Shockoe Slip's newest nightclub, Off the Hookah (140 Virginia St., 225-1918), feels more like a high-end Las Vegas casino than a bar here in River City. The almost 11,000-square-foot venue features two floors of exquisitely detailed décor, furnished patios overlooking the Kanawha Canal and nightly performers that include juggling bartenders, belly dancers and contortionists.
Owner Hani Atallah, 42, grew up working at his parents' restaurant on the corner of Laurel and Broad streets in the mid-1970s. The family later moved to South Florida, where they opened Off the Hookah clubs in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. Now Atallah is bringing the business back home.
"It's over the top," he says of the nightclub that opened in late December.
The water-pipe smoking section on the top floor is decorated like a lavish Egyptian banquet hall with golden Pharaoh heads and sphinxes adorning the walls of the warmly lighted lounge. In contrast, the lower floor feels almost like dipping in a cool pond, with cerulean lacquer finish over the concrete floors and blue Chinese lanterns that sway from the ceiling.
"It's not just four walls," Atallah says. "Every little thing has character."
In addition to a moderately priced tapas menu that is divided into four sections — Garden, Air, Water and Earth — the restaurant offers a weekly rotating menu of entrée specials created by head chef Ed Blase. Those interested in hookahs can find flavored tobacco to try; choices include bubble gum, cocktail and lemon with mint. The club also offers a "hydro herbal blend" that it says is free of tobacco and tar.
Early on a Wednesday evening, jazzy Arabic music wafts from the kitchen, where the staff prepares vegetarian stuffed grape leaves and shish kebabs. As the restaurant transitions from dinner crowd to late-night lounge, the lights will go down and the pace will pick up with high-energy techno music.
"Richmond needs more places like this," Atallah says. Then he leans in and whispers, "But I'm glad there isn't. It keeps the competition down." —Anne Dreyfuss