Swing Era elegance, Art Deco beauty, and the best entertainment today
By Kris Gilbertson
When their now college-age children were very young, a friend approached Alexandrians Brennan and Sharon Reilly about joining a group of investors to lease the restaurant operation in Gadsby’s Tavern. They did, and Brennan, an attorney, negotiated the lease with the City. This was the Reilly’s introduction to the restaurant business.
Then that friendly advisor bought a bar outside of Baltimore and the Reillys bought Yesterday’s All-American Café, a restaurant and deli on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach. “But after four or five seasons,” says Sharon Reilly, “the children were growing up and wanting to do urban kid stuff during summers.”
So the Reillys sold Yesterday’s, returned to Alexandria, and sank the proceeds into an Art Deco entertainment and event venue, the first Carlyle Club, which opened in 2007 at 411 John Carlyle Street, in the developing Carlyle District, between Duke Street and Eisenhower Avenue in Alexandria.
Why Art Deco?
“There wasn’t any place for us to go out, to see a show, to dance, to listen to music,” Sharon Reilly says. “The clubs are for young people, they’re not for older people—so we felt like there was a need. And Brennan always loved history, especially the Art Deco period, the glory days of Hollywood and all that.”
“There are lots of music places out there, but they’re not intimate,” she adds, “and you don’t have a dining experience. We do white table dining.”
At the Carlyle Club, a person can enjoy dinner and watch a show. A lot of shows are “listening experiences, or dancing experiences,” says Sharon. “Glenn Miller is coming soon; we just had the Sinatra tribute to mark his 100th year. When Martha Reeves was in town for President Obama’s first inauguration, she did one show at the Carlyle Club.”
Businesses and associations like the Tennessee Board of Trade can also book the club to treat their clients and/or employees and they often bring in celebrity entertainers like Dirks Bentley and Joe Nichols. The club is equipped with professional sound and lighting—a real theater/stage experience. “We can support whatever music needs to be up there,” says Sharon, “even an 18-piece orchestra.”
Law, accounting, and herding fifth graders
Brennan and Sharon Reilly met at Virginia Tech and have been together for 35 years, married for 25. Their oldest two children are in college (Creighton University and Xavier University); the third attends Bishop Ireton High School in Alexandria.
Brennan has degrees in both law and accounting, which Sharon points out is very helpful when running a restaurant. Sharon was a stay-at-home mother for years and then taught second, fourth, and fifth grade in the Fairfax County school system. Six years ago, she took the sabbatical without end.
“My skill set,” she says, “is organization and attention to detail.” Her creative outlet comes as the club’s wedding coordinator and event planner. The club is a venue for a lot of wedding receptions and, says Sharon, “herding wedding parties is a lot like herding fifth graders.”
The Carlyle District
The original Carlyle Club opened nine years ago at 411 John Carlyle Street and stayed there for eight years. In a 2008 media interview, Brennan Reilly predicted that “by the end of this year or next, the Eisenhower Valley off Duke Street will be teeming with tourists, restaurant-goers and night shoppers, and will become one of the region’s next hot spots, along the lines of Clarendon, Ballston or Shirlington.”
It hasn’t happened yet. In daylight, the area is a dynamic center of government and business activity, including the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, Eastern District of Virginia Court, multiple business offices, and future home of the National Science Foundation, but it’s a different story after office hours.
The original plans for the Carlyle district required two-story retail space in the new buildings. Then the recession hit and, notes Reilly, the City allowed developers to redesign with retail spaces becoming one story. “This meant big companies like Crate & Barrel couldn’t come in,” she says. Small businesses couldn’t attract enough foot traffic and, as a result, many struggled and then closed.
“We were supposed to be like Clarendon and have the Pottery Barns, Cheesecake Factories, and all that—we were supposed to be a destination,” says Sharon Reilly.
She lists some of the casualties: A chocolate company gone. Yoga studio struggling. Daycare center. “A daycare center—that’s like the end of the world,” Reilly says. In fact, it was the daycare center’s need for two units (one already occupied by the club) that precipitated Carlyle Club’s move to Ballenger Street and a fast-paced construction to minimize down time.
The new Carlyle Club
“I would not wish a commercial build-out on anybody,” says Sharon. “It was a nightmare. What should be done in a year was done at the club’s new location in five months, and that was not enough time.” Reilly was on site every day, all day, “watching every nail being screwed into the wall.”
Add to this the level of coordination needed with city agencies: health, fire, planning, zoning, special use permit, and an ABC license application that must be printed in two different publications and posted on the front door for eight weeks.
But Reilly gives city government high marks. “The City of Alexandria was great to work with. I think they worked with us because we are one of the few entities that has been successful in Carlyle.”
The event becomes the destination
If the Carlyle district is not yet a destination, the Carlyle Club is a destination unto itself. This is not a regular restaurant. It has no set hours, and opens only if a show or event has been booked. Anyone going there is going for a reason, not dropping in for a drink or a bite.
The price of admission varies. Ticket prices are based on the nature and size of the show, and are gauged to cover the cost of presenting that show. Beyond that is the $25 minimum per person for food and/or drink, although in the circular bar, with limited sight line to the stage, there is no minimum.
Chef Ibrahim Koroma has controlled the Carlyle Club kitchen for 8 years, after 15 years at Clyde’s. The club employs about 30 people in front and back of the house. “We’re not a fivestar restaurant,” says Sharon Reilly. “We’re traditional—a very good American cuisine restaurant.”
Bridal showcases and weddings
Carlyle Club stages two Bridal Showcases a year, in January and September, each attracting from 300 to 500 attendees. The club partners with Visit Alexandria to bring wedding business into the city. At each event, the entire club is set up with supplier exhibits and displays. Clients can talk directly to vendors, like an expo on a small scale.
“It’s not overwhelming like an expo at Dulles that’s so big and with so many people that you can’t really talk and make decisions,” says Sharon. “Here, a person could plan their whole wedding in one day, if they wanted to.”
Reilly brings in “a lot of vendors I’ve worked with over the years. They’re good, leaders in their professions, with good price points—it makes it easy for the buyer.”
Carlyle Club staged 58 weddings from March through December last year. (The club was closed January and February 2015). They have 56 weddings already booked for the upcoming season, with more expected. At this time, the club’s business runs about 60 percent weddings/40 percent entertainment events. “And it’s not just receptions,” says Reilly, “but ceremonies, too. Bring your own officiant, cake, the music you want— Carlyle Club does the rest.”
But not wedding cakes. Reilly says they are “too personal,” although upon occasion, when clients are not local, she has arranged to have the cake created.
Looking to the future
Asked what she foresees in the future, Sharon Reilly points out that “to become a restaurant district, you need restaurants—three or four, or five or six, to choose from—so you become a restaurant area, like Shirlington.”
Carlyle Club partners with two hotels, the Westin Alexandria, which gives a preferred rate for Carlyle Club event guests, and Marriott Residence Inn on Hill Road. But the Carlyle area is deserted after dark and there isn’t a comparable restaurant nearby. “During a three- or four-day conference at one of the hotels,” says Reilly, “guests will come across the street here for dinner and we’ll have a show or something.”
Still, the club is dark several nights a week. Reilly wants to expand corporate private events, even corporate happy hours, and do more music shows. “I’d like to be not dark,” she says, “I’d like to be open six nights a week doing something. So we’re going to be doing more of the same.”
The Carlyle Club
2050 Ballenger Street
Alexandria, VA 22314
For special events, the Carlyle Club books groups from 20 to 350. For shows, couples and individuals are warmly welcomed. Information about upcoming shows, ticket purchases, and views of the club’s facilities are on the website. On street parking is plentiful in the Carlyle district after office hours and there’s access to two parking garages around the corner on Elizabeth Lane.