First things first, As You Are DC is not named after the classic Nirvana song.
“It just describes our mission,” shares co-founder Rach “Coach” Pike. “We workshopped names and loved this one. We call it AYA (pronounced eye-yah) for short.”
Name aside, the Barracks Row queer cafe and lounge may be reaching toward a type of nirvanic transcendence in its mission. When they dropped “bar” from their original name, they embraced a larger, more inclusive community when the space opened on March 22, 2022.
Co-owners Pike and Jo McDaniel are both pros in the service industry and met in 2018 while working together at A League of Her Own. Pike was a bartender and head of security and McDaniel was the general manager. McDaniel says they “fell into step” back then and have more recently become partners in both life and business. In the last year, they bought a place together in Northeast, opened As You Are DC, and adopted a black pointer Onyx to join their 12-year-old Australian shepherd mix Twiggy. (“We went hard this year,” McDaniel jokes.)
“It’s interesting to watch As You Are find its place,” McDaniel says. “Every week, something else happens that feels like we’ve reached another element of our community.”
Reclaiming a Queer Legacy
Pike, going into full history prof mode, points out As You Are is reclaiming an important queer past for Barracks Row.
“We’ve learned recently in our ANC meetings the building we’re in was a gay singalong bar called Johnny’s in 1949. There is a history and path of this site as queer and/or marginalized people-owned establishments.”
Pike continues, “At 200-years-old, this is some of the oldest commercial real estate in D.C. We’ve got rainbow lights all over the building because we’re not in hiding anymore.”
On any given day, you will find solo patrons sipping lattes while working on their laptops or a group of coworkers meeting for a light lunch. In the evening, there may be friends singing karaoke, getting their markers lined up for bingo, watching the Washington Mystics game (AYA is the official Mystics bar sponsor) or teams squaring off for a game of corn hole. AYA is expanding into sponsoring more sports teams around the District, too, from Stonewall Kickball DC and Krazy Pitches softball team to Washington Prodigy, the women’s tackle football team.
AYA even offers its own spin on D.C.’s beloved drag brunches. Half & Half features drag king performances and a tea party — an afternoon dance party with deep roots in D.C. queer history. DJ MIM just kicked off a new dance party, one long in the works for AYA and at one time contested by the ANC.
“But even when the dance floor is in full swing, we still have this sort of loungey or more chill area,” McDaniel states of the two-story venue.
Pike and McDaniel eventually won over the ANC, who were initially concerned about late-night noise.
A Culture of Radical Hospitality
McDaniel manages the cafe and bar, but she is also the community event organizer and has big plans for AYA’s cafe culture, which is central to their mission of creating community and queer brave spaces. The queer story time event Greetings, from Queer Mountain, every other Thursday night, is a coffeehouse favorite, and they are holding a fundraiser for the Black queer filmmaker Olivia Miles’ project entitled “The Before.”
“There’s no limit to what we’ll host as long as it aligns with our mission,” McDaniel states before sharing even more planned partnerships and events, including several Pride events.
Pike points out that following the debacle at Nellie’s, AYA decided to have a “safety management” rather than security team. The difference is key to their mission of radical hospitality.
“We’re not managing human beings,” Pike says of their philosophy. “We’re managing the experience at As You Are by being friendly, welcoming and warm. We know what the community wants and needs to celebrate safely. We don’t police or profile anybody when they walk in the door. And we follow an enthusiastic model of consent. ‘Sure’ is not good enough for us. It has to be a ‘Hell yes’ on the dance floor. And we know that because we’ve done this a long time.”
The whole staff trains together as culture creators and holds each other accountable.
“There are no hard and fast rules,” McDaniel shares. “If you’re still not sure you’re never alone in your decision making. We often ask, ‘Can I get a second set of vibes?’ Our barista/bartender Haize E. Daize came up with that: ‘I need a second vibe check here.’”
Fostering a community also means supporting environmental sustainability and working with local vendors. AYA works with Compost Cab, recycling their coffee grounds and food scraps. Their coffee comes from the women and queer-owned B Corp-certified Thread Coffee Roasters in Baltimore. Besides two lower price point beers, all their beers and several of their spirits come from local breweries and distilleries.
“We’re seeing and recognizing the queer community as whole humans,” McDaniel asserts. “We will have weekend dance nights, providing for the folks who want it. There’s always going to be a market for that, but there’s also a need for meeting space, a safe space, a community space.”
Good vibes, second vibes, inclusion and community. If this isn’t nirvana, I’m not sure what is.
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