Bunker, a subterranean gay club, opened its massive doors to live DJ sets on Thursday, February 23.
Down a set of stairs in the former Tropicalia space, Bunker brings late-night drinks and dancing to the busy, highly visible corner of 14th and U Streets NW. The bar will operate Thursdays to Sundays (2001 14th Street NW).
Bunker comes from Zach Renovátes and Jesus Quispe, the founders of events production company Kinetic Presents. Bunker aims to fill a hole in D.C.’s LGBTQ dance club scene. In the past three years, all of the city’s similar clubs have closed, including Cobalt, Secrets, DC Eagle, and the largest gay dance club in D.C.: Town Danceboutique. Located off U Street NW, Town closed in 2018 after an 11-year run to make way for upscale apartments (the plan is to resurrect Town 2.0 one day in a former church in NoMa).
“It was devastating,” says Renovátes. “There was no guaranteed space to have that night out for dancing” for the LGBTQ community. The duo used what they learned throwing massive pop-up parties at D.C. venues and poured that experience into opening a club of their own.
“You can expect lots of room to dance,” says Renovátes. “It will be a real playground with lots of energy, unlike anything else in the city.”
Down the small set of outdoor stairs, the main entrance is a custom stonework steel door weighing a whopping 600 pounds that appears “blasted into a side of a mountain,” he says.
Upon entry, “you’re transported into imagine [what] was a ’60s Cold War shelter made fabulous.”
Previous tenant Tropicalia was an eclectic global dance hall that opened in 2012 and never resurfaced when the pandemic hit.
Gone are Tropicalia’s large performance stage and lighting booth. In their place is a combined smaller DJ booth, allowing for more room for dancing and lounging, and a greater overall capacity. The owners worked with designer Jasin Cadic to reimagine the underground lair. Glittering chandeliers now hang from its 11-foot ceilings, offering a contrast to the custom-welded “massive bar cages” that were also installed.
Besides the door, the owners shied away from leaning in too hard on the underground aesthetic. While plenty of concrete delivers the bunker vibe, Cadic sourced vibrant, colorful murals across the walls that “represent the color and vibrance of community.”
In the rear, Renovátes installed a “fallout shelter” pantry, stocked with emergency-style items with a bit of a twist.
“The supplies are fun and kinky, like vintage gas masks painted in rainbows. The rest I’ll leave that up to the imagination,” he says. He may start selling Bunker-branded swag out of the space soon.
The Thursday theme is “ElectroPOP”; Fridays call for RuPaul’s Drag Race viewing parties, followed by house music; Saturdays are circuit-style, “Fantasy” nights; and “Disco Daddy Sundays” round out the weekend. Covers charges are $10 on Thursday, $20 on Friday, $30 on Saturday, and $20 on Sunday (and change depending upon which talent is being featured).
There is no cover during happy hour, which is a more relaxed affair when drinks cost $7 (7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday). Bunker does not serve food. A separate VIP banquette area is in the works.
From its two bars, Bunker will pour bottled beers and mixed drinks, plus lots of non-alcoholic drinks like Gatorade and Red Bull.
Beyond the standard theme nights, Bunker plans to book well-known national and international DJ acts to take advantage of its new high-tech sound systems, and will bring in drag performers and Kinetic’s go-go dancers for live entertainment. Renovátes also promises “special surprise” acts too.
“We’re so lucky that there’s so much local talent to choose from,” he says.
While Bunker is the first bona fide gay club D.C. has seen in some time, the U Street NW corridor itself has welcomed more LGBTQ-friendly bars in recent years. That includes the 2016 opening of rooftop hangout Dirty Goose, followed by late 2021 arrivals of Kiki in the old Dodge City/Velvet Lounge space and cozy cocktail perch Licht Café.
“Our goal is to grow nightlife, for locals and visitors,” says Renovátes. “We want to support the growth of the city, and know that LGBTQ patrons can help do that with Bunker.”
Salah Czapary, the director of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office of Nightlife & Culture, tells Eater the hospitality industry is finally out of pandemic-related survival and recovery mode and “transitioning to revitalization” in 2023.
“What does that look like?” he says. “It looks like event producers opening up their first brick and mortar space right here on U Street.”