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A new generation of queer women is up-leveling the traditional lesbian bar and bucking the trend of the closure of women-centric watering holes.
In the process, they are creating queer welcoming spaces everyone wants to hang out at and be seen.
When the global pandemic hit, fear gripped the world. Covid-19’s shelter-in-place orders shuttering businesses and closing places where people regularly gathered and mandating social distancing and masking sent shockwaves through small businesses. Entertainment venues, like bars, restaurants, and nightclubs were hit hard.
The Lesbian Bar Project
Queer women’s and gender-nonconforming spaces, were particularly threatened. Lesbian bars were closing at a rapid rate when the pandemic forced everyone to stay home. Only 21 lesbian bars existed throughout the United States in 2020, according to The Lesbian Bar Project.
The Lesbian Bar Project is an organization launched by lesbian filmmakers Erica Rose and Elina Street and award-winning star and comedian executive producer Lea DeLaria of Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black.”The women created a documentary about the loss of lesbian spaces and the meaning for those spaces to exist for queer communities in a short film released last year. Lesbian bars once thrived as community spaces for queer women and gender-nonconforming people topping at 200 in 1980, 40 years later they dwindled to a little more than two dozen. The women’s goal: Save lesbian bars.
Fears of lesbian bars closing are being stymied by a surge of lesbian-owned bars opening. If anything, rather than evaporating the remaining bars the pandemic revived lesbian bars in the most unexpected way. The last lesbian bars standing are seeing a resurgence of patrons and lesbian-led queer-centric bars are opening around the world. Once again, these bars are creating space for a community thirsty and hungry to connect, live, and celebrate their lives together.
Moreso, these women-led queer bars are not your lesbian dive bars of yesteryear. They are hip, cool, sophisticated serving up craft brews to wicked elixirs and some are dishing out tasty plates of food to go with the drinks in stylin’ digs.
OUTvoices traveled to several of these bars to witness the revolution ourselves.
Elixir Mixology Bar, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Elixir Mixology Bar owners Laura Jaimes, left, and Elena Esquer Zolezzi, right, stand outside of their cocktail lounge in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Photo Credit: Heather Cassell
Puerto Vallarta’s newest swanky lounge, Elixir Mixology Bar, is the place to be in the trendy Zona Romantica. Opened by expert mixologists Elena Esquer Zolezzi; her wife, Sarah Rose; and best friend Laura Jaimes in January 2021, their electrifying style of high-end cocktails made in a stylish laidback lounge became an instant hit with locals and visitors.
The Mexican lesbians have 40 years of upscale mixology and hospitality experience combined working on cruise ships and cities around the world. That experience and their pride as queer women show in the hip setting that they’ve created and the rainbow flags waving proudly in the breeze from the fans blowing.
The lounge is another world the moment you step inside. Zolezzi, Rose, Jaimes, and their staff greet guests, warmly offering a seat at the bar or in the lounge. They want everyone who walks through their doors to get comfortable in the intimate space and enjoy the magic they create from their cocktails to the small bites from the menu.
Zolezzi and Jaimes are often found behind the bar chatting up guests as they mix their enchanting concoctions.
The women are proud to have a bar that is women-centric, proudly lesbian-owned, and is a place where everyone is welcome.
Cadadía Bar-Café, Merida, Mexico
Emma Molin holding her dog, Etta Francine, opened Cadadía Bar-Cafe to create a space to empower women and serve good food and drinks in the Yucatan’s capital city, Merida, in Mexico.
Photo Credit: Heather Cassell
Located in the Yucatan’s capital city, Merida, Cadadía Bar-Cafe, Emma Molin, a self-identified queer dyke American expatriate, opened her own women-centric bar. Her goal, empower women and provide a safe space for the city’s queer community in June 2021.
She created a comfortable stylish space for feminists, queer women, and others to enjoy as well as support artists from the artwork on the walls to hosting events in the space in the charming stylish bar.
By day, guests can grab their lattes and a pastry and relax by reading the morning paper or a book. On any given night, guests can enjoy beer, wine, and cocktails paired with a delightful selection from small bites to full meals from the menu.Guests can even meet, Etta Francine, Molin’s dog, the unofficial “queen” of the bar, and her mother. Molin’s mother moved to Merida with her in 2015. She is often at the bar with her daughter.
Nobody’s Darling, Chicago, USA
Nobody’s Darling owners Angela Barnes, front, and Renauda Riddle, back, opened their smooth bluesy funk Nina Simone-styled lounge in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood to bring people together in a comfortable cool space.
Photo Credit: Susanne Fairfax
An anthem for a post-pandemic and woke world, Nobody’s Darling is not your average neighborhood bar. It has a cool jazzy, funk vibe that exudes confidence and pride.
The bartenders shake, stir, and deliver high-end cocktails for the crowd that packs into the small space once known as the lesbian-owned wine bar, Joie De Vine, on the quiet treelined street in Chicago’s Andersonville.
The bar has a mission. It calls for its patrons to come as they are and be free. It beckons lesbians, queers, gender variant people, and other outsiders, misfits, and outcasts to walk through its doors, have a seat, enjoy a drink, and strike up a conversation with their neighbor in the intimate space.
That’s exactly what queer Black women activists and friends Angela Barnes and Renauda Riddle envisioned when they opened Chicago’s second only Black-owned queer bars, the South Shore’s Jeffery Pub, being the other. Barnes, general counsel and director of legal affairs and growth initiatives at City Tech Collaborative, and Riddle, a revenue auditor for Illinois, by day and event organizers by night imagined a Nina Simone-styled lounge that welcomed everyone. They ripped the bar’s namesake from Alice Walker’s poem, “Be Nobody’s Darling,” posting the poem on the bar’s wall to remind their patrons to bask in their otherness and order a high-end cocktail to celebrate being who they are.
Opened May 2021, Barnes and Riddle dare to deliver equality as a high-end cocktail bar for people on the fringe. It is the antithesis of the boys of Halsted’s “Boystown,” which is majority white gay men. For too long anyone who wasn’t white, male, and gay experienced an unstated, “you are not welcome here,” glance or gaze, a shift or movement of the body, lack of service, and sometimes even words. It is unclear if the neighborhood’s rebranding from “Boystown” to “Northalsted” in 2021 will reverse the decades-long discrimination rooted in the neighborhood before 2020’s summer of racial reckoning.Nobody’s Darling is what the Washington Post called “Boystown’s lesbian foil.”
The Sports Bra, Portland, OR USA
Jenny Nguyen’s Sports Bra Bar gives women’s sports and its fans their due in Portland, Oregon.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dalila Brent
No longer an off-the-cuff joke between her girlfriend, Liz Leavens, and friends, chef and restaurateur Jenny Nguyen’s, The Sports Bra, tagline: “We support women,” is a reality. The nation’s first women’s sports bar focused on women in sports opened in Portland, Oregon April 1.
It will be game on all day, every day for women’s sports at The Sports Bra whether there’s a match or highlighting women athletes on Just Women’s Sports, which will stream on days there aren’t games on the numerous big-screen TVs around the bar.
The bar’s opening kicked off with the women’s March Madness Final Four, with the championship game and six National Women’s Soccer League games that followed over the weekend, reported Portland Magazine. The doors opened just as the National Women’s Soccer League, Women’s National Basketball Association, and other sporting events are underway for the 2022 season.
Guided by the #MeToo, #TimesUp, and the racial and social justice reckoning in 2020, Portlander Nguyen ditched years of frustration at the lack of attention paid to women’s sports and their fans to open the bar. She was tired of being disappointed and angered at having the channel changed by staff and other patrons in the middle of women’s sporting events back to male teams while her friends and she watched at local bars. She was also fed up with pay inequity in sports to the hospitality industry. She dreamed of a bar where women’s sports fans, like herself, could watch games uninterrupted and feel empowered. She playfully called her imaginary women’s sports bar, The Sports Bra.
Girl powered from the ground up, women’s sports fans of all ages can sit, sip, and dine on girl-created furniture, libations, and food. The bar’s furniture is made by girls at Girls Build, a carpentry and construction nonprofit organization that teaches girls how to build. The bar’s beers and spirits are crafted by women-owned breweries and distilleries and poured by women bartenders. Nguyen herself heads up the kitchen crafting sports bar standards – burgers, buffalo wings, and nachos – and not-so-standard Vietnamese-style baby back ribs and wings made from products produced by women farmers in the family-friendly bar.
Who knows, fans might catch sightings of the U.S. Women’s National Team defender and Portland Thorns Football Club’s openly lesbian team member Crystal Dunn and other women, professional athletes, at the lesbian-owned sports bar too.
As You Are Bar, Washington, D.C., USA
Rachel Pike, front, and Jo McDaniel, back, founders and owners of Capitol Hill’s new lesbian bar, As You Are Bar in Washington, D.C.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Zayn Thiam
Ripped from the famous Nirvana song, “Come As You Are,” the capital city’s newest lesbian hot spot for queer people and allies is As You Are Bar.
The bar is requeering the space formerly the home of D.C.’s historic lesbian bar, Phase 1, which closed in 2017. The building was occupied by a Black-owned District Soul Food, which closed during the pandemic, reported DCist.
The queer café and lounge in the Barracks Row neighborhood, is the vision of D.C.’s lesbian bar nightlife veterans, business owners, and newly engaged Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike. The couple have more than 40 years’ experience working in and managing the capital city’s queer bar scene. They opened the Capital Hill bar on March 22, reported the Washington Blade.
They hope everyone – including diplomats and politicians – will find community and enjoy the bar, café, and lounge.
As You Are Bar already got its first political patrons, gay U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, reported the Blade. The political couple live in the neighborhood and dropped in for a drink to show their support for the bar the first day its doors opened.
McDaniel, who identifies as genderqueer, and Pike, a lesbian, more than 20 years’ experience combined in D.C.’s lesbian bar scene and nightlife saw the need for community as soon as the pandemic hit sending the queer community and everyone else into isolation. They responded by creating a space on Zoom hosting events, such as trivia contests, happy hours, and dance parties virtually for people 18-years and older. The virtual events attracted an estimated 500 people which gave birth to As You Are Bar as a space in real life for its virtual patrons and everyone else.
The location of As You Are was important to McDaniel and Pike. They wanted easy access to the café and lounge as well as be near Capitol Hill. They wanted a space that could be used for multiple purposes beyond a bar, a space that would be a hub for the community.
The bar will eventually have two distinct areas, one for the café – which will include workspace for telecommuters – and lounge and the other for the bar and dance boutique.
No Wave Coffee’s Reggie Elliot consulted on the coffee menu and Nina Love is crafting the menu and managing the kitchen, reported Washington City Paper.
As You Are Bar tapped DJ Mim to keep the music flowing at the lesbian bar and club.
McDaniel and Pike look forward to working with the community to create a welcoming space for everyone, they said.
Henrietta Hudson, New York, NY, USA
New York’s legendary lesbian bar, Henrietta Hudson, has drawn queer women and their friends far and wide through its doors since 1991.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Molly Adams
One of New York’s longest-running lesbian bars in New York, Henrietta Hudson, got a makeover in 2021 and she is looking good.
The West Village lesbian hot spot has been a destination for queer women from all over the world for more than 30-years since it opened in 1991. The bar is known for its wild parties in the dark interior, but she’s no longer that dark brooding girl. Henrietta or Hen, as regulars endearingly call her, reinvented herself during the global pandemic into a Holly Golightly-esque a la Audrey Hepburn for a new generation of loyal followers. While the party girl never really died, Hen has grown up and gotten a sleeker, more sophisticated look, what owners of the iconic bar Lisa Cannistraci and Minnie Rivera call a “cross between a living room and a petite café” all dressed up in a mid-20th century-modern circa Palm Springs featuring “comfy chairs, plush ottomans, work nooks, and a dining area.”
Cannistraci and Rivera took the opportunity the pandemic gave them to reimagine the Manhattan lesbian bar, what they call a “queer human space built by lesbians.” Hen still sports her disco ball that thousands have passed under at the entryway, but guests now step into a swanky bar where they can still enjoy Hen’s staples of gay TV watch parties, happy hours, and of course, themed nights with DJs.
The party girl isn’t too far away, but now she’s stylin’ in a whole new way. Guests can sit inside the bar or outside in the custom-designed parklet while they sip on their wine-and-cocktail bar offerings from femme-identifying and BIPOC (Black and indigenous people of color) winemakers and cocktail mixes by Brooklyn’s Wandering Barman. They can order charcuterie and cheese plates and vegan dips and chips from woman-owned, Cowgirl, down the street while they lounge.
Guests shouldn’t leave without their Henrietta circa 1980s-retro style merch from the lesbian bar. How Zizmorcore of Hen’s fans.😉The Zizmorcore fashion trend is named after longtime subway advertiser Dr. Jonathan Zizmor, a dermatologist. His ads on New York subway cars were a staple for decades, reported the New York Times.
El Rio, San Francisco, USA
One of San Francisco’s hottest and longest-running tea parties, Mango, at El Rio the city’s queer woman-owned dive bar for everyone.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of El Rio
El Rio, officially called El Rio, Your Dive, is the iconic queer woman-owned diver bar located on the edge of San Francisco’s Bernal Heights and Mission neighborhoods. An institution in the City by the Bay for 43-years, its known for its backyard, queer and trans staff, the bar’s signature drinks, and its commitment to social justice causes and the city’s LGBTQ community.
The bar is known for its legendary backyard where it hosts lesbian tea dance parties, Mango and Swagger Like Us, among other queer events. It's mostly queer and trans staff and bartenders shaking and mixing the bar’s signature drinks. Its progressive thinking (it had gender-neutral bathrooms long before anyone else). El Rio wouldn’t be an iconic queer woman-owned dive bar without its requisite pool and shuffleboard tables.
Owned by Dawn Huston, a queer woman, for decades, the onetime door person took over El Rio, once a leather Brazilian gay bar, from its founders and then-owners Malcolm Thornley and Robert Nett. Nett and Thornley opened El Rio in 1978. The two gay men retired in 1997 and passed the bar to Huston, reported the Bay Area Reporter.
The bar is so iconic San Francisco designated it as a legacy business in 2017. In 2019, the Mission Economic Development Agency bought the building that houses El Rio for $6.8 million.
When the pandemic hit and Huston was struggling like other small LGBTQ-owned businesses, the Human Rights Campaign and Showtime stepped in with its "Queer to Stay: An LGBTQ+ Business Preservation Initiative," reported the BAR. El Rio became one of California’s two queer businesses the partnership infused with cash to protect and preserve queer businesses through the initiative.
Showtime is the cable network that produces LGBTQ shows "The L Word" and "Queer as Folk."HRC is a global LGBTQ advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
Gossip Grill in San Diego is on a shortlist of remaining lesbian bars across the country.
There's another pandemic happening in America: The darkening of lesbian bars. This was already a problem before the COVID pandemic, but due to the tenacity and quick-thinking of their owners and supporters, most have managed to survive the viral threat.
One of those sacred spaces is located on University Avenue in San Diego, California; it's called Gossip Grill. For just over a decade this out-of-the-way spot has grown into quite a powerhouse, and that's no small feat.
Set among the hustle and bustle of San Diego's gayborhood known as Hillcrest, Gossip Grill is a beacon of shelter to lesbians across the country. According to The Lesbian Bar Project, there are only 21 lesbian bars still around in The United States.
These dwindling spaces are primarily for women, non-binary folks and trans women. Male gay bars often dominate queer bar scenes, but when it comes to females they seem to have a harder time finding a place of their very own. That being said, according to their Facebook page: Gossip Grill "plays nice with boys too."
The lack of female-centric nightlife inclusion is so scarce The Lesbian Bar Project was created to save those still in existence by igniting a fundraising effort. "Without space, we lose power, validity, communal safety, and access to intergenerational dialogue," reads the project's homepage.
One thing that Gossip Grill has going for it (other than a clever play on words in homage to a popular television show), is owner Moe Girton. She has become an LGBT San Diego icon given her work, fundraising and determination.
During the pandemic, Moe gave live social media mixers and tutorials to keep the spirit of San Diego alive. Gossip Grill also announced remote ordering and delivery during California's stay-in-place directive. To keep things entertaining, at certain times of the day you could get food delivered by a drag queen.
“We will not give up,” she said to LGBTQ Nation back in the dark ages of December 2020. “We are resilient, I am committed. I am committed to the community, committed to my staff…. We’re all family and we take care of each other and we will get through this.”
What might set Gossip Grill apart from the crowd is the gratifying food choices--the clue is in its name. With a long list of delicious small bites, appetizers and informal entrees, the bar-slash-eatery has earned quite the reputation and ranks among the best of Hillcrest's renowned comfort cuisine. Try not to scrape the dish with your tongue after finishing a serving of their famous oven-baked spinach dip.
And what's a bar without drinks? There are too many great ones to list here, but take our word for it, they are "poured to your liking."
As far as entertainment, the "Grill" has plenty when the sun goes down and it becomes a nightclub. From drag king shows to girls-night-out merrymakings, this is one spot where soul meets body; as the song goes.
Standing out among gay nightlife in any big progressive city is rather tough. Compound that with being a women's bar and your chances of survival dwindle. With only about 21 of them left in the nation, you can imagine the dedication it takes to prosper.
But Gossip Grill is finding its second wind. God willing, the downtrodding Delta Variant memes don't apply here. From great people to exhilarating vibes and tasty meals, this is one lesbian bar that stands by its neon motto, "Welcome Home Beautiful!" And no radical virus is going to stop them.
Visit Gossip Grill's website for more information HERE.