Walk into Dirty Lemon in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, and you probably won’t know you’re in a queer bar. For one, the space is, well, nice. Clean lines and exposed stone abound, burnt orange velvet pops, and clusters of dried florals threaten to overtake the modern light fixtures. That there are thoughtful food and drink menus is also a somewhat radical notion.
In what might be considered a survival mechanism, queer social spaces have often treated their décor, design and offerings as an afterthought, opting instead to remain understated and under the radar. But with its modern, airy design and well-conceived cocktail list, Dirty Lemon harkens a shift in this paradigm at a moment when visibility has become the true marker of change.
Opened by Ruba Khoury, a British-Palestinian who was raised in Dubai, Dirty Lemon was born of a night out at one of Paris’ few lesbian bars. “The place was dingy, with awful music and bad rail drinks from a kiosk,” Khoury recalls. She ended up with food poisoning—which she traces back to the lemon in her vodka-soda—and the goal of providing more for her community. The result proposes what Paris—and so many other cosmopolitan cities around the world—crave: an inclusive space with a hard slant toward queer and female folx, that drinks like a cocktail bar, eats like a restaurant and feels a bit like home.
Just a short walk from the Marais, Paris’ gay epicenter, Dirty Lemon is tucked on a narrow cobblestone street alongside flower shops and cafés. On a recent rainy night, wet umbrellas were stacked near a partially hidden entrance and—tucked between a smattering of couples and, at one point, an entire family—groups of chic women were gathered to eat, drink and, possibly, find a date.
Drinks by Brittini Rae Peterson (most recently of Candelaria) lean fresh, vegetal and balanced, and bear names like Girl Next Door (a frothy combination of gin, aquavit, fennel, apple, celery and basil), La Tomboy (Scotch, honey, butternut squash) and Hot Mama (mezcal, beet juice, thyme). The food menu, by Khoury, who has worked in many of Paris’ Michelin-starred kitchens (Frenchie, Septime, Yam’Tcha and Spring) is short but smart, with dishes like roasted cauliflower with smoked yogurt and sumac, deviled eggs with hummus and za’atar, and barbecued duck hearts with chermoula. There are also a handful of late-night options, a Parisian rarity beyond the odd witching-hour crèpe.
Dirty Lemon’s timing couldn’t be better. Its first Martini slid across the bar’s green granite surface in late November, the same week thousands marched across the city, protesting France’s horrifying rate of deadly domestic violence against women. And though it may be too early to know how Dirty Lemon will fare, it’s possible to imagine that, come spring, the bar’s windows will be flung wide, and the sidewalk will spill over with women, bumming cigarettes and phone numbers, helping to nudge forward the notion of what a queer bar can be.