To kick-start our new nightlife department, we gathered a roundtable of industry vets at Empire in the Seaport to comment on current and future trends in Boston's after-dark scene. They have diverse backgrounds and diverse opinions, but some consensus emerged. Give it up, '90s nostalgists: the era of glow sticks and candy necklaces is never coming back. (Mood lighting and chef-driven small plates? That's more like it.) Cheers to you, party people: you've become a more discerning crowd. (Smaller in number, but elevated in taste.) And get with it, City of Boston: you're still making it too hard for nightlife to flourish here. (Or is that the idea?)
ERIC AULENBACK Managing partner in the Lyons Group, whose nightlife portfolio includes spots like Alibi in the Liberty Hotel and South Boston's new Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant.
JACKSON CANNON Boston's oracle of all things cocktail, owner of the Hawthorne, and bar director at Eastern Standard and Island Creek Oyster Bar.
JOE KANE Managing partner of Big Night Entertainment Group, owner of Empire, the Estate, and Red Lantern, among others, and a 2012 inductee to the Massachusetts Hospitality Hall of Fame.
DJ KON a/k/a Christian Taylor, a Boston-based globetrotting guru of disco and hip-hop, seen locally on Saturdays at Middlesex Lounge.
MALIA LAZU Founding director of Future Boston Alliance, a nonprofit advocating for the improvement of Boston's cultural and entrepreneurial environment, which launched the arty nightlife series Assemble Boston at Emerald Lounge this fall.
BETH MCGURR Promoter behind LesbianNightLife.com and Shuttavac Productions, and a longtime fixture in Boston's gay club scene.
FRANKIE STAVRIANOPOULOS Cofounder of 6one7 Productions, a nightlife empire with mainstay party nights and a gala-focused offshoot, Urban Legend Events.
JAMIE WALSH Bar manager at Stoddard's Fine Food & Ale and cofounder of the Greater Boston Beverage Society, which launched its inaugural Boston Cocktail Summit in 2012.
...ON HOW NIGHTSPOT-STYLE RESTAURANTS SHOOK UP THE CLUB SCENE
ERIC: "Socialized dining" was an industry term that emerged in the late '90s for this trend. Many restaurants have capitalized on the revenue a strong bar scene can provide, implementing strong beverage programs in larger bar areas that take a bite out of the nightclub scene.
FRANKIE: The nightlife experience is broader. It's not about bottle service; that's five years ago. It's about a whole experience, like at Emerald Lounge, where you get a good cocktail, there's a good scene, and someone like Kon is spinning.
JOE: That's something we wanted to accomplish with Red Lantern. You can go in and eat dinner at eight or nine. Then the lights go down, the music comes up; it doesn't become a nightclub, but you're comfortable hanging there. People don't like going to clubs anymore.
JACKSON: With the reduction of club life, the demographics I see now are committed, in a way prior generations weren't, to dedicating disposable income to bars and restaurants. They'll spend $30,000 a year going out. They're not as directed toward home ownership or their car. . . . They want contemporary music, elevated cocktails, elevated food, and an environment to meet other people. And they'll pay a few dollars more. There's a behavioral change in who goes out and how much they're willing to spend.
...ON WHETHER THE EDM EXPLOSION CAN RESCUSCITATE TRADITIONAL CLUBS
ERIC: EDM gave traditional nightclubs a second wind at the turn of the century. It seems to have declined over the last five years. A resurgence will be an uphill battle in 2013.
FRANKIE: It comes in waves. I worked at Avalon in the heyday of dance music, when they were spending $50,000 on a DJ. I've seen it fall flat on its face, and I've seen it grow back again. Music is cyclical.
JOE: It's totally cyclical. We had Pete Tong at the Estate a couple weeks ago. Half the kids there were like, "What the fuck is this?" To the other half, he was a god! It's hot right now, but once something becomes so huge and mainstream — will it jump the shark?
KON: Musically, it's all about EDM. But in this town there's no real outlet. In New York, you don't even have to leave Brooklyn; there are cool bars with different music that isn't the radio being shoved down your throat. But that's what thrives here. It's a collegiate town, a revolving door. For the most part, younger kids dictate what DJs have to play.
...ON BOSTON'S BIGGEST BARRIER TO BETTER NIGHTLIFE: LIQUOR LICENSES (OR THE LACK THEREOF)
JACKSON: Businesses own their liquor licenses. When they're worth $200,000 to $250,000, people want to protect their assets. If you present the not-so-radical idea that it should be easier and less expensive to get a license — which would lead to more choice, more culture, higher overall business growth — people with interest in the value of licenses may not want to change things.
MALIA: Sydney, Australia, has an interesting model. Their licenses were $15,000, which was outrageous for Sydney. They had fraternity-style nightlife and were losing people to Melbourne. They created the Small Bars and Restaurants Bill; licenses are $500 if you're serving under 120 people. It wasn't just that suddenly a bunch of bars got licenses, but, say, art studios got licenses and became lounges. You saw a complete cultural shift. Young couples with work the next day could go out without feeling like they're going to step over throw-up. It revolutionized the city. Let's look for models like this.
JAMIE: I grew up in Boston. I've worked in bars and restaurants here my whole life. I've worked with Flynn, and I've worked with Menino. It's time for a change. He's not a restaurant guy; he's not a nightlife guy. We're losing out.