Behind the Bar Stick People

How Hortense Van Der Horst Is Helping Reinvent Paris' Queer Drinking Scene

Along with offering world-class food and drinks, Dirty Lemon is redefining how safe spaces should look.

Hortense Van Der Horst
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Hortense Van Der Horst

The words “queer bar” aren’t necessarily synonymous with subtlety, but in Paris things are taking a new direction, with chef Ruba Khoury’s Dirty Lemon at the forefront. “Really, at this point, there's nothing else like it. Dirty Lemon takes a much more everyday approach to offering hospitality to the queer community. It's not your big night out, it's your any night out,” says Hortense Van Der Horst, Dirty Lemon’s head bartender and a veteran of Moonshiner and Hôtel National des Arts et Métiers.

“[It’s] a bar with ideas—no two ways around that. It wants to be something, to offer something to what Paris' gay scene can look like in 2020. But we aren't exactly going for that ‘live tonight like it's your last’ energy. Dirty Lemon is more about dimming all of that down and providing something else: a perfect second date spot, maybe, or just dinner and a drink with friends, sans glitter and risky rail drinks.”

Unpretentious and comfortable in its own skin, Dirty Lemon is lesbian-leaning but purposefully not exclusionary. It’s designed to make a statement without shouting it from the rooftops. Khoury and her team have sought to foster a thoughtful safe space that shows guests they’re welcome versus simply telling them. Its location steps from the Bataclan theater, where the 2015 terrorist standoff took place, could be considered a statement in itself, one that reclaims pride and security in the face of intimidation. The fact that great food is served alongside Van Der Horst’s advanced drinks program puts this nouveau “gay bar” in a league of its own. 

Redefining the Safe Physical Space

What makes a “safe space”? It’s more than just an intention of inclusivity. Being committed to creating a true safe haven means extending the philosophy to all facets of the business. “At least to me, Dirty Lemon is not [just] a gay bar—or at least not in terms of what comes to mind when you first think ‘gay bar.’ It’s more like a home, a safe place for all,” says Van Der Horst. “Each aspect of the experience is about comfort: the food, the cocktails, the social context. And of course, that comfort doesn't end with the patrons; it extends to the staff, as well.”

Making a Statement

At Dirty Lemon, the team seizes the opportunity to make a bold impression right off the bat with the drink menu. “The cocktail names reflect some of Dirty Lemon's essence, and it's often the first thing people look at when they come in, so it sets the tone,” says Van Der Horst. The summer menu features drinks named Boss Bitch, Hot Mama and La Tomboy, while the spring menu’s cocktail names included Soft Butch, Call Me Madame and Pillow Queen. The irreverence, she says, reflects the gay rights movement, especially as it exists in Paris. The aim is to execute the drinks program at a high level without becoming too self-serious.

Establishing Trust with Guests

Building a rapport with bar guests isn’t always easy, but Dirty Lemon’s method starts with its drinks. “Part of our ongoing approach is about trying to gently surprise our guests with ingredients you would probably be more likely to find in cuisine, especially ingredients on the savory end of the spectrum,” says Van Der Horst. Both the food and drinks at Dirty Lemon feature a Mediterranean twist, and the team aims to walk the line between approachable and inventive. “We're a neighborhood place,” says Van Der Horst. “And Ruba and I both work in a way that prioritizes that energy. But the longer we're open and the more our guests trust us, the further I think we'll be able to push it.”

Future Plans

“One of my favorite aspects of my job is the valorization of products, most especially local products,” says Van Der Horst, adding that she hopes to eventually distill her own spirits with ingredients from Paris and nearby. “In terms of working in an LGBTQ+ space, for now I’m very proud of that,” she says. “In the future, my sincere hope is that this space will expand in ways that we can't even fathom yet, and I look forward to seeing and being a part of that.”