Metro Weekly

The Success Story of The Little Gay Pub: From D.C. to Philadelphia

The three owners of D.C.'s popular Little Gay Pub reflect on their success and share their vision for their new venue in Philadelphia.

Benjamin Gander, Dusty Martinez, and Dito Sevilla - Photo: Ward Morrison
Benjamin Gander, Dusty Martinez, and Dito Sevilla – Photo: Ward Morrison

“Our dreams of opening this bar came true almost a year-and-a-half ago,” says Dito Sevilla, one of the three co-owners of Little Gay Pub. “It has succeeded, truly, beyond our wildest expectations.”

The popular LGBTQ bar, situated at 11th and P Streets NW in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, recently announced an expansion to Philadelphia’s historically gay Center City neighborhood. The move underscores its success in not only attracting customers but in promoting its brand beyond D.C.

Despite being open for just over a year, Little Gay Pub has attracted special visitors, ranging from politicos like former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, and Virginia State Sen. Danica Roem, to entertainers, including Billy Porter and the entire cast RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars Season 9.

“The Philly thing kind of fell into our laps,” says co-owner Dusty Martinez. “Someone we knew was moving up there and they found the space for us. As soon as we walked into that space, we immediately felt the magic again. It wasn’t our plan to expand this soon, but we didn’t want to miss the opportunity.”

“We want to take the love from this city and this community, and take it up to Philadelphia, a city that we absolutely adore and that is full of so much history,” adds Sevilla. “Like D.C., it’s super diverse and culturally fun. It’s got a lot of people of color, it’s got a lot of people that identify as lesbian and queer. It’s got people of every lifestyle and education background. As gays, we know we cannot fit a square peg in a round hole as much as we’d want to try, but Philadelphia is a perfect fit.”

The Philadelphia iteration of Little Gay Pub will be located near the intersection of South 13th Street and Drury Street, just down the street from the popular and historic McGillin’s Olde Ale House, one of the oldest taverns in the city.

Little Gay Pub Philadelphia will contain two bars with six total wells across two floors, a large sky deck, and an open-air pavilion with a terrace on the establishment’s second floor. 

“It’s a bigger space,” says Sevilla, “almost twice the size of the Little Gay Pub in D.C. But it doesn’t feel huge or overwhelming and still feels like an intimate space because the spaces are stacked on top of each other.”

Sevilla, Martinez, and their third co-owner, Benjamin Gander, hope to open the new bar by December. They have already applied for operational and liquor licenses, which are currently in escrow, and are planning to renovate the existing space. The timeline for when those are finished will depend on how swiftly construction can be completed.

“We would ideally like to open at Christmas as a present to Philly, and also to piggyback off the holiday,” Martinez says.

Patrons at The Little Gay Pub in D.C. – Photo: Ward Morrison

After the bar opens, the business partners will take turns being on-site in Philadelphia.

“At least one of us is going to be up [in Philadelphia] every week,” says Martinez. “We’ve looked at a few apartments, so we’re going to have residency up there, all three of us.”

Adds Sevilla, “Part of what makes Little Gay Pub special is that there’s always an owner on site. The last thing we want to do is be lazy owners and expand to a market we are not 100% aware of and not learn from the community. It’s going to take us being there to get that done.”

The co-owners have already begun reaching out to community members in Philadelphia and have launched a social media campaign to promote the new venue.

They also traveled to Philadelphia for that city’s pride weekend, decorating the building’s exterior with banners, handing out business cards to passersby, and talking with locals.

“Ultimately, the thing I want people to understand is we’re not trying to bust into a market that’s a tight-knit community,” Sevilla stresses. “We understand what that’s like and would be equally dismissive of a Philadelphia trio coming down here and thinking they know all about the D.C. bar scene. We’re seeking input and feedback from people in Philadelphia. We want to be part of something new and expose them to what we can do. Hopefully, they’ll enjoy it.”

A critical component of The Little Gay Pub’s identity is its decor. The interior is filled with LGBTQ memorabilia, collages, and pictures or depictions of iconic queer Americans — an homage to the history of D.C.’s LGBTQ community.

While some LGBTQ-specific icons are universal, visitors to Philadelphia’s Little Gay Pub can expect the decor to be infused with its own local flavor, celebrating Philadelphia’s history and the unique people, places, and events that have shaped the city, which has long embraced its own LGBTQ community.

“Just as we did in D.C., we’re going to bring relics of history that were forgotten, that people don’t remember, these people whose shoulder we are standing on who’ve helped us win the rights we enjoy now,” Martinez says.

“It’s very much part of the space that you can learn from the pictures on the walls. A lot of these pictures have brass plates identifying who they are, and we put them there so that younger generations who don’t know who they are can remember and celebrate them.

“We don’t want to just slap pictures of Philadelphia people on the wall — we want people in Philly to bring us things that they’ve held onto, that they’ve collected.”

Gander, Martinez, and Sevilla with Nancy Pelosi in LGP’s iconic restroom – Photo: Ward Morrison

The Little Gay Pub has quickly become known for its restroom, a sumptuous, ornately decorated space in which customers frequently take selfies to post on social media. The owners fully expect to continue the trend at their Philly location, which will be decked out with swan sinks and faucets.

“We’re happy to say the Philadelphia operation already has five fully functioning bathroom spots,” enthuses Sevilla. “We will, of course, be making them as eccentric and as iconic as possible.”

The co-owners are not opposed to expanding to other cities, but any such growth would be deliberate and cautiously planned out.

“We are 100% committed to the quality of our bar not being diminished,” says Sevilla. “There is absolutely no plan to haphazardly slap up Little Gay Pubs all over the place. We’re not Dunkin’ Donuts franchises — no offense to them, I love Dunkin’ Donuts. But we don’t have a method yet of making the bar experience a consistent product. So Philadelphia is an experiment, one that we hope goes very well for us as a business and a brand.”

Reflecting on how D.C.’s Little Gay Pub has evolved since opening last year, the owners express surprise over how popular the space has become, necessitating extra bathroom spaces, and an additional bar in the back to service the patio area. 

“We thought it would initially be a smaller, quainter operation, and it’s turned out to be much busier than we anticipated,” says Sevilla.

Recalls Martinez, “In one of our first interviews, we were walking through the space before we opened, and I remember saying, ‘Yeah, all these other [bars] have lines out the door. We don’t want that.’ And yet, here we are today, with lines out the door.”

Sevilla believes The Little Gay Pub’s popularity is due to its welcoming, celebratory atmosphere and its nod to LGBTQ history.

“It’s not just a place where you go and hang out with friends,” he says. “It’s a place where the history of our community and, sadly, the people that we’ve lost from the past generation, are up on display.”

“We are just speaking to our community differently,” adds Martinez. “We don’t need to take our shirts off–“

“Some of us shouldn’t,” interjects Sevilla. 

“–we don’t need loud music, we don’t need disco balls or smoke machines. I love those places, but I think we wanted a mature, adult gay bar where you can come in and there’s always a seat for you, where the music isn’t too loud, you’re not inundated with videos or music on the screens, you can converse with people, and you can meet new people.”

“I think we really tap into the nostalgia of our youth and I think that we are blessed to have gotten the ages we are now,” Sevilla says. “At least, I’m old enough to say that. The generations before us suffered through the AIDS crisis and they just didn’t get to age. I’d like to think that this would have been the absolute favorite bar for the community that passed away. This is the bar they would have built if they had lived. And so it’s in their shadow that we walk.”

Martinez recalls that shortly after opening, he met two older men in their 70s who were drawn to a bulletin board mounted on the bar. It displayed collections of flyers from old D.C.-area gay bars that have long since closed.

“I remember one of them saying, ‘I’m so happy that you have these things on the wall. I used to work at three of those bars,’” Martinez says.

“It still gives me chills to think that he was a barback, a bartender, and was now watching us open a bar like this. The fact that he felt celebrated and seen, due to those flyers for bars that few people even know existed, was worth it. That’s why we collect these relics and put them out there. It’s not just for the younger crowd, but the older crowd as well.”

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