Opening a new wine bar on U Street might be challenging enough. Doing so against the headwinds of a pandemic makes doing so doubly tough. Fighting off accusations of cultural appropriation in the midst of a nationwide racial and social awakening might represent the proverbial third strike.
Not for Barkada, a wine bar at 12th and U streets featuring a sommelier with an award-winning pedigree and three determined owners (all gay men) behind it.
To sit in Barkada is to visit your gay best friend’s living room. Or, at least your gay friend who has a soft spot for organic skin-contact wine from Slovenia.
Anthony Aligo and business partners Nicholas Guglietta and Nathan Fisher founded this cozy, loungey bar with low-slung banquettes focused on small-batch wines. They tapped Sebastian Zutant as wine consultant (Zutant also owns acclaimed Primrose in Brookland).
Barkada sits in the former Menchie’s Frozen Yogurt location, which Aligo also owned. None of the current owners has a background in food outside of the Menchie’s outpost, but after connecting with Zutant over several bottles of wine, they decided to make the change from fro-yo to rose.
“The concept,” Aligo notes, “is to create an atmosphere where people would want to frequent because it provides a comfortable place for them to visit, make new friends, and have unpretentious wine learning.”
Zutant ensures that Barkada focuses on natural, small-batch wines sourced from “the most interesting things from the farthest reaches of the earth,” says Aligo.
Zutant adds that “the wine program features an eclectic mix of interesting producers from around the world. The wines are all low intervention in practice, showcasing hands-off wine making techniques.” Zutant helped the team to open and “has set us up on a good path,” says Aligo. Zutant has since stepped back from Barkada day-to-day in order to dedicate time to Primrose.
Currently stocking about 15 wines by the glass ($13-$17) and upwards of 50 by the bottle ($45 to $130), the bar splits its offerings into sparkling, red, white, rose, and “extended skin contact,” or orange. A handful of classic cocktails (Aperol spritz, Americanos) are also available.
The bar opened on July 25. It quickly found itself dealing with controversy over its name.
Barkada is a Tagalog slang word meaning a group of friends, a term the trio used with a gay, former Filipino roommate of Aligo’s to describe themselves. But commenters on social media quickly pointed out that the concept of four white men using a Filipino slang term without context smacked of cultural appropriation.
On July 30, the owners posted an apology on Instagram, stating that “it was never our intention to appropriate or capitalize on Filipino culture…we are actively looking to change our identity and brand.”
Yet soon after, in August the owners began to reach out to members of the Filipino community. The Filipino Food Movement, a group dedicated to the promotion of Filipino cuisine, held a virtual meeting with the owners to discuss the name and what it represents. The organization expressed its support for the bar, says Aligo, after he explained the rationale behind the name.
Aligo and team pivoted – again. They decided to lean in on the name. A message posted on the bar’s website states that the team “looks forward to hearing more of your thoughts, and how we can better capture the ideals with which we started this project. We will be donating proceeds from our opening to support the Filipino community…. Barkada is a beautiful word with a deep meaning of friendship.”
Barkada now carries not only raw-milk cheeses and imported tinned octopus, but also, in celebration of Filipino-American heritage month, offered rotating features of Filipino dishes. October featured lumpia, or Filipino egg rolls (notably baked and not fried as traditionally prepared, in a nod to the health-conscious patron). The team hopes to continue to highlight similar products.
Aligo also notes that since August, the bar has received overwhelming support from the Filipino community.
“We’re three gay men,” Aligo says, “so we’re sensitive to things. Our goal has always been to be more inclusive and bring the underrepresented or marginalized to light.”
It’s not just the woman-owned winemakers or the unfiltered, unprocessed, small-vintner Slovenian vintages that the owners want to showcase, but also its dedication to community – whether the gay community, the U Street neighborhood, or the Filipino population.
Barkada must still confront the challenges of operating a wine bar in a pandemic, and months after opening, continue to smooth hiccups in processes and sourcing. Yet Aligo emphasizes that after their soul-searching over the summer, that “we’re not giving up our values, we believe in them, and what the name represents.”