Classic cocktails and edgy art pieces anchor Licht Café (1520 U Street NW), a new European coffee house-style bar bringing new light to the LGBTQ+ scene. The lively, but unfussy, new spot opened December 30.
Owner Spencer Hurd, who spent several years in Germany working for the U.S. government, arrived in Washington, D.C. to take a job with NASA in 2014. His dream: launching a cocktail bar modeled after his favorite gay café in Mannheim, Germany.
Tucked in a mere 600-square-foot space, Licht offers a menu of popular cocktails, several bottled beers, and a trio of wines. A handful of savory snacks stand by to accompany the drinks; a rotating batched cocktail is in the works.
To keep the spirits simple, Hurd landed on a list of well-known classics: cosmos, gimlets, Manhattans, martinis, and mojitos. Behind the bar, he stocks only a select number of each type of liquor, although he does lean heavily on a variety of vodkas.
“The goal is to focus on the classic cocktails, rather than just vodka-sodas and rose Kennedys, as you may get at other gay bars,” he says. Bartenders are also at the ready to put together off-menu craft drinks like negronis.
Operating in such a slight space, Licht Café does not have room for a full kitchen. Instead, it offers items perfect for sharing, liked olives and mixed spiced nuts. Hurd did manage to sneak in a petite oven that he’ll leverage to make flammkuchen, a traditional pizza-like flatbread from Germany traditionally topped with crème fraiche and sausage. A full menu launches next week.
After Hurd touched down in D.C. to take his NASA gig, he noticed a gap in LGBTQ+ bar offerings. There were dance clubs (Town and Cobalt, both shuttered) and lively standbys. Yet there did not exist a homey, Euro-style café that encouraged small crowds to linger and mingle over highballs and coupes. (Hurd’s first foray into opening a business geared to the LGBTQ+ community was the now-closed Whiskey Ginger, a clothing shop.)
In early 2019, Hurd finally landed on a space for his boutique-style café: a small former office less than a block from Vida and close to other LGBTQ+ establishments. He received his liquor license in late 2019 and started the buildout in early 2020—right when the pandemic shutdown hit. Managing supply chain woes, pandemic restrictions, and other delays, Licht Café could finally open almost two years after its conception.
Licht Café is a reference to the inspiration from his go-to gay spot in Mannheim, but it also reflects his ideal cozy space. Licht means “light” in English, and the atmosphere is less dark and moody and more bright, joyous, and warm.
Hurd engineered the design and construction himself, including erecting the sleek 270-degree wraparound bar that allows patrons to eye each other over the bartenders.
One major focus of the bar is the artwork that adorns nearly every open wall space.
“I love art and design,” Hurd says, “and I wanted to make the bar unapologetically gay. We too often step around our unique identities.”
Framed in gold, black, and white, the pieces come from American and international artists. They feature nude silhouettes, men of all body types in various states of undress, and cheeky prints of athletic teams. “I want these to be a bid edgy—this is a part of gay culture. Yet it’s not offensive; it’s representative.”
Instead of dark corners, Licht luxuriates in embracing its nooks with comfort. A long, brushed-leather sofa occupies one wall across from a pair of fuzzy forest-green chairs with pops of sunflower-yellow throws. A trio of high-back chairs occupy each 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 re-staining the boards.
As with other recent bars, the bathroom has also received attention to detail with jet-black wall paper adorned with textured felt patterns that give it a “backroom” vibe.
Moving forward, Hurd plans to rotate in batched cocktails he’ll run through a tap with different cocktails on special daily. He’ll also offer the space for events and invite in musicians for live performances.
Hurd hopes that patrons will come for the 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’s gay bar scene is on the up as of late. A new LGBTQ-friendly establishment called Kiki made its anticipated debut on New Year’s Day, making fresh use of the building that formerly housed iconic watering hole Velvet Lounge (915 U Street NW).
Kiki has two dance floors and a stage for weekly drag shows, and a bar program that goes heavy on Absolut vodka. Kiki owner Keaton Fedak, the former general manager at nearby gay bar Dirty Goose, will expand Kiki into the next-door space that formerly housed dive Dodge City. The two-part project, scheduled to be completed this spring, will be connected by a new beer garden out back. he says. “We’re hoping to make a gayborhood 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 a.m.
Tierney Plumb contributed to this report.