Stroll into Freddie’s Beach Bar on a random day and you’re likely to find owner Freddie Lutz and staff preparing for that night’s festivities, moving furniture, putting up decorations, congenially cracking jokes. Taking in Freddie’s renowned royal purple-hued interior, displays crammed with Barbie dolls and flamingos, it’s abundantly clear that this is a bar where people can let their hair down. And true to form, Freddie’s, the only gay bar in Northern Virginia, is always bustling.
“I think that is the biggest selling point about Freddie’s is that it’s a fun, friendly place,” says Lutz. “A lot of the gay bars can be stuffy and snooty, and Freddie’s is definitely not that. I had a woman from New York come in, and she wrote this rather snooty review on Yelp. She said, ‘Oh my god. I just hate the place, it’s so overdone.’ So I wrote back and said, ‘If you think it’s overdone now, come back at Christmas.’ Just when you think I couldn’t fit anymore stuff around here, Christmas comes along.”
An Arlington native and son of an Army colonel, Lutz takes pride in his bar’s widespread appeal, noting that it attracts everyone from military personnel to a significant transgender population to straight allies. Freddie’s has been the meeting place for several long-term couples, and even the backdrop for a first-of-its-kind gay wedding in February.
It’s also home to Freddie’s Follies, a Saturday night drag show and Wednesday Drag Bingo nights. Lutz has even taken a turn on the drag stage, though his Tina Turner tribute was slightly marred by a fall from six-inch spiked heels.
Another aspect of Lutz’s business involves partnering with local community or workplace groups to host monthly or annual events, designed to bring members of the local LGBT community and their allies together. For instance, Freddie’s plays host to a monthly brunch and an annual Christmas Party for the Arlington Gay & Lesbian Alliance, with Lutz planning to host the group’s annual ice cream social at his house this summer. The bar also attracts a military presence on the third Thursday of each month, when it hosts a happy hour for military and civilian employees who work at the Pentagon, a few miles away. And Lutz holds a “Gayborhood Night” on the last Sunday of each month, meant to serve as a neighborhood social for the residents of Crystal City.
Freddie’s is one among more than 100 restaurants contributing a portion of their proceeds to Food & Friends’ 20th Annual Dining Out for Life, held Thursday, April 28. The event raises money to help continue home-delivered grocery services and nutrition counseling for low-income people suffering from HIV and AIDS. Lutz goes above and beyond the call of duty, donating 110% of the day’s revenue.
“I started that a few years ago, and part of the thinking was that we thought other restaurants would jump on board with that,” Lutz says. “Nobody else seems to have done it. But it’s a nice thing to do and the extra 10 percent helps give the event an extra boost.”
Freddie’s will offer a buffet to patrons who come as part of Dining Out for Life. But in typical Freddie’s fashion, dinner often turns into a communal event.
“In the beginning, we were doing specific seatings during the night,” says Lutz. “And we found that, since it’s a weekday, people would rather just come whenever they can. So we’ve done open seating for the past couple of years, just like we do for our Sunday brunch. That’s worked out well for us.”
Lutz was recently honored as one of Equality Virginia’s OUTstanding Virginians, an award bestowed upon LGBT Virginians who have made significant contributions to the LGBT community. In addition to his work with AGLA and his contributions to both Capital and NOVA Prides, Lutz has successfully made Freddie’s a safe space for the LGBT community in which to congregate. Bringing together the often disparate segments of a sometimes fractured community is an accomplishment Lutz is proud of.
“One thing about Freddie’s that I think is magical is everyone gets along in here,” Lutz says. “Whether they’re straight or gay or bisexual or transgender, or black or green, it doesn’t matter. Everybody gets along. I’ve had tons of people tell me that’s what they really love about this place.”
METRO WEEKLY: Tell me about your childhood.
FREDDIE LUTZ: I live in the house I grew up in, since I was three years old, right up the hill from the restaurant. My dad was military. I was born in New York City. We moved to St. Louis for a short period, and then to here, in Arlington. I went to school locally, Oakridge Elementary, right around the corner from my house, Gunston, and then Wakefield for high school.
MW: Were you an only child?
LUTZ: No, I have one brother. He’s a professor at Rutgers University in marine biology.
MW: When did you first realize you were gay?
LUTZ: Pretty early on. I kind of had a little boyfriend in third grade. [Laughs.] But I also experimented with dating women up until college, and just decided that it wasn’t my cup of tea. I used to play with Barbie dolls when I was a kid. My friend Marilyn, who’s a lesbian, and I joke, because as a kid, she was always playing cowboys and indians, and I was playing with my Barbie dolls.
MW: When did you officially come out to your family?
LUTZ: In college. My mother was washing dishes at the kitchen sink. And I had just hung up with a former girlfriend, and I was all exasperated, and I let out this big sigh. And my mother said, “I know.” And I said, “What do you mean, you know? I’m talking about the fact that–” and I was going to say “I’m a homosexual,” and she turns around and says, “Gay?” So my mother was very understanding.
Dad was military. We didn’t really discuss it. But I knew that he knew, and he was very supportive of me in every way, including the whole arts school thing, and protesting the Vietnam War. Both my parents were terrific.
MW: Where did you go to college?
LUTZ: I went to the Rhode Island School of Design. And when I graduated, I wasn’t a famous artist, so I came back home and my mother said, “Why don’t you get a job at Portofino Restaurant?” I applied for a waiter job and ended up as stockroom manager at the beginning, and later became a waiter at Cafe Italia when they opened it across the street. I was maitre’d and waiter there for 25 years, before I lost my mind and opened Freddie’s.
MW: What prompted you to open Freddie’s?
LUTZ: I said to my boss at Cafe Italia, “After 25 years I’m starting to get a little bored.” And we had talked about opening a gay bar together, and I said, “I just want to try this on my own.” And he was actually very helpful to me in this venture. That was 2001. We’ve been here 16 years.
MW: Virginia has historically not had a very good reputation when it comes to LGBT rights. Why set up a gay bar in Arlington?
LUTZ: It’s my home. And I think that if we’re going to make change, it’s the perfect place to be. I had somebody say to me at Pride one year, “Why would you want to have a gay bar in Arlington? They’re so terrible over there in Virginia.” And I said the same thing, that if we’re going to make change, that’s what we need to do. And I think Freddie’s has helped change the way people look at the LGBT community in Virginia.
MW: Was there any resistance from the local community when you opened?
LUTZ: Well, I often say to people that if I had tried to open Freddie’s 10 years prior to when we did, I think I would have had more difficulty doing it. The timing of when we opened was pretty good, because at the time, the Arlington Police were doing diversity training and we were pretty well received. It also helps that I was well connected to the neighborhood. I grew up here, people knew me, they knew my reputation. I knew everyone on the civic associations. I was familiar with ABC [alcoholic beverage control] and they knew me from Cafe Italia. Cafe Italia was pretty gay-friendly already, they had drag shows at Halloween, so it was an easy, smooth transition. And once we did open, people recognized that the crowd coming in here was very well-behaved and rather classy. And I think it did a good job in shining a light on gays and lesbians. We were also straight-friendly, which helped project that.
MW: So there hasn’t been any issues?
LUTZ: I can count on one hand, maybe going to two hands now, the amount of trouble we’ve had in here. It’s really very minor.
I love to tell this story: These two redneck guys came in, saying some anti-gay profanities while they were walking around the bar. Sometimes, it’s easier for me to call down to the sports bar if I need police, because they’re always hanging out there, either undercover or on duty as uniformed police. So that’s what I did. And Billy Bayne, who owns the sports bar and is very straight, who also owns the topless bar down the street, a former football player but also a good friend, asks me, “Are you having trouble, Freddie?” And I said “I’m anticipating trouble.” And he came up with about five of his football buddies and just escorted those guys right out of here. And I thought that was amazing support.
MW: What changes have you seen in the clientele who come to Freddie’s?
LUTZ: It’s been an interesting evolution. But there’s been some surprises, even for me. The whole “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” thing with the military, given our proximity to the Pentagon — we have a large gay military clientele that comes over. We also have a very large transgender clientele.
MW: You were open for nine years before DADT was repealed. Did you see an increase after repeal?
LUTZ: Once DADT was repealed, it greatly increased the number of military people who came in here. On the occasion of the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” they were passing around two napkins that were signed by a whole bunch of generals, and so forth. They had been in the military, but had not been able to come out.
In addition to those generals who were signing the napkins, one of our regulars was the first-ever out brigadier general in the Army, and her partner. They actually presented me with a flag that she had flown over Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan on the occasion of repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in my honor for providing a safe place for the people from the Pentagon to hang out at. She gave me a flag that she had framed in a little box with rainbow stars and a plaque.
MW: You were recently honored by Equality Virginia as an OUTstanding Virginian. How did you feel when you learned of the honor?
LUTZ: I was extremely honored, obviously. So much of my success has come from my customers. It’s the people that come in here that have supported me through all these years who have really enabled me to get an award like that.
In the beginning when I first opened up, I just came in and started painting everything purple. I never closed the doors, I just took over the next day and started painting everything. The rednecks at the bar were like, “What the hell is he doing?” And I said, “Just bear with me, it’s a work in progress.”
You know, we weren’t perfect in the beginning. The food wasn’t all that great. I was trying to get the place together. I had so many people say to me, “Freddie, you know, the food wasn’t that great tonight, but we know what you’re trying to do here, and we’re going to stick with you and support you.” And that’s what’s happened for the most part, even to this day. If I’ve had any bumps in the road, the gay community has really supported me and helped me get to where I am today. So when I get named an OUTstanding Virginian, I really have to attribute that to my client base.
MW: What was the bar before it became Freddie’s?
LUTZ: It was called the Foxhole. Originally, they were here for 10 years, and everything was painted hunter green, with fox hunting pictures on the wall. But they sort of morphed into a sports pub kind of thing.
MW: When you started painting everything purple, did that drive out some clientele?
LUTZ: Well, those were some of my favorite times back then, because it was such an incredible mix in here of redneck people who liked to sing karaoke, which we kept, and then all the gay people.
MW: Some of the trademark characteristics of Freddie’s are its purple hue, the flamingos, the Barbie dolls, the various decorations on the wall. How did that start?
LUTZ: Well, having gone to art school, there’s a little thing called “artistic license.” I’ve stolen ideas from other places. And one of the ideas that I stole was from Key West. That was the purple color. There was a little diner called Diner Shores that I stole the purple idea from, and these tablecloths, actually.
MW: How tough were those first few years?
LUTZ: The first three years were the most difficult, as they are for anybody trying to run a business. Of course, I thought I knew everything, coming from managing Cafe Italia for 25 years, but all of a sudden, when you own a place, you’re getting involved in payroll, and taxes, and permits. It’s a lot of work. I put in a lot of long hours. That was probably the most challenging time.
MW: Was there ever a concept or special or event that you tried that didn’t work or that you rolled back?
LUTZ: Comedy night, maybe. But we didn’t really stop that because it wasn’t working. It was okay. I can think of things we started that did work. I can’t really think of anything we’ve done that hasn’t worked in here.
We did have issues with the food-to-alcohol ratio. Virginia has a law that sets a 50% ratio between alcohol and food service. It doesn’t apply to beer or wine, but it does apply to mixed beverages. And the gay kids have the drinking part down really well, but it’s hard to keep the food ratio part of it up. So that’s when we started our Sunday champagne buffet brunch. Because champagne, being a wine, doesn’t affect the ratio. So it was a way for us to sell more food. That was a huge success, and continues to be to this day.
MW: You mentioned the food wasn’t the best when you first opened. What did you change to make the menu better?
LUTZ: I would say the food and the atmosphere wasn’t all it could be when we first opened up, because we were trying to get it together and get things organized. The food part was finding a great chef. I’ve got a chef now who everybody loves. And the atmosphere just morphed over time. It takes a while to get the place to look this kitschy-tacky. [Laughs.]
MW: What are some of your better memories from your 16 years?
LUTZ: The drag queens did a “Big Girls Show” one time. Kristina Kelly was here, and some of the larger girls. And for props, they had brought pizzas and a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and stuff like that. About five minutes before the show came on, the power went out. I encouraged everyone to stay put, because I was sure the power would come back on. And when the lights came back on, all the fried chicken was gone. They ate all the props.
MW: What was your first experience in a gay bar?
LUTZ: It was either Mr. P’s on P Street in D.C., or The Other Side in Boston, which was a big club. I probably went to both of those around the same time period.
MW: What was your impression of those bars?
LUTZ: Well, the club, The Other Side, in Boston, as we were walking up, these drag queens were passing us, and I was just sort of in awe and a little bit of shock, maybe. I think that was actually the first bar I went to, and then Mr. P’s.
MW: Did you borrow ideas from your first clubbing experiences as well?
LUTZ: Well, the walls in here, which are a collage of “found objects.” My boyfriend calls me Fred Sanford, because I’m always going through people’s trash piles. There was an artist I studied in art school named Louise Nevelson, and that was what she did. It was collages out of found objects, but she would normally paint the entire thing black or charcoal brown or white. So, again, artistic license, I stole her idea, but I put a little color in the picture. I did the four-color scheme: purple, lavender, aqua and blue.
MW: In terms of the found objects, is the trash where you found most of these things?
MW: Ever go to yard sales as well?
LUTZ: No, trash. [Laughs.] Different things, but a lot of it is just out of trash. We were driving through Georgetown one day with the convertible, and I screeched on the brakes, and Johnny said, “What?” And I said, “A futon!” In the back, that sunburst thing, my neighbor in the back was replacing the railings on his deck and threw eight of those out, and I took them all.
MW: How long have you been with your current boyfriend?
LUTZ: Going on 18.
MW: How did you meet?
LUTZ: We met at JR.’s. I love JR.’s. [Owner] Eric Little is a good friend. But we were meeting there to go to Trumpets to celebrate my birthday and the birthday of my friend, Dylan. And Johnny was sitting at the far end of the table, and he was trying to pick up my friend, Terry, who worked with me at Cafe Italia, and vice versa. So he said he was going to come and see Terry at Cafe Italia. Terry was a flight attendant, and the times that Johnny came to see him, Terry wasn’t working. So I sort of swooped in. The rest is history.
We’re going for the Guinness Book of World Records’ longest engagement. We’re thinking about getting married in the near future, possibly this year or next.
MW: What would you like your legacy to be?
LUTZ: Just bringing people together, not only in the community, but bridging the gap between the gay and the straight community. It’s an honor to be recieve the OUTstanding Virginian award, and it’s nice to receive it while I’m still alive, rather than having to die before getting recognition.
MW: One of the things about bars and restaurants is owners often don’t like to be political. But this is D.C. Does some politics invariably bleed into the bar scene?
LUTZ: Yes, definitely. And I’ve gotten in trouble over the years. I try to stay out of politics as much as I can, but I’ve supported a couple of candidates over the years. In one case in particular, I was supporting a friend of mine who was running for local school board, I guess. And her opponent was a gay candidate, and I didn’t realize I was getting into that whole can of worms. So that was a little awkward.
MW: Did your friend win?
LUTZ: No, I don’t think she did, actually. [Laughs.]
MW: But no hurt feelings?
LUTZ: None. I have had people ask if they can do fundraisers here, and so forth, and I’m pretty open to doing that for anybody, Democrat, Republican. That’s the way I get around that. People say, “Oh, how could you do a fundraiser for so-and-so?” And I say, “Well, I would do it for the other candidate as well.”
MW: Obviously, this cycle has been the gift that keeps on giving for political news coverage.
LUTZ: Very entertaining.
MW: Without getting yourself in trouble, is there anything you’ve seen that disturbs you?
LUTZ: Well, most recently, what’s going on in North Carolina and Mississippi. Ellen came out against them. Did you see that? I loved the way she kept her sense of humor throughout it, but made some very poignant points.
MW: On that note, we are in Virginia. There was a bathroom bill here as well, and another bill that passed that would have allowed discrimination against LGBT people. Is there ever some concern that something like that could, down the road, pass and affect you or your clients?
LUTZ: Of course. But again, I think we just have to keep pushing. Adam Ebbin represents us in Richmond very well. People like him and myself just have to keep pushing for our rights.
MW: What would your message be to delegates in Virginia’s General Assembly who, in the future, get a bill placed in front of them that’s being pushed by conservative anti-gay groups?
LUTZ: Hopefully, it won’t get to that point. But if it did, like I said, I protested the Vietnam War when I was in school, and I could protest something like that as well. I think we would find ways to actively show our disapproval, whether through signage or some sort of rally. We’d come up with something.
MW: When the constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in Virginia was on the ballot in 2006, did you campaign against the amendment?
LUTZ: Yeah, we had signs up in here, and almost sort of a party atmosphere.
MW: After the amendment passed, how did you pick everybody’s spirits up?
LUTZ: [Laughs.] Well, my clientele drinks a lot. I think when things like that happen, you just have to keep plugging along, and do what you can to make change and keep trying.
MW: Give them somewhere to laugh, cry and feel at home?
LUTZ: The gay Cheers.
Freddie’s Beach Bar is open from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. on weekends. It’s located at 555 23rd St. S, in Arlington, Va. For more information, call 703-685-0555 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dining Out for Life is Thursday, April 28. See page 22 for a complete list of participating restaurants and donation amounts. Visit foodandfriends.org/dol or call 202-269-2826.
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