This is the nightclub that doesn't need you. There are no billboards bearing its name along I-77. No ads in Cleveland magazine. No West 6th Street kiosks listing happy-hour specials. The Yellow Pages carries a phone number, but no address.
It's in a nondescript building that blends into its ramshackle West Side neighborhood. Yet on weekend nights, as barstools begin to fill, the owner draws the shades, concealing the club's only sign and making the windows dark and uninviting to the outside world.
The people who aren't supposed to find it never do, and that's just the way the owner likes it. Most patrons obey his order to utter the club's name only to their most genteel, discreet friends.
This is the Velvet Tango Room. It isn't for everyone.
Secrecy has a way of spawning rumor. And rumors evolve into legend.
A salesman drinking at the Blind Pig nods knowingly at the name. "It's a Russian Mafia bar," he says.
Adds a 25-year-old PR guy, with a hint of awe: "It's a bunch of rich, upper-class people. Miatas, limos there all the time, Porsches."
A young woman whose job requires an expert's knowledge of the bar scene admits she's never been there, but she knows -- absolutely knows -- it's home to the old, gay, and affluent.
Others talk of a deeper mystery lurking behind a door in the back of the club, which leads to a private room.
"If you gain access, you'll meet the real movers and shakers," one man whispers conspiratorially. "Doctors and lawyers and politicians." Someone else mentions Dick Jacobs. Someone else, Carmen Policy. George Clooney is said to have popped in while filming Welcome to Collinwood.
In a stage whisper, a Lakewood bartender says he's heard the Tango Room serves absinthe, the hallucinogenic liqueur that inspired Toulouse-Lautrec and tortured Van Gogh. "Forty bucks a shot," he hisses.
Others invoke the film Eyes Wide Shut -- specifically, the scenes where the wealthy don masks and dive into orgies. "The consensus rumor is that it's some kind of swinging sex club," confides a socialite lawyer. "People who are into group sex or anonymous sex could just wander back there."
These things can't be true. This, after all, is Cleveland.
Nevertheless: The Velvet Tango Room may be the most exclusive, elusive bar in the city.
Finding the truth wouldn't be easy. At minimum, it would require two reporters, a sizable expense account, and a willingness to consume vast quantities of high-end liquor.
We accepted the task.
The Velvet Tango Room is as elegant as its name. It glitters like a diamond in a dumpster on the West Side of the river . . . its purplish neon sign cutting through the darkness, making the battered street look like an Edward Hopper painting.
-- Les Roberts, from the novel A Shoot in Cleveland
Some people will tell you the Velvet Tango Room is in Tremont. Others say Ohio City.
They're both wrong.
It's tucked between the two, in dingy little Duck Island.
Here the houses are 120 years old; the porches sag. There's a dusty food mart around the corner and a large collection of beaters in the back alley -- an old delivery van, a camper, four rotting pickups ready to be cannibalized for parts. One house sports a mini-fridge for porch beers. A neighboring porch trumps it with a broken clothes dryer.
The brick house that's become the Velvet Tango Room would rather blend into its blighted surroundings than brighten them, as evidenced by the club's practice of shuttering the windows by 1 a.m. most evenings. When the thick aluminum blinds come down, it looks like an abandoned building.
A barhopping attorney decided to stop by with some friends one night. They'd driven past before; they'd heard the rumors. Yet there it was, 12:30, and all was dark. "It was like 'Where did it go?' It's this stealth bar."
David Powell, a 30-year-old accountant, remembers his first visit. "It didn't even look like a bar. I was like 'Is this somebody's house, or what is this?'"
The same thought strikes us as we arrive one Friday evening, until we reach the door. "Manners required," a brass plate announces. "Proper attire required," says another. "No big hair" stipulates a third.
Dress-code violators, we've heard, are politely refused entry, unless their gaffe can be corrected. A guy named Franklin once entered wearing a hat. Not a ball cap, but a '40s-era chapeau. "I'm really sorry, sir," one of the bartenders told him. "I'll have to ask you to remove your hat." He was handed a comb with the message, "I lost my hat at the Velvet Tango Room."
Inside, the place glows apricot. The bar is long and mahogany, the floors hardwood. Music trickles softly from a baby grand piano in the back. The TV shows an old war movie.
Bartenders provide leather-bound books listing wines, scotches, and champagnes. There are $14 scotches and a $175 bottle of champagne. The JL Select Courvoisier costs $600. A glass.
Cocktails arrive in heavy crystal on silver trays. Visitors marvel at the bartenders' memories: Come once and order a drink, and they'll bring it to you promptly on your return.
But the Velvet Tango Room's most distinctive custom is The Rose. Every hour or so, the owner emerges, greets guests in his gravelly voice, and presents each woman with one perfect bloom. Thorns removed, naturally.
His name is Paulius Nasvytis, and he glides through the bar, chin held high, in a faultlessly tailored suit. He offers an ever-so-slight bow as he hands a lady a rose.
"I thought, 'This is really class,'" says Sin Hoi Chiew, a chemical engineer who became a regular after checking the place out one night on a whim.
Sean, a 26-year-old bartender who won't let us use his real name, concurs. "You feel classy when you're in there. Like it's a whole different era. It's like 'Okay, even though I'm not fucking loaded, I'm sitting at this fucking posh place, and it's cool.'"
The place has a speakeasy vibe. "It's really only spread through word of mouth," says Gretchen Vehlow, a 30-year-old student. "I'd been going there for months when I found out a friend of mine had been going there regularly. I said, 'How do you know about it? That's my secret!' I couldn't believe he'd been going there."
After a few drinks, though, we begin to wonder whether the private room is myth. More and more people come in, most in various shades of black, but they seem to be sitting at tables, or in the alcove of couches near the piano. People are dropping the name "Velvet Tango Room" with great satisfaction. But no one mentions a private room.
We notice the back door. On it is a brass plate the size of a human face, engraved with a hammer and sickle. But when Paulius wheels out a silver cart to whip up tableside bananas Foster and crêpes Suzette, we assume the back room is no more than a kitchen.
Then a couple enters. He's barrel-chested, wearing a double-breasted suit. She's blond, with silver heels. Paulius greets them like old friends. "Take them to the back," he murmurs to the bartender.
At the hammer-and-sickle door, the bartender swipes her key card. We see a flash of something red, a mirror, a bright light.
Then they're gone.
In the next hour, two more couples disappear into the back. Then a larger group. No one else seems to notice. Though we shift seats for a better view, all we can see are glimpses: a swipe of card, a flash of mirror.
We order another drink. Our bartender suggests a French 75: champagne, cognac, lemon, and a secret ingredient. "All the ladies here drink it," she says.
It's delicious. We ask about the secret ingredient. "What if I'm allergic to it?"
"You aren't," she says.
By 12:30 the front room is almost entirely empty. The party has moved on without us.
Later, we will talk to regulars -- handsome, affable professionals -- who are never invited to the back room.
We leave with more questions than answers.
He has great taste. He has great direction. He really knows how to keep the customers happy. He's a total gentleman.
-- Patron Mike Lang, on what sets Paulius apart from other bar owners
Paulius Nasvytis grew up in Collinwood, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. He didn't learn English until grade school.
For years, he waited tables at some of the city's finest establishments: Johnny's, when there was just one Johnny's, and Classics, where, he jokes, "old waiters go to die." All the while, he dreamed of opening a place of his own, certain only of the name -- The Velvet Tango Room -- and the game: the most expensive bar in Cleveland.
In 1996, he bought a crumbling country-western joint on Columbus Avenue called the Four D's. It cost him only $35,000, and no wonder: The bullet holes in the ceiling were real, the regulars were rednecks, and the jukebox played honky-tonk at 10 cents a tune.
But all he needed was the shell. He gutted the interior. Out went the faux wood paneling; in came crown molding. Even the aura needed an overhaul, so he hired a ghostbuster. She found -- and expelled -- three angry spirits.
His hubris was greeted with heavy skepticism. "How you gonna make money without a pool table?" asked the former owner. And the guys who filled his first liquor order were dumbstruck by the list of 25-year-old scotches and 100-year-old cognacs. "Who the hell are you?" he remembers them asking. "Where did you say this bar is?"
The Velvet Tango Room reflects its owner's eccentric tastes and courtly manner. It is he who greets each patron, he who de-thorns the roses, he who puts the ice in the urinal. He even makes the desserts.
The television presented something of a dilemma. His first impulse was not to have one at all. "There was a time when people didn't have televisions in bars. People had conversations then. People would sing. People would listen to music." Still, a TV-less bar might make the environs too stuffy. So his compromise was to play only black-and-white TV, with no volume. He usually plays old movies, summoning nostalgia from the older crowd. The only sport allowed is Indians baseball. "Some of the players come in here."
Paulius even dictates his customers' behavior.
"I certainly don't allow men to wear hats indoors, because I think it's rude," he says. "My mother raised me that way, damn it. I stand up when a lady enters the room. I can't help it."
A placard on the piano warns patrons not to play it, and whatever they do, not to play anything from Cats. Paulius is the author of the typed list on the door informing all comers of his refusal to serve white zinfandel or "absurd drinks," a category that includes shots. "I would be happy to pour you a glass of Jack Daniel's," he says to those requesting a whiskey shot. And absolutely, positively "No Sex on the Beach. No Purple Hooters."
Swearing is forbidden -- at least within range of a lady. He has no patience for customers who put their feet on the furniture. People who arrive in jeans or shorts risk being turned away. He does his best to discourage amateurs by closing every St. Patrick's Day.
Invariably, customers are shocked that the man has the nerve to scold them. It's one of Paulius's guilty pleasures. "People have this attitude, 'I'm the customer. I'm always right.'" His response: "No, you're not."
He's a little aloof, like any good aristocrat. He greets regulars by name, but you never see him drink with them. Many confess to knowing him distantly, at best.
He closes by 1 a.m., not wanting his club to be the final stop on a pub crawl. "I'm not sloppy seconds," he huffs.
The feel of the place is old-style Mafia, and [the bartender] said they like to maintain a select clientele. Every now and then, it's nice to feel like a member of the upper crust, and the Velvet Tango Room will do that for you.
-- A website posting by a Canadian tourist
Cleveland novelist Les Roberts adores the Velvet Tango Room. "Despite its elegance, despite its snob appeal, despite its elitism, it's a bar where everyone knows your name," he says. "That's a unique combination."
Name recognition is easier, of course, when patrons belong to the political, media, and business elite. "You're sitting there, and there's John Lanigan. There's Dick Jacobs. There's former Brook Park Mayor Tom Coyne," says Roberts. "Everybody who's anybody goes to the Tango at one point or another."
The back room is their playground. "You're dying to get to the back room," says Roberts, "just so that you can say you did."
Bartenders are peppered with questions. "People wanted to know, 'Are there dancing girls in the back room? What's going on back there?'" says Maribeth Barabas, a former bartender.
The staff practices the fine art of evasion. They tell the curious that the back room is for members, but say nothing about who qualifies. Even Barabas, who left to start a bar of her own, keeps the secret. She implies that there are a limited amount of openings, and that Paulius checks his list each year to see if there's room for someone new.
She won't talk about the money. Nor will she give clues about what happens there, saying only, "It's not as Studio 54ish as it may appear."
Poseurs have been known to tell the man in the tuxedo to show them to the back. "I know the owner," they declare. Of course, the man in the tuxedo is the owner. Paulius introduces himself. Then he seats them in the front.
Chiew was one of the lucky ones. After he drank at the club for months, the bartenders asked if he wanted a tour. Chiew, who is Chinese and Indian, guesses they mistook him for a doctor. His Saab keys resting on the bar didn't hurt: "They probably thought I had enough disposable income to buy into a membership."
For him, the back room proved equal to its advertising. "It was like an old gentlemen's club," he says, "made up like a grand living room in a grand house -- and in the most unlikely part of town." He was told that, as a member, he could bring up to two guests with him. The bartenders implied that membership would cost at least a few grand, although they offered few details. Then the tour was over, and he was left with a dim memory of red leather.
Vehlow has been going to the Tango Room for more than two years without ever seeing the back room, but she's content to wait for the day she earns it. "When [a friend] told me how exclusive it was, and that there were salary requirements, I understood that it would be a long time before I get invited back there."
We couldn't wait that long. So after getting the back-room snub on our first visit, we phoned someone who really does know the owner.
Mike Lang owns M. Lang Executive Attire, the high-end men's shop on Playhouse Square. He hangs at the city's most fashionable restaurants and clubs, and is typically generous in his favors.
"Do you want me to call Paulius?" he asked. Of course we did. But mostly, we wanted to get into the back room.
A cozy club where chic types order top-shelf mixed drinks while smoking imported cigarettes.
With Lang's introduction, Paulius greets us in the main bar, wearing a tuxedo and a bemused smile. He ushers us to the back with a wink and a nod, and an "I'll trust you to be discreet about this." This is his theater, and he has his part down cold.
Through the hammer-and-sickle door, we're led into a small vestibule. (First shattered myth: The crest does not mark a clandestine Soviet underground. It came off a train in the old U.S.S.R.; Paulius bought it on eBay.)
We see no Mafia types, no celebrities, no writhing nymphos. Instead, there are scarlet leather couches, club chairs with lion heads on their arms, built-in bookshelves with white marble busts and brandy snifters, a fireplace. Lang compares it to a "Victorian country club." A framed photograph of Rudolph Valentino sits on the mantelpiece. The pianist is playing "Luck Be a Lady."
We sink into the couches, and with just a little prodding, Paulius tells his story and patiently takes our questions. He clearly enjoys the rumors we repeat -- "Even I couldn't make this stuff up!" he exclaims, at least twice.
It soon becomes evident, however, that Paulius cannot be coaxed into revealing the more intriguing secrets, particularly those relating to membership. How much does it cost? Who gets in? He'll only tell us who has the final say: "I do."
The Tango Room has its own caste system, but no Social Register to spell it out. Weekends are for "tourists," says Paulius; the real high rollers use the place Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. So how does he decide which are worthy? "Persistence." But can't persistence become annoying? "It can. And that's the secret. There are other ways to make your point."
As we press him about prices, he coyly asks what we've heard. We throw out $20,000. He laughs so hard that he falls back on the couch and wipes his eyes.
Then we ask about famous members. His formal manner returns. "I don't kiss and tell."
We test Paulius's memory by asking about a radio exec who confessed to being banned from the club. "Is he the one who peed on the side of the building before he wanted to come in?" That's the one.
The exec isn't alone among the exiled: There's a written list, with the banned identified by code. "Midget the Monkey Girl" is a customer who insisted on perching on the bar and on tables.
One man rolled up in a limo flashing cash, with what looked like a hooker on his arm. Paulius refused to let him enter. "I could have used the money, to be honest. But I know a jerk like that is going to ruin the night for everyone." The list doesn't discriminate by race, creed, or net worth: "If they cross the line, they could be the pope. I don't care."
He won't lose his bar to the Philistines. "The places with the VIP concept -- times get tough, and that's when they all panic and drop the bar," he says. "They tend to devolve, rather than get harder and harder to get into.
"It should get harder and harder. And that's what I've got. I can say, 'You've got to jump through these hoops,' and people do it."
From the beginning, he wanted loyal customers. The fickle trendinistas -- the lemmings running toward the Next Big Thing -- nauseate him. (When Roberts told him that he was mentioning the place in a novel, he says Paulius was suitably disdainful: "Oh Christ, now we're going to have people dropping in.")
He'd rather keep a good customer than find two new ones. When Tango Room service falls short of his standards, he might look up the slighted guest's address, then arrive at his or her door with a bottle of champagne and a simple message: "I'm from the Velvet Tango Room. This is how we do things."
Maintaining his position, without advertising and without seeming desperate, isn't easy. There's a buzz to feed, patrons to be flattered, riffraff to be expelled.
Still, with enforcement of the third, the first two happen naturally. When someone ambles into the Tango Room who doesn't quite fit, perhaps in dress or etiquette, it becomes a "floor show" for the regulars, Paulius says.
And that, for him, is the fun of it.
Are you missing bohemian surroundings and aristocratic service? Visit the Velvet Tango Room, the only bar owned by a native Lithuanian, which is located in the western part of Cleveland, near the West Side Market.
Advice: Wear appropriate clothes. You may be refused service if you are wearing a T-shirt.
-- translated from a notice on a Lithuanian Cleveland website.
Maybe the Velvet Tango Room is just a bar. And maybe the back room is little more than a clubhouse for old rich guys.
Then again, maybe that's just what Paulius wants you to think.
"The whole Tango Room thing, you have to understand it. You have to get it," he says.
"Some people come in here, and they're kind of clueless. 'It's a bar that charges a couple bucks more than another bar.' Then there's these people who know there's something here, and they want everybody else to think that they get it, but they really don't. And I don't want them to.
"My regular customers, they are the only people who truly understand what it is we do."
We leave the Velvet Tango Room not entirely sure that we get it. If we don't, it's probably because we're not supposed to. And even if we do, we're not telling anyway. After all, that's the Tango Room way.