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Haunted Houses

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

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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.

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