51 Wharf St., Portland
Dance clubs are fleeting, ephemeral things, like summer flings, coke highs and hickies. They open and close more frequently than restaurants, pubs, or even dive bars. Lo, come this summer, the longest continuously operating club on Wharf and Fore streets will be 51 Wharf, then approaching its second anniversary.
As we reported in a recent Gossip item [“Wharf Street shakeup,” Jan. 19], a slew of Old Port bars and clubs are either closed or slated to shutter before the duck boat returns for the season: Threeways, Digger’s, Liquid Blue, Cake, and The Iguana.
Only one of those locations is certain to still cater to the college crowd: The Oasis is being resurrected after Threeways’ yearlong run in its former home. (Note: Contrary to a statement in that Gossip item, The Iguana is not expected to remain a bar. The real estate broker handling the property recently told us to expect a restaurant offering takeout.)
With The Pavilion still closed and unlikely to reopen as a nightspot anytime soon, that means the Old Port will likely have three fewer dance floors (The Pavilion, Liquid Blue and Cake) and two fewer bars/bars you can dance on (Digger’s and The Iguana) than it did last year.
Where will all those bachelorettes and assholes go?
It’s hard to say, but many will inevitably flock to 51 Wharf. Whether they’ll get in is another story.
Originally pitched to city officials wary of Old Port rowdiness as an “upscale” restaurant and cocktail lounge for grownups, 51 Wharf is more booty than Bordeaux these days.
For one thing, it’s not really a restaurant anymore, though they may serve dinners again when the tourists come back. This is understandable. It’s not easy to compete against neighbors like Street and Co. and Vignola for fine-dining clientele.
For another, any pretense of class was shattered last year when 51 Wharf introduced a night-long booze promotion called “Beat the Clock.” On Tuesdays, well drinks and shots were $1 until 11 p.m., $2 until midnight, and $3 ’til last call. Miller Lite drafts were just a buck all night, as were “watermelon apple” and “UV blue raspberry kamakazie” shots.
(I think Rockin’ Rickey’s has a similar promotion, but it’s dollar Popov shots ’til 11 a.m., not p.m., and none of the drinks offer protection from the sun’s harmful rays.)
Anyway, if you missed this golden opportunity to get loaded on a five-spot, don’t fret. “Beat the Clock” is coming back this spring, according to the club’s Web site (51wharf.com).
51 Wharf was closed the Tuesday night we arrived last month, but our research crew did check out the weekend DJs and Thursday’s live music night.
The décor and atmosphere are a cut above your typical bump-and-grinder palace. For example, the place doesn’t smell like puke. There’s a lounge area with leather chairs, and tiny TV screens tuned to sports have been mounted into the shiny wooden bartop. The bathrooms are clean and the staff is courteous. The head bouncer wears a suit.
On our first visit, I was thinking the place really was upscale until I ordered a draft Geary’s Hampshire and it arrived in a white plastic Bud cup. The DJ was blasting a typical mix of Top 40 hip hop, and the crowd seemed only marginally more sophisticated than the music – that is, not very.
The management of 51 Wharf is aware of the fine line between dancing to songs about thugs and ho’s and catering to the same. They recently instituted a dress code than bans hoodies, baggy pants (and oversized clothing in general), sunglasses and hats worn sideways. “Sneakers are questionable,” the Web site warns, but what that means in practice is anyone’s guess.
The bands on Thursdays are mostly of the funk, blues and jam-rock persuasion. I had a remarkable experience during a set by the group Dreamosaic (well described on 51 Wharf’s site as a “modern fusion of jazz, funk, world music and live electronica”). They were pretty cool, but things got downright surreal when the bartender – whom I later recognized as local rapper Saiyid – grabbed a cordless mic and started busting out rhymes behind the bar in time to the music Dreamosaic was making in the adjoining room, all the while continuing to take and make drink orders! That’s talent.
51 Wharf also advertises a weekly salsa-dancing night on Wednesdays, with lessons and a DJ. That’s classy – classier than line dancing, I suppose.
So this summer is shaping up to be a real test for 51 Wharf. As one of the few dance clubs left in the Old Port, it will be besieged by tipsy bachelorettes and hordes of horny homeboys marching in on sneakered feet.
Will it turn these barbarians away at the gate or beckon them inside to pound dollar drafts and fruity shots that glow in the dark? There’s a mountain of cash to be had by catering to this crowd, but the blame for all the fights and other problems they cause in the street won’t be shared by a cluster of less classy drinking establishments nearby.
The Fuge snapped this photo after one of our research trips to Wharf Street last fall. It’s impossible to say which, if any, of the combatants pictured here may have patronized 51 Wharf prior to this melee. But it’s notable that the ones getting their ass kicked on the cobbles are both wearing sensible shoes.
— Chris Busby
51 Wharf’s hours vary by the season. Check their Web site for the latest.