Art reference

Licht Café, DC’s newest gay bar, is a cozy, art-filled hideaway on U Street

Anchor of classic cocktails and avant-garde works of art Cafe Licht (1520, rue U NO), a new European cafe-style bar bringing new light to the LGBTQ + scene. The new lively, but no-frills spot opened on December 30.

Owner Spencer Hurd, who spent several years in Germany working for the US government, arrived in Washington, DC to work with NASA in 2014. His dream: to start a cocktail bar modeled on his favorite gay cafe in Mannheim, Germany.

Tucked away in a space of just 600 square feet, Licht offers a popular cocktail menu, several bottled beers, and a trio of wines. A handful of savory snacks accompany the drinks; a rotating batch cocktail is in preparation.

To keep things simple, Hurd landed on a list of well-known classics: cosmos, gimlets, Manhattans, martinis, and mojitos. Behind the bar, he stores only a small number of each type of alcohol, although he leans heavily on a variety of vodkas.

“The goal is to focus on classic cocktails, rather than vodka-sodas and Kennedy roses, like you can find in other gay bars,” he says. Bartenders are also ready to prepare off-menu artisanal drinks like negronis.

Operating in such a small space, the Licht Café has no room for a full kitchen. Instead, it offers items perfect for sharing, like mixed spicy olives and nuts. Hurd managed to sneak into a small oven that he will use to craft flammkuchen, a German flatbread similar to a pizza traditionally garnished with crème fraîche and sausages. A full menu will be launched next week.

After Hurd landed in DC to take his gig at NASA, he noticed a gap in the LGBTQ + bar offerings. There were dance clubs (Town and Cobalt, both closed) and lively standbys. Still, there wasn’t a welcoming European-style cafe that encouraged small crowds to linger and mingle with highballs and coupes. (Hurd’s first foray into opening a business aimed at the LGBTQ + community was Whiskey Ginger, a now-closed clothing store.)

In early 2019, Hurd finally landed on a space for his boutique-style cafe: a tiny old office less than a block from Vida and near other LGBTQ + establishments. It received its liquor license at the end of 2019 and began construction in early 2020, just as the pandemic stop struck. Dealing with supply chain issues, pandemic restrictions and other delays, Licht Café could finally open its doors almost two years after its conception.

The Licht Café is a reference to the inspiration of his favorite gay spot in Mannheim, but it also reflects his ideal cozy space. Licht means “light” in English, and the atmosphere is less gloomy and brooding and brighter, cheerful and warm.

Hurd conceived the design and construction himself, including erecting the sleek 270 degree wrap-around bar that allows patrons to look over themselves to the bartenders.

One of the main purposes of the bar is the artwork that adorns almost any open wall space.

“I love art and design,” says Hurd, “and I wanted to make the bar shamelessly gay. Too often we bypass our unique identities.

Framed in gold, black and white, the pieces come from American and international artists. They feature nude figures, men of all body types in various states of undress, and cheeky sports team prints. “I want this to be cutting edge – it’s part of gay culture. Still, this is not offensive; it is representative.

Instead of dark corners, Licht basks in embracing its nooks and crannies with comfort. A long brushed leather sofa occupies one wall opposite a pair of fluffy forest green chairs with accents of sunflower yellow throws. A trio of high-backed chairs occupy either side of the bar; Mid-century modern chandeliers adorn the ceiling and Edison bulb sconces illuminate the walls. Hurd himself restored the original flooring, sanding and repainting the planks.

As with other recent bars, the bathroom has also been taken care of in every detail with jet black wallpaper adorned with textured felt patterns that give it a “backroom” vibe.

Going forward, Hurd plans to spin batch cocktails that he’ll run through a tap with different cocktails every day. It will also provide space for events and invite musicians for live performances.

Hurd hopes customers will come for drinks and stay to make friends. “I want this space to be inclusive and safe, but also warm, inviting and interesting wherever you look.”

The U Street NW Strip gay bar scene has been on the rise lately. A new LGBTQ-friendly establishment called Kiki made its long-awaited debut on New Years Day, making new use of the building that once housed the iconic Velvet Lounge drinking fountain (915 U Street NW).

Kiki has two dance floors and a stage for weekly drag shows, as well as an Absolut vodka-rich bar program. Kiki’s owner Keaton Fedak, the former general manager of neighboring gay bar Dirty Goose, will expand Kiki into the nearby space that once housed the Dodge City dive center. The two-part project, expected to be completed this spring, will be connected by a new beer garden at the rear. he says. “We hope to create a gay neighborhood in Shaw,” he told Eater last month.

Licht opens at 4 p.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. on weekends; and will close at 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

Kiki is open Thursday from 5.30 p.m. to 1 a.m., Friday from 5.30 p.m. to 3 a.m., Saturday from 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. and Sunday from 3 p.m. to 12 p.m.

Tierney Plumb contributed to this report.