

“In a space like ours, an eclectic lounge, we have to create something quite unique in order for people to want to explore the basement,” Bhalla said.

The interior of the current bar and lounge is just as colorful as the Roman emperor it was named after, boasting shades of plum wines and olive greens. But Bhalla said he wants to make the speakeasy “much more elegant” than the rest of the Nero Bar & Lounge dress code and decorations, and the menu will include high-end cocktails and small bites.

“For someone to actually go down, the cocktails have to be really phenomenal,” he said. “The food has to be different, very little food. The food would be maybe 10 percent of what we do. We will have caviar there, we’ll have oysters, stuff like that.”

Keeping with the bar’s Greco-Roman theme, the speakeasy will be named Zeno after the Eastern Roman emperor. The theme will inspire the cocktails, served in Roman-style glasses with intricate Greek-Roman designs.

Bhalla added that he wants the space to “feel like a secret that got out” and will hide the entrance to the speakeasy behind the kitchen. Any successful speakeasy should feel like a place someone stumbles upon by accident, he said.

“And you will just be like, ‘Wait, what, why am I here?’” he said. “The dishwasher is doing his thing. Cooks are cooking. And then you’re walking through all of that, and you open the door and you see this really fancy bar in there.”

The speakeasy will be accessible from two hidden entrances through the bar, he said. Bhalla said he is looking into an app in which visitors can obtain a secret password when they make a reservation. The password will allow them entry into the underground bar to create an aura of secrecy.

Bhalla said he intends to make the speakeasy only accessible to those with reservations in order to keep numbers low and the space seemingly under wraps. Anyone can make a reservation, but the dress code will be fancier than the bar’s “business casual feel,” he said.

The speakeasy is slated to open Nov. 15. Bhalla is currently in the stages of designing and furnishing the room, he said.

“It will be an experience,” Bhalla said. “They will see fire in the drinks, they will see some craziness, the bartender going crazy. It will be presented in a very different way.”

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