A seriously chic cocktail bar is something our community has long yearned for. We’ve all sipped a gin and tonic from a plastic cup in a strobe-lit basement, wondering if taking someone to a lesbian bar for a first date was a good idea after all.
Cue: Dirty Lemon, a queer women’s space in the heart of Paris that’s as soft and chic as it is trendy and cool, serving up small plates and top-shelf liquors. The bar – designed by architect Viviane Chil-Hagopian – feels completely queer and completely feminine in both energy and aesthetic, bathed with peach colours and big open plan windows that allow the evening’s light and warmth to flood through the space. If Dirty Lemon were a person, you would most likely fancy her.
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Three years ago, Ruba Khoury, a Parisian chef – who’s Palestinian, born and raised in Dubai, educated in the U.S. – made the lesbian date place we’ve all dreamt of on a side street in Paris’ trendy 11th arrondissement.
The Dirty Lemon story started six years ago, when Ruba woke up with a nasty bout of food poisoning. Retracing her steps from her sick bed, she scrolled through the possible offenders. “No I ate that at home, me and my friend had the same thing out at dinner and she’s fine, so what the hell did I eat?” she tells GO in a cozy corner of her cocktail bar.
Her mind eventually landed on a lemon slice floating in a vodka soda she’d had at a local bar the night before. She’d been on wing-woman duty for a friend; “I didn’t want to go,” she says, “I knew the bar, it’s very dingy and not my scene; not very good drinks and just overall weird vibes.”
In her infirmed haze, she looked it up. “Apparently citrus fruits are super absorbent of bacteria, and if it’s mistreated – you know, in the fridge, out the fridge, dirty hands touching it – it can be very intoxicating.”
“I was so pissed, I was like, ‘fuck this dirty lemon, one day I swear to God I’m going to open a place that’s for women, for lesbians, for the queer community with good drinks and good music and good vibes and I’m gonna call it Dirty Lemon.’”
And voilà, from the ashes of stomach-aching-despair, a lemon tree grew – and what a splendid creation it is. Inside, Dirty Lemon is all s’il vous plaits and deux Côte du Rhône, as the bartenders aerial pour house cocktail after house cocktail – the Girl Next Door (saké and green apple), Boob Job (tequila and melon, garnished with cured jambon) and the Britney Spritz (homemade ratafai with blood orange) being of particular note.
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The bar itself is immaculate – an array of cocktail glasses and rows of bitters are aligned in pristine order, alongside garnishes of plump olives and flower petals and (fittingly) sliced lemon wedges (bacteria-free, of course).
At 7pm, four impossibly stylish women sip martinis at a corner table. They are serving Queer Sex and the City (Samantha would definitely have hung here in her Sapphic phase, while Miranda and Che would be all dreamy-eyed in the corner). The vibe is chilled and casual, facilitated by the quality of the speakers, which offer silky acoustics that allow you to whisper sweet everything’s in your partner’s ear, while the baseline simultaneously envelops the space. I sit with my laptop at the granite bar, eating food I didn’t ever think I’d get to eat in a lesbian bar.
Ruba trained in Michelin-star restaurants across Paris. Her menu is small: seven dishes, each packing a punch of depth, texture and flavor – thick olive oil, cushiony baguettes, spongy falafel, creamy tahini, sumacy eggplant.
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“I try to bridge the flavours and ingredients that I grew up eating, with the Parisian techniques I learnt as a chef,” she says. “I was raised on Mediterranean food so it’s something I know from the bottom of my heart – there’s nothing synthetic, it’s true authentic flavours.”
It’s such a unique experience – one that could only really have been channeled through Ruba – to sit in a bar and taste the heart of Palestine, feel the excellence of France (in everything you taste and see), while also feeling the incubation and affirmation of a conscious queer space.
“Seriously, there’s nothing out there for us, there’s nowhere you can have all three components – good vibes, good drinks, good music and feel safe and feel okay to sit in a bar alone as a woman,” Ruba says. “I can’t even think of a place – even today – where my wife and I can just go and feel okay, it’s like we want to come here all the time.”
This amorphous queer space also hosts parties every other weekend, “where we bring queer or female or minority group DJs,” along with more mellow weekday events like speed dating, queer-e-oke night, book clubs, art performance and tarot readings. “That was always the idea,” says Ruba, “to open a place that could host these kind of flexible events.” That’s the beauty of opening a cocktail bar rather than a restaurant, Ruba explains. “People are more relaxed, it’s more spontaneous, anything can happen, people can start dancing if they want to, just a more fun, fluid, queer experience.”
After their small plates and third cocktail, the gay Sex and the City girls depart, off to some launch event of some cool Parisian thing. As they head out, and the sun starts to set, Paris’ Queerati ascend on the venue, making it half casual fine-dining restaurant, and half queer bar whose patrons spills out onto the streets of Paris (no nation makes chain smoking look better than France).
As the venue fills up, many descend down the stairs to Dirty Lemon’s secret speakeasy – a revamped wine cellar, intimate and cool. Clearly you can create an unprecedented standard of queer women’s space on street level, but when the offer is there (and when it comes with cocktails of this calibre) – dykes stay loyal to their underground roots.
Je te verrai à Paris… with a Britney Spritz in hand.
Dirty Lemon, 24 Rue de la Folie Méricourt, Paris. Open Tuesday-Saturday 6pm-2am