Walking into Never Looked Better, a visually arresting basement bar with an early aughts vibe that opens at 5 p.m. tonight in Blagden Alley, feels like a trip in of itself.
Hidden past a grey, unmarked door covered in stickers, the name of new place — Never Looked Better — gets spelled out in neon pink cursive just as patrons look into a mirror at the top of the stairs (130 Blagden Alley NW). After descending the leaf-lined stairs for an ID check, customers will see a kitchen door to the left, but that’s just a storage room. “Going through a kitchen, very Goodfellas,” owner Seth McClelland explains. Patrons will be less perplexed when they turn right and finally find themselves on the main floor of a bar that’s different than anything D.C. has ever seen — a place that combines a speakeasy’s serious approach to bartending with the bright, loose vibe of an underground rave. Opening weekend hours are Friday, June 4, and Saturday, June 5, from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. (check social media for future hours).
The 2,600-square-foot, rectangular setup with room for 110 signals an about-face for McClelland and beverage director Jeff Coles, whose hidden K Street NW bar the Mirror takes the traditional speakeasy approach, complete with classic cocktails and Edison bulbs.
“We have long wanted to explore the dark ages of cocktails before 2004, [when] there was no craft movement or speakeasies,” says McClelland, who first connected with Coles while working at One Lounge in 2009. “We really wanted to invoke that whole era — it’s when we were growing up, so it’s something special to us.”
The Spotify playlist blasted from a crystal clear sound system pulls hits from the same time capsule (think Eminem, Dr. Dre, Justin Timberlake, and Lil Kim).
While The Mirror swings more serious, its new sister bar wants to serve an underlying theme of fun through its cocktails and design. That stands in contrast to the high-level approach at neighboring places like the Dabney and Columbia Room.
“We’ve been locked down for 15 months. It’s time to get out there and have some fun,” says McClelland. The neighborhood will get another big nightlife win with the opening of Eighteenth Street Lounge’s newly announced location later this year.
The cocktail menu leaves room for the imagination by skipping over actual ingredients in cheeky descriptions. A cosmopolitan is simply called “it’s pink,” but it draws from a 1930s-era recipe with Old Tom gin, homemade grenadine that includes a pomegranate molasses reduction, orange liqueur, and fresh lemon juice.
A “Not Vodka” section features a Manhattan called “The Power Move” and a paloma called “Tequila and Grapefruit Has No Business Being This Refreshing.” A group of “Vodka has Never Looked Better” drinks includes a French Martini (“like the kiss but wetter”) and an appletini (“it’s green”). The latter sticks to its roots by employing Apple Pucker. But, McClelland says, “we found if you use Civic Vodka, fresh lime juice, fresh simple, and shake it properly and strain it through a chilled glass, it’s actually delicious.”
The team leans into “Karen” highballs like a vodka soda with a splash of cranberry (“Rose Kennedy”) and Rum & Coke (“Cuba Libre”). Wine coolers are even in the mix. “If it’s in this sexy environment, why not?” Coles asks. Beers and wines rotate in and out, so shiny menus that glow under black lights don’t actually name a specific brand at any given time.
To feed customers, Never Looked Better plans to host pop-ups from up-and-coming chefs and friends, starting with a visit from Daru, an incoming Indian restaurant and cocktail bar in Northeast, next weekend.
Meanwhile, the look inside Never Looked Better also follows the irreverent lead of the cocktails. That means jungle vibes, black lights, neon, and walls covered in stickers.
Sleek subway tiles are stamped with pop culture decals that depict Breaking Bad’s Heisenberg, mini martians, and NSFW quotes, all with the aim of feeling like an exhibit from street artist Shepard Fairey.
A mirror-lined room adorned with a wall of white silk flowers — dubbed the “Honeymoon Suite” — warms up drinkers to the main event: a turquoise-tiled bar flecked with gold spray-painted leaves and zig-zag stemware that mimic the shape of overhead LED lights.
The back of the bar is framed with jumbo leaves called Caribbean elephant ears. Scrabble letters spell out “reserved” tables, with bottle service coming soon. Cowhide rugs and slick white and brown leather sofas are just two examples of furnishings that beg to be touched. At the entrance, a hostess stand will house a stash of shots for customers while they’re waiting in the wings.
McClelland drove a U-Haul from New York full of plants from Chelsea’s famed Flower Market. NYC-based event consultant/designer Reanna Zaccard (The Velour Collective) put together the whole look.
Drinking vessels follow the same mathematic and linear principles as square tiles and mirrors that repeat around the bar, with slanted shot glasses and highballs.
“In almost no context would this glassware be cool — I don’t even know why they made it — but somehow it works perfectly here,” says Coles. Bathrooms are similarly corny, spelling out “Send Nudes” and “Venmo Me” in pink neon. Shots will also be filled in test tubes shopped from Amazon’s chemist feed. A Moscow Mule stays on brand in a copper mug.
A daily happy hour with a $2 discount on the whole drink list will run 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on weekdays and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, offering weekend warriors a chill, window-less atmosphere where time flies, Vegas style.
“You can go sweat at brunch out on a patio or come keep the party going down here,” Coles says.
The owners have already started to tag their new bar with stickers and quotes scribbled in Sharpies on the subway tiles, encouraging customers to vandalize in the same way.