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D.C. Nightlife Pioneer Seth McClelland Dies at 40

The passionate founder of bars like Never Looked Better and the Mirror passed away on Saturday, November 12

Bar owner Seth McClelland at his downtown speakeasy the Speak, which turned into the Mirror in 2018.
Joy Asico
Tierney Plumb is the editor of Eater DC, covering all things food and drink around the nation's capital.

Seth McClelland — the driving hospitality force behind two of the city’s hottest cocktail bars, with another on the way — died over the weekend at the age of 40.

McClelland, the CEO and creative director of a growing D.C. bar group, ran downtown’s popular underground speakeasy the Mirror and Blagden Alley’s edgy, LED-lit drinking den Never Looked Better. He’s also affiliated with Old Town’s respected watering hole the People’s Drug. By day, the gregarious Georgetown University alum was a senior commercial real estate broker at Weichert Commercial Brokerage, and split his time between D.C. and Manhattan.

“It is with great sadness that we must announce the death of our dear friend, Seth, who died peacefully on Saturday,” per a public message posted to his Facebook homepage on Sunday, November 13. “Presently we do not have any further information, but we will provide it as soon as it becomes available. Please give consideration and space to his family at this time.”

McClelland met his beverage director Jeff Coles back in 2009 while working together at Dupont’s One Lounge. The D.C. industry vets were just gearing up to open an old-timey cocktail bar in the historic Connecticut Avenue NW building that formerly housed Northside Tavern. An avid antiques collector, McClelland frequently posted Instagram stories documenting its construction progress and vintage design. Coles, understandably distraught over the loss of his longtime business partner and friend, declined to comment at this time.

“I was lucky enough to be part of Seth’s magic for 13+ years,” said his longtime publicist Dannia Hakki of MoKi Media. “It’s common in our world for a client to become a friend, but very rarely does a client transcend to the level of family. Seth was magically dynamic. A jack of all trades. He simply shined. He was the kind of person who made you feel like your connection with him was unlike any other, when in truth, it was him who was unlike anyone else.”

Her colleague Maha Hakki remembered him similarly. “Seth was a larger than life type of guy. He was the kind of friend who you could always pick up where you left off with, as if no time had passed. The kind of friend who made the bad days better with his infectious smile and playful jokes. He was always chasing his next adventure and that was something that I always admired about him: his constant hunger for what life had to offer. I will always cherish the memories we shared, from One Lounge to Never Looked Better and everything in between.

Never Looked Better, which turned one in June, signaled an about-face for McClelland and Coles, whose hidden K Street NW bar the Mirror takes the traditional speakeasy approach with Prohibition-era cocktails and Edison bulbs. NLB combines well-executed Cosmos and espresso martinis served in zig-zag stemware with the racy, high-energy vibe of an underground rave.

“We have long wanted to explore the dark ages of cocktails before 2004, [when] there was no craft movement or speakeasies,” McClelland told Eater during an interview in May 2021. “We really wanted to invoke that whole era — it’s when we were growing up, so it’s something special to us.”

Beverage director Jeff Coles (left) with Seth McClelland at the summer 2021 opening of Never Looked Better.
Joy Asico

McClelland spent much of the pandemic ensuring the ambitious, neon-lit basement bar made it past the finish line.

“We’ve been locked down for 15 months. It’s time to get out there and have some fun,” McClelland told Eater in May 2021.

A highly hands-on and detail-oriented owner, McClelland drove a U-Haul packed up with palms and plants from Chelsea’s famed Flower Market to dress up NLB. NYC-based event consultant/designer Reanna Zaccard (The Velour Collective) worked closely with McClelland to put together the look. She was also very much involved in the new Dupont project.

“Having the opportunity to collaborate with Seth has been a beautiful experience that I will forever remember and be grateful for,” said Zaccard. “His ability to create a vision, yet leave me the freedom of my expression, with full trust and support, was one, that as an artist, you don’t come by as often as one may think. He has always been eager to hear my ideas and whenever I’ve had moments of self doubt he would turn, smile and say ‘you’re the designer, you tell me.’”

Never Looked Better’s mirror-lined room is adorned with a wall of white silk flowers.
Rey Lopez/Eater DC

“I am beyond heartbroken at the loss of Seth,” continued Zaccard. “He and his team (more like family) have always put the utmost thought into their guests’ experience, from the very core of the design to the garnish on the drink, no piece was left unthought of. This is what has made Seth and his team so very successful. I hope, more than anything, that they carry on with their plans of continuing to create such impressionable experiences for those of us left behind, for in that, Seth will continue to shine.”

Never Looked Better’s turquoise-tiled bar is flecked with gold spray-painted leaves.
Rey Lopez/Eater DC