Photos By Brandon Weight, Text By Brandon Weight and Brandon Wetherbee
The Black Cat is a DC rock and roll institution. For the last two decades the venue and restaurant and bar have provided vegans, punks, drunks, straight edge kids and everyone in between a place to hang out. Whether it’s a sold-out show headlined by a national act on the main stage, a local band playing backstage or an excuse to play pool with some new friends on an otherwise uneventful night, the Black Cat has been there.
This weekend is the 20th anniversary of one of DC’s most important rock clubs. Rather than reminisce about some of our favorite shows at the 14th St venue (there are a lot), we decided to talk to the staff. We spoke to the managers, bartenders, cooks, doormen and show runners about what sets this club apart. Here are 20 lessons we learned from speaking to the Black Cat staff on their 20th anniversary.
Matt Brown, Manager
Matt has been going to the Black Cat, the old Black Cat that was located three doors down, to see punk shows since high school. He started working at the venue at 21 as a doorman, the way most of the staff begins their Black Cat career. Since then he’s moved up from barback to bartender to manager. He’s been working at Black Cat, with a year and a half break, for the last fourteen years. We spoke to him on his night off. Why would a person go to their workplace on their night off?
1. Feels like home
“People will come here on an off night. Sure, I love punk rock and indie rock and all that other stuff so working here is a nice fit, but after years of working in the service industry, it’s rare that you find a place that operates like this. I respect how Dante (Ferrando, owner, general manager, booker, guy that does whatever needs to get done) runs this place. It’s rare that you respect that people above you this much. It makes it feel nice to come here.”
2. Loyalty pays off
Brown, like most of the staff, started working as a doorman, a low level but very important job. He’s moved up the ranks but is still able to do any job required in the venue. The staff is familiar because most of them have been there for years. Bands keep coming back to play the club for similar reasons. A comfortable work environment leads to loyalty.
Pierce McLain, Manager
Pierce has been managing the Black Cat for nearly seven years.
3. Be nice
“On they way out a lot of bands say, “Oh, you guys are so nice!” What are other clubs like? Nobody benefits from being assholes to each other. This goes so much better if we’re all nice to each other.”
4. Feed the performers
“Time and time again I hear from bands that they look forward to this show more than any other on their tour because A) they get fed and B) they get some drinks. That’s what we do for every touring band. Every band gets fed and every band gets a case of beer.”
Lauren Wagner, Band Liaison, Bartender, Bartender
Lauren has been working behind the bars at the Black Cat for eight years.
5. Take a shot and don’t ask what’s in it
Laura Harris, Bartender
Laura’s been working at the Black Cat for twelve years.
6. It’s a place for kids
7. The Backstage sounds just as good as the main room
8. Friends can be nice
Christine Cunniff, Food For Thought Cook
Christine has been cooking at the Food For Thought café since she was a student at the University of Maryland.
9. Tip, even if you’re getting free food, tip
The Black Cat has an excellent reputation with musicians, local and touring alike, due to their food. The Food For Thought cafe serves free food to touring bands and 1/2 priced meals to local bands. Some of those bands remember the their dinner on stage and will say nice things about Food For Thought from the stage. The really smart bands also leave a tip for the staff in their dressing room. It’s the nice thing to do.
10. Go vegan
Christine has been able to stay vegan for seven years thanks to the Food For Thought Menu. If you’ve had any of the club’s food, you know how this is possible. It’s not bad. In fact, it’s actually good. Really. She recommends the following dishes that will satisfy the most meat-friendly Midwestern band.
5. Vegan Dog In A Jacket
Vegan dog, wrapped in tofurkey and deep fried. Vegan doesn’t have to be healthy.
3. The Half-Smoke
Obviously not vegan, but one of the most raved about items on the menu.
2. Veggie Burger
1. Vegan Lasagna
It’s not nearly acidic as the regular lasagna and it’s much lighter
Justin Gellerson , Band Liason, Barback
Justin has been at the Black Cat for a year-and-a-half.
11. It’s nice when your musical heroes are nice
Rio has been working at the Black Cat for eight years.
12. You don’t need to dress up to have a good time
“When people think we’re a club, they come dressed up and think we’re a club, club. They dress like they’re in a movie. There’s no need for that. Dress however you want. Just don’t show up hammered. We’re just trying to supply everyone with a good time. Come in, have a nice time with your friends and just be nice to people. It’s why I ask people how they’re doing, how was your day?”
13. If you’re going to have a bachelorette party visit the Black Cat, remember to take your dildo with you upon exiting
Because the Black Cat is a respectable club and doesn’t want people getting a little too sauced and whipping around a potential weapon, the door staff at the club will gladly hold whatever could be hurtful to others at the front desk. Sometimes people like to enter with things that can be turned into weapons, like dildos. Sometimes those dildos are, according to Rio, “the size of a bat.” While it’s cool to utilize a large, bat-sized dildo in the privacy of anyone’s home, it’s very not cool to use it at a show. It is cool that the Black Cat staff is able to withhold judgement while holding your items (most clubs we’ve visited will just make you toss your valuables).
14. Read a book
Every doorman reads a book. You don’t see this when there’s a show, but when the Red Room is open and it’s a quiet night, you’ll find the doorman reading. Heed their suggestions. If it’s able to keep a staff member entertained through drunks, bad weather and loud noise, it’ll probably keep you entertained. Rio recommends anything from Andrew Vachss. Pierce, who was also a doorman, recommends Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts. Matt, the other manager/former doorman was more of a crossword fan. He also recommends you use a pen. If you’re going to use a pencil, why even write it down?
15. Brandon Weight’s Top 5 albums on the Red Room Jukebox
5. No Age “Nouns” slot 73
4. Ted Leo and the Pharmacists “Save The Sheets” slot 26
3. Gang of Four “Entertainment” slot 00
2. Talking Heads “Remain In Light” slot 85
1. Minor Threat “Complete Discography” slot 99
16. Brandon Wetherbee’s Top 5 albums on the Red Room Jukebox
5. Black Sabbath “We Sold Our Souls For Rock ‘N Roll” slot 06
4. The Ramones “Greatest Hits” slot 17
3. The Ronettes “The Best of The Ronettes” slot 49
2. VA “No Thanks! 70’s Punk Rebellion (Disc 3)” slot 32
Because The Undertones “Teenage Kicks” is on this compilation and it’s the best song about being a teenager.
1. Cheap Trick “Cheap Trick” slot 08
“He’s A Whore” is a perfect song. So perfect Big Black covered it.
17. The sign attached to the back of the back of the upstairs sound board has always caught our eyes. It looks classic. It looks modern. It’s actually a former tabletop painted by former staff member and instrumental component in the transition of the 2001 move, Eric Morgan.
18. Why isn’t this a shirt? This should be on a shirt. The giant mural from the upstairs main room to downstairs is by Scott Gursky.
19. There are windows on the second floor of the Black Cat. They’re hidden by drink signs and probably haven’t opened in years, but there are technically panes of glass that have a beautiful view of the bricks next door.
20. Had a bad day at work? Play a game of pool. Tired of babysitting your friends? Hide in Food For Thought and play some Galaga. Want to get out some aggression with minimal body damage? Hit some pinball. Black Cat houses just enough arcade games to keep things entertaining without becoming a playground. If you’re able to lose over an hour playing a game and not feeling like an 8-year-old, you’ve had a good night. We’ve had many, many good nights losing time at the Black Cat.