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Red Light, a new cocktail and dessert bar whose name winks to 14th Street NW’s past reputation for prostitution, is set to open April 10. But owner Aaron Gordon wants to make something clear: “It’s by no means an homage. No one’s proud of the fact that we had a city of streetwalkers in this area.”
Given D.C.’s transient nature, he says recent transplants aren’t always aware of what the neighborhood was like before Whole Foods and Le Diplomate. “I bet you half of the new diners on 14th Street—probably more, 75 percent—were not here when it was a red-light district,” says Gordon, a D.C. native. “So it’s sort of a fun dirty little secret to tell each other…It’s a story people like to tell each other.”
Gordon says the name is not just a nod to 14th Street, but also “an homage to burlesque. It’s more of an homage to Moulin Rouge, even in its hey day to Amsterdam.”
Plus, red is his favorite color. (Gordon also owns Red Velvet Cupcakery.)
Thankfully, the restaurant’s decor is light on the red-light theme—to the point where you might not even notice it. The only overt nod is the silhouette of a woman in a corset in the mirror. “The last thing you want is pictures of smoking hot prostitutes looking at you,” says designer Maggie O’Neill of SwatchRoom. A concrete bar, where you’ll be able to watch desserts constructed, dominates the gray-walled room, which has accents of reclaimed wood and chandeliers made of car parts. Black and white images of 14th Street show street signs reading “Look out for street cars turning on this red light.” Coming soon: a “fainting couch.”
The look is night and day from Bar di Bari, Gordon’s “European-style” cafe which previously occupied the space. Gordon calls Bar di Bari “an ill-defined concept.” He says the restaurant tried to be too many things and struggled to bring in evening business when the cold weather forced the patio to close. “Truth be told 14th Street is the most spectacular part of D.C. and you’re going up against a lot of wonderful concepts, places that do things really well…You have to be great. You can’t just be good.”
He hopes Red Light will be great—and different. There are, after all, no other cocktail/dessert bars on 14th Street, and Gordon’s goal is to complement, rather than compete with, other restaurants along the corridor. “It’s nice to stroll around and have a second place to go for an after dinner drink or a dessert,” he says. “This has become D.C.’s strolling street.”
Gordon also sees Red Light as an answer to the supposed Dark Age of Dessert, in which dedicated pastry chefs are a rarity and dessert is rarely as good as what proceeds it. “Even if [restaurants] have a pastry chef, that pastry chef is treated like the red-headed step-child stuck in the back of the kitchen in the dungeons,” Gordon says. “D.C.’s got one of the hottest food scenes in the country, maybe the world, right now. We’ve come a long way in the past years. But the one thing that’s been somewhat neglected is the desserts.”
And Red Light certainly has some talent in the kitchen and behind the bar: Chef Robert Underwood, an alum of Komi and Marcel’s, oversees the dessert menu, while brothers and local bar stars Ari and Micah Wilder are doing the cocktails.
The dessert menu includes pale ale beignets with stout-chocolate filling as well as a Mexican chocolate tart with cajeta gelato and marshmallow fluff. Other desserts—like a rum and coconut tres leches cake—are so boozy that you’ll be carded if you order them. This probably isn’t the place to come if you’re craving something savory, but there is a cheese fondue for two as well bar bites like tasso-cheddar straws and various flavors of popcorn.
The “burlesque cocktails”—all $11—include several 1940s-era drinks that aren’t often made well but can be, like a play on the Shirley Temple (with booze). Among the more intriguing cocktail options are “Riverstone slushies” made with stone fruit and actual river stones. (The Wilders buy a chalky power that comes from stones to give the drinks extra minerality—”like when you’re talking about minerality in wine,” Michah Wilder explains.) The brothers have brought in a large contraption called a SnoWizard. The fruits and their nectars are frozen into a big block which is inserted in the machine. A few cranks turns out sno-cone-like shaved ice, which they’ll pour cocktails over. The SnoWizard will make its home on the outdoor patio’s bar, which will be covered in huge umbrellas and heated year-round.
“We literally will be the only bar on 14th Street out on the patio that serves drinks,” Micah Wilder says.
And that’s about as different from D.C.’s former red light district as you can get.
Red Light, 1401 R St. NW; (202) 234-0400; redlightbardc.com
Photos and video by Jessica Sidman