Charles Hughes and his husband, Richard Solomon, knew they had to take matters into their own hands when their evening at a Manhattan nightclub was ruined by a DJ who yelled, “men don’t dance with men!”
A few years later, Hughes and Solomon successfully solved that problem. They are now the proud owners of Lambda Lounge — one of two Black-owned queer bars in Harlem — where anyone can dance as they please in an inclusive environment.
“It’s very uncomfortable to be partying at a location where you are not accepted by the hosts,” Hughes said during an interview with Gay City News. “Now we have a place where we are accepted, we can party, we can relax, and we can go on dates at the Lambda Lounge.”
Hughes and Solomon conceived Lambda Lounge, which is at 2256 Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard, prior to the pandemic but opened the bar for the first time last July at a time when the city was reopening. Desperate city dwellers were ready to break free from quarantine to engage in outdoor dining, and the owners were up for the challenge.
Since launching last summer, the bar has attracted locals and pub-goers from across the nation. Hughes said he and his husband have been touched by the robust community support behind the bar during a pandemic that is continuing to impact the city.
“[Patrons] heard about the location and they were excited to come in,” Hughes said. “They are thankful that we created a safe space for them not just one night during the week, but Tuesday through Sunday. Seeing that it’s thriving during this time, it’s humbling. It’s a blessing.”
The optimism surrounding the bar also comes with a dose of reality for Hughes and Solomon, who have had to navigate the state’s ever-evolving capacity regulations as well as stipulations such as the requirement that alcohol cannot be served unless food comes with it.
Those issues, however, also taught the married couple how to adapt as entrepreneurs.
“Initially we were hiring a caterer to prepare food for us, and then we started looking at the margins and saw it wasn’t conducive,” Hughes said. “Then we decided to purchase the conventional oven, and from there, we were able to create small bites. That allowed us to serve the patrons food as well as alcohol.”
He added, “It has been a surreal experience. We went into this venture not having any experience in the bar/restaurant industry.”
Now more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, Lambda Lounge is unveiling more features for guests as the weather warms up. This summer visitors can expect a new outdoor dining setup with glow-in-the-dark high-top tables. The intention is to create a luminous effect on the curb.
“It’s still going to be on and popping,” Hughes explained. “We’re trying to get the vibe of the inside and outside. When individuals are driving down the street, they’re going to see LED lit tables outside of our restaurant, and people are just going to be enjoying themselves.”
The owners have gotten creative in their effort to spread the word and draw customers during a volatile era for the nightlife industry. Lambda Lounge partnered with Alibi Lounge, another Black-owned LGBTQ bar in Harlem, for a bar-hopping event. Last year, Alibi Lounge faced a wave of financial hardships due to the pandemic, including a break-in.
In the future, Lambda Lounge is hoping to expand to new locations across the country. The owners are eyeing spots in Brooklyn and hope to eventually stretch to Texas; Atlanta, Georgia; and the West Coast. The couple hopes their venture can help queer folks who lack a safe space to share an evening with their partner on the dance floor.
For now, though, they are proudly giving New Yorkers what they could not get when they visited that nightclub a few years ago.
“LGBTQ+ people of color do not have a location to go to,” Hughes said. “Finally, we have a place to call our own.”