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Atlantis: The Washington Post Review

Sango Sho A Hidden Treasure

By Fritz Hahn, The Washington Post, March 26, 2004

If you're looking for karaoke in Washington, Cafe Japone (2032 P St. NW; 202-223-1573) is the place to start. Would-be "entertainers" take the stage every night to belt out Madonna and Frank Sinatra while their friends order rounds of beer and hot sake and cheer them on. Weekends bring bachelorette parties, which revel in the pure, unadulterated cheesiness.

But there's another side to Cafe Japone. Just below street level, a more formal restaurant serves delicious sushi and Japanese fusion dishes. And hidden in the very back of the building is Sango Sho, one of Dupont Circle's most interesting -- and unlikely -- lounges. (When I say "hidden," I'm not kidding. Even friends who regularly visit Japone had no idea there was a bar downstairs.)

Sango Sho means "coral reef castle," says owner Kenji Akiho, and that's what he's trying to create here. Walls are whitewashed and roughly textured as if hewn from rocky coral, and as thickly layered as a topographical map. Small grottos with trickling water fountains and colored panels behind the long bar feature lights that shift color every few seconds. A giant jellyfish sculpture hangs over the lounge area; fiber-optic lights in its tendrils cast a serene glow on the banquettes and shimmering cushions. DJs spin a funky soundtrack of electronic dance music.

Sango Sho isn't exactly a new space, Akiho explains -- it was previously known as Aki, a dance club that was loud, packed and drew complaints from the neighbors. So the club closed and reopened seven months ago with more soundproofing and seating and without a dance floor. "When people dance, it's louder," Akiho says. Still, he decided to expand on Aki's under-the-sea theme for the new lounge.

A rotating series of special events brings music and DJs Wednesday through Sunday, but Saturday is the night to go. Run by the StoneFinger DJ crew, guests from Buzz, Alias, the Blue Room and the 18th Street Lounge have stopped by to spin house, techno and drum'n'bass for a laid-back crowd. There's never a cover charge, and sushi is available from the kitchen until late night. Large bottles of Japanese beer seem to be the beverage of choice. (That may be because the bartenders' skills can be average at best, and the drink "specials" haven't been anything to write home about.)

Despite the concept, Sango Sho never feels like a high-style nightspot. Music and retro kitsch are the draws -- it really feels like a mid-century theme bar that managed to lay undisturbed for 40-odd years before being updated with a cutting-edge lighting system. Some of the decor, such as the bubbling beakers by the DJ booth, look a bit silly, and the splashes of color across the ceiling could well be children's watercolors, although I think they're supposed to represent waves.

Akiho says Sango Sho is a work in progress. Painting continues, and a 1,200-gallon aquarium near the door sits empty -- it was built to house the restaurant's prized sand shark, but it died before the lounge was finished. (Akiho hasn't decided what he's going to do with the tank.) Even without the fish, there's nothing like Sango Sho in Dupont Circle, and the no-cover lounge is the perfect escape from the karaoke madness above.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company

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