The Barfly hits Honolulu's newest nightclub experience, LEVEL4 at Waikiki Nei
THE REVITALIZATION of Waikiki continues, despite a worsening economy and fuel prices that threaten to cripple the flow of tourists to our island paradise.
LEVEL4 NIGHTCLUB AND ULTRA LOUNGE
Place: Royal Hawaiian Center
Hours: 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 10:30 p.m. to 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Just off Kalakaua Avenue, hotels are still being built. Road construction is still a concern for those trying to drive from Kakaako to Kapahulu.
At the Royal Hawaiian Center, LEVEL4 Nightclub and Ultra Lounge is the latest effort to improve nightlife options in the area, following the recent additions of Senor Frog's, Coconut Willy's and RumFire.
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Terren Zorne, left, and Mikaela Koo enjoyed the party July 19, LEVEL4's opening night.
"We're trying to raise the bar," said LEVEL4 chief operating officer Todd Dougall. "The idea of being able to do a show and a nightclub is very exciting.
"(Other) places have tried, but I think we have enough to give people what nobody's ever seen."
Dougall is referring to the space-sharing between LEVEL4 and Waikiki Nei, the Hawaii-themed staged production scheduled to open later this month. Waikiki Nei inhabits the venue in the evenings, before it transforms to LEVEL4 Wednesday to Saturday nights.
IT'S EASY to buy into his optimism, given Dougall's extensive experience in Las Vegas.
After 15 years with Siegfried and Roy, he served as entertainment director for casino mogul Steve Wynn before working the last decade as vice president of entertainment at the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino.
He's joined at LEVEL4 by director of nightlife operations Alvin Yeh, who returned home to help open Pearl Ultra Lounge after working his way to the top of Vegas' nightlife ladder with stints at the Wynn Las Vegas, Studio54 and Tabu Ultra Lounge.
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A go-go dancer entertains the crowd at Waikiki's newest entry into the high-end nightclub scene.
The Vegas trifecta is completed by front-door manager Don Lee. Of the three, he's the one guests will see most, because he has the final say on who gets into the club.
Yeh and Lee had their hands full on July 18, when LEVEL4 hosted its first event. With little time to prepare and virtually no training, the staff was pressed into action as more than 1,500 people from an Australian tour group partied the night away.
The following evening was even crazier. Hundreds of people were in line when a traditional Chinese lion dance kicked things off at 9 p.m. By the time I arrived at 10:45, at least 100 people jockeyed for position near the front door. VIPs shot dirty looks at each other and begged door hosts for access, as countless others waited in a general-admission line that didn't move.
Wandering away from the madness, I found myself in the area billed as a 7,000-square-foot outdoor lanai and designated smoking area. Those lucky enough to make it inside were allowed in-and-out privileges to this broad swath of concrete, but the much-hyped VIP cabanas didn't exist. A planned outdoor bar also remained shuttered for the time being, although guests were allowed to take drinks outside. According to Yeh, permits are pending for the cabanas; the bar will be completed at a later date.
RETREATING TO DORAKU for cocktails and sushi, I built up the strength to head back upstairs to LEVEL4. When I returned an hour later, most of the crowd had made it inside -- or had simply given up and gone elsewhere.
Once past the front door, I realized the outdoor lanai wasn't the only part of this venue left unfinished. A few plasma screens were in operation, but not nearly as many as Dougall had promised.
It was also hard to shake the notion that you're in a theater lobby, due to the venue's other life as site of Waikiki Nei. And as someone who has spent more than $500 on bottle service in Las Vegas a number of times, I can tell you the caliber of service at LEVEL4 appears to leave much to be desired.
From what I've seen so far, it's simply not worth the money - yet. Typically, bottle service comes with complimentary cover for up to four people along with a private table, dedicated server and mixers.
On opening night, however, I saw numerous people serving themselves, and other than a pair of VIP skyboxes above the dance floor, there is nothing to differentiate the premium service from those paying the normal $15 cover. In Vegas, I'd see VIP tables with dedicated security along with the servers.
At LEVEL4, there isn't even a rope to keep interlopers from crashing your couch.
LEVEL4'S SAVING GRACE, at this point, is the space used as a dance floor when the nightclub is open for business.
If you believe the hype, more than 4,000 square feet is available for guests to shake it until 4 a.m. Veteran local DJs Paul Brandon and Mike D spin a mix of house and hip-hop some might remember from the Ocean Club.
For those willing to pay, two additional VIP areas are located on either side of the DJ booth in the center of the room. I just hope management is smart enough to open the area overlooking the dance floor, because it appears to be the only place to sit without springing for bottle service.
Onstage, go-go dancers rotate with aerial performers. In what could be a first for a mainstream Honolulu club, both males and females are used to inspire the masses.
But what excites me the most is the prospect of LEVEL4 hosting live concerts at some point. It will take a lot of planning to coexist with Waikiki Nei's production schedule, but the effort will definitely be worth it. There isn't another room in Honolulu like this one, with a state-of-the-art sound system and intimate setting reminiscent of House of Blues locations on the mainland.
YET THE QUESTIONS remain. Will LEVEL4 make it past a year in business?
Will local residents resist the club's efforts to institute a Vegas-style door policy previously unseen in Honolulu?
And at the end of the night, will you be able to say you enjoyed your time there?
At this point, it's hard to say. LEVEL4 might have disappointed some - this columnist included - by rushing to open its doors to the general public.
But with a number of experienced and talented people running the show and an enthusiastic staff backing them up, I've got a feeling this place will be able to adapt and persevere despite the current volatility in Waikiki. I look forward to partying here more during the months (and hopefully years) to come.
Barfly appears every last Friday of the month in HiLife. Reach Jason Genegabus
with suggestions of neighborhood bars to visit.