Heist has a new look without all the bank robber gimmicks. Photograph by Jahns Chavez.
No more bullet holes in the bar, jewelry embedded between the walls and gold-plated urinals. Instead, bank robber-themed nightclub Dupont Heist reopened after a two-and-a-half-year pandemic hiatus with a much more subtle thematic approach. A staircase lined with black lava rock — meant to give the impression of entering a diamond mine — leads to a sleek, vaulted dance floor and bar outfitted in brass, glass, and concrete.
Former lobbyist Vinoda Basnayake took over Heist in 2017, inheriting the whimsical decor. Since then, he’s cemented the venue as the kind of VIP magnet where Michelle Obama celebrated her birthday and where the Nats and Caps popped bottles after their championship wins. At the same time, Basnayake prided himself on his irreverence towards exclusivity, scrapping cover charges and dress codes and playing open-format music every night that would appeal to a wide audience.
“You could have like a rapper sitting next to a group of sorority girls sitting next to an investment banker. This type of space where everyone feels comfortable and free is something we are very proud of,” says Basnayake. It also owns the Morris American Bar cocktail bar near the Convention Center, the Cuban-inspired hot spot Casta’s Rum Bar in Foggy Bottom, the Ciel Social Club rooftop lounge in Mount Vernon Square, and the Persian/Arabic/Indian restaurant Leila. at Tysons Corner.
Although Heist’s basement space has been closed since the pandemic began, it has captured attention with a series of pop-ups on the roof of the Kennedy Center. Amid controversy and confusion over Covid rules and restrictions, the pop-up was canceled in fall 2020 but eventually returned in summer 2021 with a superstar guest appearance from R&B Jay Sean (Basnayake was his tour manager) plus a private event for comedian Dave Chapelle.
When it finally came time to reopen, Basnayake hired Brian Swanson of Swanson Design, who designed the original Heist, to give the place a makeover. Swanson has designed luxury retail stores for Cartier and Fendi, as well as hotels, restaurants, and even Tyra Banks’ New York residence and headquarters. Basnayake told Swanson he wanted a design unlike anything else in DC that would be in the conversation nationally, if not internationally.
Swanson returned with a black, gold and concrete look with dramatic lighting. The DJ booth, made of $300,000 imported brass, has been moved to the center of the club, and the two bars are enveloped in huge textured glass.
Bottle wrappers still carry names such as “crime” ($3,000), “misdemeanor” ($2,000) and “offence” ($800). But Heist has updated its bottle list to reflect current tastes. For example, tequila has usurped vodka as the party spirit of choice.
“Tequila has been marketed as an all-natural drink made from agave, so there’s a perception that tequila is almost better for you and you don’t get a hangover if you drink tequila” , speculates Basnayake, who is a tequila-soda guy himself. , about his rise to popularity. “When we closed, we didn’t have mezcal on the bottle menu, because we just wouldn’t have sold bottles of mezcal. Now we have mezcal on the bottle menu because mezcal has become a much more common liquor.
The club announced its comeback with a hacker-style takeover of the 300,000-follower @washingtonianprobs Instagram account, where it posted memes poking fun at DC nightlife and gave a tour of the architecture nerd and of real estate Joe Himali, a low-key local TikTok celebrity. Basnayake founded a social media marketing agency during the pandemic, which launched the viral marketing campaign.
Meanwhile, Basnayake has a new day job. (Yes, running nightlife venues is only half of his resume.) He previously represented governments like Qatar as a registered foreign agent and lawyer for Nelson Mullins. He has since become president of Aspiration in the Middle East. The company, in which Qatar invests, “helps countries, governments, businesses, sports businesses and franchises understand their carbon footprint, and then helps them develop plans to become carbon neutral,” Basnayake said. “I took this job in February and have been living between Doha and DC ever since.”
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