Gusto goes to Hell. Xpressions battles old demons. Also: Is RecordBar digging up old bones?

Haunted Houses 

Gusto goes to Hell. Xpressions battles old demons. Also: Is RecordBar digging up old bones?

Could Gusto Lounge have reopened at a more appropriate time than Halloween weekend? The answer is no. Halloween is about transformation, identity crises, darkness, sleazy celebration. Gusto has these markets cornered.

Or it did, at least, in its former space at 3810 Broadway. Until early September, when Gusto rather abruptly shuttered, the bar struggled for two years to define itself. Gusto wished to be a fashionable dive catering to the cool kids in midtown. But its goals were constantly undermined by its location. Unlike its across-Broadway neighbor, Chez Charlie, Gusto failed to swat away the homeless winos and twitchy tweakers who buzz around the Broadway corridor before and after trips to their hive, the CSL Plasma Center a block north. To the untrained eye, a bum and a midtown DJ may not appear so unalike, but the distinction is more acute to a business owner.

In May, it was announced that Phil Vitti, a young upstart with big ideas and purported hospitality experience in Las Vegas and Chicago, would take over as operations manager at Gusto. He acknowledged the bar's seedy reputation and promised a face-lift. A ragtag but charming creperie, Broadway Crepes, opened up inside the bar, selling fancy late-night treats. The upstairs space (where junkies had once been discovered sleeping in dark corners during business hours) was spruced up and reimagined as the Ledger, a private late-night club. On the Ledger's opening night, a Plaza-like line of hip, young things snaked up Broadway.

But a fatal shooting at neighboring Chubby's in July and a bizarre eye-stabbing incident across the street at Fitz's Blarney Stone in late August reaffirmed wide public sentiment that the neighborhood remains unsafe. Also, crepes are less appetizing when you have to eat them in a janky booth in a smelly bar. And despite the proprietors' claims, the Ledger, open from midnight to 5 a.m. — two hours later than city liquor licenses permit — possessed more than a slight whiff of illegality.

Gusto's closing — unsuccessful lease negotiations were cited — was no huge shock. That it reopened so quickly in a new location was more surprising. The new address is 504 Westport Road, which you might know as the space between Kelly's and America's Pub, or as the former Hell Bar or the former Karma or the former Johnny Dare's. Failures all.

It is into this cursed lair that Gusto now creeps. Precautionary measures have been taken. Karen Chamin, a feng shui specialist, performed incantations inside the building, using "sacred bells, prayers and spice incense from the Tibetan Institute of Astrology and Medicine, to bring new energy," reports the press release announcing Gusto's opening.

Last Thursday, I planned to attend Gusto 2.0's invite-only "soft" opening. I wanted to feel all that positive energy flow through me. But that afternoon, I got a call from the bar's publicist, Kathy Hanis, informing me that the evening's event had been canceled. The managing partners, Sergio Acosta and Vitti, wanted things to be just perfect for Friday, and they needed an extra day to make it so.

Things were less than perfect when I turned up around midnight Friday, though most of the problems I observed could be chalked up to opening-weekend kinks that, in theory at least, should be easy enough to remedy. Most glaring was the lack of restrooms. The only available option was a unisex room upstairs, separated from public space by a billowy yellow curtain. (The path to the other restroom, apparently under construction, was roped off.) Inside were a toilet and a urinal. The urinal was out of service. So, basically: one toilet for the entire bar — and zero privacy; any trip to the restroom absolutely requires a partner who can stand outside and deflect potential intruders.

There were maybe 75 people downstairs — respectable but a bit tepid for an opening. (On Saturday night, a larger crowd turned up for an Angels vs. Devils party with DJ Sheppa and Hannah Hurrle.) The interior of the new Gusto is a vast improvement over its most recent predecessors. The building is roughly 150 years old, and the bar has elected to advertise that fact rather than conceal it, most notably via an abundance of exposed brick.

Danielle Metz, a gregarious redhead who serves as general manager, was tending bar, along with Ryan Shank, an old-school Gusto employee and drummer-about-town. (Jamie Vrooman, formerly of Harry's Bar and Tables, and Sonya Walker, formerly of RecordBar, are a few of the other Westport names signing on at the new Gusto.) Two whiskey and Cokes and a Budweiser came to a reasonable $11.25. The cocktails arrived in 12-ounce glasses. "Tastes like the whiskey and Cokes at the old Gusto," a friend said. Good or bad? "Not good," though he blamed the well-whiskey brand, not the pour.

"This is basically the Union," another companion was quick to note. She's essentially correct, and the overlap goes beyond the clientele. Neill Smith, who books at Riot Room and the Union, is charged with lining up music and DJs. Louder than Bombs, Bill Pile and moombahton nights, all of which either take place or have taken place at the Union, are slated for Gusto. And a handful of former Gusto DJs — Robert Moore, Ben Grimes — skipped out at the old location this summer and took up residencies at the Union. Given these correlations and similarities — to say nothing of all the egos involved — it seems improbable that Gusto and the Union could peacefully coexist a mere block from each other. Surely I am not the only Westport barfly sniffing out some bad blood on the horizon.

"We want to ... showcase local artists, art events, musicians, DJs, bands and vocalists, and the Kansas City film community," Vitti says of the new Gusto. Sounds great. Also sounds like a lot of places I know.

Xpressions, another joint with a checkered past (its 220 Admiral location was previously NV), hosted some wild times this weekend.

Earlier this month, Kansas City, Missouri, liquor inspectors, fed up with years of fights and shootings at the downtown club, were handed a victory when a Jackson County judge effectively revoked its liquor license. The club's owners, Eric and Natasha Union, are appealing that decision (the hearing is November 14). In the meantime, they were ordered to close Xpressions by October 24.

It does not appear as though Eric Union thought very highly of that particular ruling. According to a weekend police report, an investigator for the city's Regulated Industries Division stopped by Xpressions October 29 to confirm that the club was complying with the close order. He found several vehicles parked outside, and as he approached the club, "50–60" people scattered from all exits. He followed a few groups into an adjacent underground parking garage and eventually identified one of the men as Union. Upon spotting the inspector, Union fled upstairs to his apartment, a loft above the club. The investigator called the police. Union was coerced back down into Xpressions, and an investigation of the club was conducted.

Among the more damning pieces of evidence discovered was a credit-card receipt, dated that evening, resting atop an ice bucket, which was, poetically, still full of solid ice. (Also a tad suspicious was the Craigslist ad that Xpressions posted October 24 — the same day it was ordered to cease operations — seeking "AMAZING BOTTLE SERVICE WOMEN ... please include a picture with reply.") Faced with the challenging question of why an establishment that has been ordered to shut down is still ringing up credit-card sales, Union threw his business manager, a man he called Orlando, under the bus. Shortly thereafter, sure enough, Orlando appeared out of nowhere with a broom in his hand, "sweeping the floor with nothing being pushed by the broom," according to the report. Oh, hello officers, just tidying up this bar that has been officially closed for a week. Yes, of course at 3 a.m. on a Friday — what's odd about that? Of the smoking-gun receipt, Orlando limply stated that it could have been an old charge. Uh, hey Orlando, they put the time and date on those things. Aren't you the business manager?

The evening climaxed a half-hour into the investigation, when loud knocking was heard coming from inside the walk-in freezer. A very cold female exited, saying she'd been in the office and walked into the freezer to locate Orlando. Improbably, Orlando wasn't hanging out in the freezer. And then the door locked behind her. "She was unwilling to give a statement regarding her reason for being inside a Judge Ordered Closed Club," the report indicates. Probably a wise decision.

As things were wrapping up, a noise complaint came in from one of Union's neighbors at 220 Admiral; a crowd of folks, presumably clubgoers hiding out after the bust, were making a racket in his loft. Union had also retired to his loft by then. The neighbor wished to file a charge, and the officers sent Orlando to retrieve Union. But Union refused to leave his place. A warrant was filed, and Union was arrested the following evening, an incident that will probably not be seen favorably at Xpressions' upcoming appeal hearing. Still, hell of a party while it lasted.

Finally, at RecordBar Sunday — boy, you should have seen Unknown Mortal Orchestra tear that room up — I heard from some very credible sources that owners Steve Tulipana and Shawn Sherrill have purchased the former Gusto building at 3810 Broadway. They're gutting it and planning to open a new bar at the location in December or January. If that's true, I would advise them to start lobbying the City Council for CSL Plasma's relocation. Tibetan incantations might also be helpful.

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