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Courting the A-List 

At downtown nightclubs, a perilous hunt for the beautiful people.

The View on the second story of a crumbling brick building on Prospect. You must walk up subway-like stairs, where a sour, beefy bouncer looks you up and down, as if your value as a human being can be sized up by the name sewn on your jeans. If you're not wearing the right blazer or have deigned to wear tennis shoes, you'll be turned away like the dozens before you. A curt nod is your ticket in.

Inside, leather couches, crystal chandeliers, and lit candelabras give the place the feel of a penthouse suite. Mirrors sparkle like the hood on a sunbaked Humvee, as a floor-to-ceiling TV screen flashes images of the beautiful people slinking about the room. On the rooftop cabana, women in designer dresses with pink martinis watch cotton-candy sunsets descend over the city. Inside the VIP room -- available for $1,000 a night -- shaggy-haired lawyers in Hugo Boss sip $200 flutes of Dom Perignon.

But if you don't already know where The View is, then don't bother coming. The View doesn't want you.

When it opened 16 months ago, it was Cleveland's hippest spot. Execs called each other for tips on gaining access. People didn't mind the long lines or expensive cover charges. Girls with pillow lips and soulful, kohl-lined eyes would wait 20 minutes to get a Heineken. Lawyers left $20 tips for $5 beers. LeBron James and Braylon Edwards were frequent patrons.

But within six months, things started to fall apart. Customers complained about annoying lines. Ditto for the cover charges. A-listers stopped coming. In a panic, the owner imported a string of New York managers, hoping to replicate the chichi atmosphere of Manhattan. But they didn't understand the psychology of the Cleveland bar. The place started hemorrhaging.

On a recent Wednesday night, The View is as deserted as a high school on a snow day. At the lacquered bar, a bartender pours herself a beer, then sneaks a peek at her watch. A group of twentysomethings arrive, conduct a quick survey of the vacant VIP section and the empty dance floor, then head back down the stairs. The bartender returns to staring at her watch.

"If I want to go to a VIP bar, I'll go to Vegas," says one former patron. "After a while, the View started to seem really ridiculous."

Consider it more wreckage on the treacherous road to courting the A-List in Cleveland.

It's midnight, prime mating time on West Sixth. Electronic beats thunder from speakers. Disco lights flash like police cherries. Hostesses parade as rosy-cheeked pimps, promising passersby electrifying times as they hustle people inside their clubs.

A paper sign taped to the door of Traffic announces the dress code as fashionably casual. No hats. No plain T-shirts. No cutoff shirts. No tank tops. But there is a $5 cover charge.

"If I meet a girl I can hook up with, it will be well worth the $5," says one young rooster with a private-school swagger. But once inside, he immediately begins to mourn his departed fiver.

The place is a sausage fest, filled with the sort of guys you'd find at a tailgate party, not a destination bar. Ohio State sweatshirts and matching hats are the uniform. The feel is more Wal-Mart stockroom than Milan runway.

Ermira Pashaj and Anja Shehaj, two glossy-haired college students, are the only women in the room, and they're much more interested in taking pictures of themselves than men.

Private School stalks to the bar and scowls. If he wanted to hang out with meatheads, he could have gone to a mall bar in North Olmsted.

Dewey Forward, former owner of Peabody's in the Flats, finds it a prescient scene. It reminds him of the days before the fall of the Flats. Back then, Peabody's hosted the hottest local bands and rising national acts like R.E.M. The Flats were filled with rowdy men in muscle shirts and women who bought Aqua Net by the case.

"The place was kind of like a shooting star," says Forward. The Flats "blazed brightly for about 15 years, then kind of burnt out rather quickly."

In the beginning, the district attracted the downtown professionals -- lawyers, finance guys, and PR execs looking for a new scene. "Adventurers" is what Forward calls them. The polluted river and dying buildings gave it a desolate chic. It was slumming made cool.

But then the national chains arrived, bringing with them the paralegals and mechanics in search of cheap drinks and cheaper thrills. The B-listers claimed the place as their own. In the nightclub business, it's a natural devolution. Exclusivity breeds popularity, which in turn brings the crowds. If the A-listers wanted that scene, they could go to a T.G.I. Friday's.

That's when Forward fled the bar business. "I could see the writing on the wall," he says. "I knew what was coming."

That was the C-listers. Desperate to fill their rooms, bars started offering 25-cent drink specials and 18-and-over nights. They appealed to the quick-drunk-and thin-wallet crowd. The Flats soon became home to a freak show of violent bouncers, brawls, and shooting headlines. "It was over after that," says Forward.

By then, of course, the coveted A-listers had already found a new home up the hill. Spy Bar on West Sixth was so cool you needed reservations. Liquid offered $6 martinis and a chance to converse without a drunk couple from Brooklyn making out at the next table. Velvet Dog required patrons to don jackets and loafers if they held any hope of getting in. Entertainment writers touted the street as the next hottest thing. The gold rush was on.

New bars began to open like buds bursting in spring. By nightfall, the street was packed. Bartenders carried handkerchiefs to whisk away the sweat; serving hundreds a night was a cardiovascular workout. At 2 a.m., cabs clogged West Sixth to carriage away women in space-needle heels.

But it's one thing to operate a corner bar, where familiarity and a functioning television breed lifelong patrons. It's quite another to be selling the elusive concept of cool. Owners understand that the minute their place has arrived, the descent has begun. "If we last for three years, we'll consider ourselves a success," says Tino Roncone, the new owner of Cloud 9.

Today, West Sixth is showing the strains of age. Bars like Traffic have hired black-belt bouncers to break up fights. And the marketing specials -- like underwear parties, mechanical bulls, and an event that invited diners to eat sushi off a naked lady -- are beginning to resemble the last days of the Flats. The area is now popular with the fake-ID hook-up crowd. In many respects, West Sixth is following the same evolutionary path as the Flats -- only at an accelerated pace.

Says reformed party girl Jen Cochran, who at 25 has already aged out of the scene: "When you're younger, you think it's fun because you don't know any better."

So the A-listers have been forced to migrate again.

The crowd at Flannery's Pub at the edge of East Fourth is composed of suit-and-tie types winding down after work. A frazzled executive orders a glass of Shiraz and slips off a pair of heels to rub her feet. In the background, an Indians game is turned to mute.

At the center of the room, a group of East Fourth tenants catch up on their day. "This place is my Cheers," says 30-year-old Robert Vaughn, who works for National City. "It's a place where I can just chill."

This is what's best about the A-list: They're quiet, calm, and don't bat an eye at paying prices two or three times what you'd find in the neighborhoods.

The crowds on East Fourth are largely recent graduates of the West Sixth scene. If they venture back at all, they go for the memories, the chance to relive drunken follies. But now they're looking for a quick buzz, not a quickie in the bathroom.

East Fourth has become something akin to the hot blond chick who just moved in from California. The Corner Alley, the House of Blues, Pickwick, and Flannery's will soon be joined by new tequila and martini bars.

"I got burnt out of West Sixth," explains Sharon Kehoe, a sales manager for a computer company. She grew tired of the pushy crowds, caffeinated beats, and girls wearing flimsy tank tops in 20-degree weather. "It was just, like, enough is enough."

East Fourth is filled with the kind of anticipatory excitement that descends upon a town when its team makes the playoffs. Though it's freezing outside, people linger in the streets, pausing to look at Lola's menu and Pickwick's posters for upcoming comedians.

On a recent Friday at the Corner Alley, an upscale bowling alley with a martini bar, there's a two-hour wait to get a lane -- which doesn't get any shorter for the man who offers a $1,000 bribe. Gel-haired men stylin' like John Gotti wave $5 at the bartenders, hoping to get their attention.

The lanes are so glossy you can see your reflection. Dan Edelman, a recent University of Montana grad, grabs a ball. "This place might be the coolest place in Cleveland," he says, then frowns. "That's kind of sad."

He understands the irony in the ever-present quest for cool, the fact that bowling -- the official sport of retirees in mismatched socks -- is currently "in." But there would seem a rapid shelf-life to paying $36 to bowl. And by the time East Fourth is built to full glory, the A-Listers will likely have moved again -- perhaps even back to the Flats.

That's where Scott Wolstein is constructing a $230-million resurrection. If all goes according to plan, there will be a marina walk, a string of bars once again cuddling up to the polluted river, and a new entertainment complex, targeting the same customers who now haunt East Fourth.

"If that happens, we'll really start to see a catfight," says Vaughn.

Owners of the View are coming to grips with this. In one sense, they're a victim of the A-list's transient ways. But their wounds are also self-inflicted, for their strategy was one that's already failed repeatedly in Cleveland: trying to recreate the New York/Los Angeles/Miami club in the last of America's truly blue-collar towns.

"We're more of a beer-and-shot kind of crowd," says promoter Arnold Hines. Owners who fail view the city as a smaller version of Miami or Los Angeles.

Adds John Owen, co-owner of Dive Bar, "There's no VIPs in Cleveland, Ohio."

In our eyes, what initially seems "cool" can rapidly morph into "incredibly stupid," especially when it comes with a high price tag.

Such was the case with V Lounge, a New York-style club located in a basement on East Fourth that featured electronica and $12 Bellinis. Owners made the downtown club hard to find -- even some who dined at Vivo, the restaurant upstairs, didn't know it existed. And customers didn't enjoy paying $4 for the same beers they had for $2 on West Sixth. Three years after the bar premiered, it's now open only for private parties.

Creating a false sense of exclusivity can also kill your business. Tramp, on West Ninth, featured stripper poles and house music, but it was a block away from West Sixth. "People had to make a conscious decision to walk past four busy bars to get to Tramp," former owner Terry Barbu explains.

But it didn't help that customers were made to wait in lines outside in an effort to hold up appearances. "When we finally got inside, there was nobody there," says Vaughn. The executive and his friends would be steaming mad.

Not even money can save you. When Bossa Nova opened in Beachwood, owners hoped a high-class martini bar would score with East Side socialites. It came equipped with framed Picasso sketches, a bar stacked with Cristal, and chefs serving teaspoon-sized appetizers with unpronounceable names for $12. But the cavernous lounge was too big. Even with 100 people, the place looked empty.

To compensate, owners started running Wednesday- and Thursday-night specials. But they attracted a largely black crowd, not the wealthy socialites owners expected. "Instead of embracing the crowd -- who were good clientele -- and working with them," owners simply ended the specials, says Hines. The bar closed last year.

To their credit, West Sixth owners understand their current demographics.

"West Sixth is more of a B-crowd street," acknowledges Barbu, the patriarch of the West Sixth bar scene. "It's not as affluent." What they're trying to stop is the street turning into a C-crowd spot. "We can't give up and start advertising 25-cent cocktails."

Last year Barbu opened up Ultra, a Moroccan-style dance club that plays Top 40 beats. The place is doing well.

On a recent Friday, a group of college kids unloads from a bus in front of the lounge. Tomas Tatarunes, a 22-year-old CSU student who still lives at home in Mentor, stumbles down the dark stairs. He announces that the drinks are a bit pricey, but he's pleased by the sight before him: a crowd of underdressed girls in tank tops and vein-constricting jeans. It's the kind of view that will always make young men come back.

Asked if he's here to hook up, Tomas smiles impishly. "Abso-fucking-lutely."

Back at The View, owners have come to the realization that if they want to survive, they must reposition themselves.

At a Wednesday-night meeting, employees sit around drinking, while managers discuss new strategies. The first suggestion seems obvious: If they want people to come to the bar, they should probably let them know where it is. It appears that being exclusive to the point of hiding wasn't the best of plans.

"I tell all of my friends to come to the bar, but then they're like, 'We can't find the place,'" a bartender complains. Management will soon put a large sign outside.

The bar will also be revamped. Too many people arrive, see the large, crowdless space, and immediately turn around. Heavy velvet curtains will section off the lounge, making the space seem more intimate.

Bartenders are also cautioned against handing out complimentary drinks. Loose pours are also discouraged. "You don't get better tips for being liberal pourers," owner Tom Eggett warns.

Yet this too is a notion that seems to violate the rules of Cleveland. In a shot-and-beer town raised on the generous pour, few things create more lasting animus than a lightweight drink.

To club veteran Barbu, it all smells like a quest better jettisoned. "You can't remarket yourself back up into popularity," he says.

On a recent Friday night, The View is as empty as a Westlake bus stop.

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