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Cocktails

The Cocktail Bar Is Queer

June 14, 2022

Story: Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner

photos: Brian Finke

Cocktails

The Cocktail Bar Is Queer

June 14, 2022

Story: Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner

photos: Brian Finke

Once existing in parallel to popular drinking culture, queer bars are now helping define it.

On a recent Saturday night, Oddly Enough is packed, with hoards of aspiring guests huddled on the rainy sidewalk hoping to gain entry. Inside, a celesbian and her entourage are tucked into the corner booth adjacent to a wooden bar helmed by a bartender dispatching spritzes in an apron declaring their pronouns (they/them). At first glance, nothing would necessarily differentiate this space from any other trend-forward New York cocktail bar—only this one is unapologetically queer.

In the Before Times, the concept of a chic queer cocktail bar felt like it existed only in fiction, relegated to Hollywood sets or dedicated LGBTQ+ nights at ally-owned venues. Now, the elusive space is a reality: A surge of creative, cocktail-focused queer spaces are popping up across the country. “Announcements of the death of the LGBTQ bar are premature,” says LGBTQ historian Nikita Shepard. “They continue to be centers of culture and performance and refuges for many people who don’t find online and virtual connection fulfilling.” In other words: The queer bar is dead, long live the queer bar. 

To be clear, many spaces have disappeared, but they are slowly being replaced—and with bars that are more diverse, more cocktail-driven and perhaps more interwoven with their local communities than ever before. In New York, Brooklyn’s Oddly Enough is joined by Astoria cocktail lounge Kween and, next summer, “gal pals and their pals” can congregate at queer cocktail cooperative Boyfriend, in Ridgewood. In Chicago, Nobody’s Darling has cemented itself as a cocktail-driven “queer Cheers,” while Doc Marie’s, which dubs itself a “Lesbian Bar for Everyone,” is slated to open in Portland, Oregon, this July.  

What differentiates, and unifies, these spaces is a desire to cement themselves in the larger fabric of American drinking culture—not as something fundamentally separate or clandestine. “It’s quite different from earlier decades,” says Shepard, “especially pre-Stonewall, when simply being willing to serve gay men or lesbians was enough to secure a grateful clientele, regardless of the quality of the drinks or the establishment.” 

In the 1960s, early iterations of gay bars were often owned by straight people (many connected to organized crime, who didn’t fear the illegality of serving homosexuals), known for serving watered-down and overpriced drinks, exploiting the desire any queer people had to just be in a safe (or safe enough) space. As gay political movements stood up against oppression—ending some state laws prohibiting gay bars from existing, and thus, making gay bar ownership more accessible and approachable—the quality and variety of drinks served at these spaces expanded. But not without gender and class stereotypes: Beer was pushed to more masculine lesbians, so-called “girly” drinks (i.e., fruity, sweet and colorful cocktails) were sold to effeminate men, leather bars hosted “keggers,” and campy piano bars catering to the wealthy “confirmed bachelor” would stir up a luxe Martini

Now, queer space isn’t illicit nor necessarily distinct in quality from mainstream bars; stronger equality laws allow queer spaces to thrive in multiple iterations—be it the dive bar, dance club, cocktail lounge or something in between, defying categorization—and for better or worse, assimilate into mainstream culture with a specifically inclusive ethos.

Oddly Enough, for instance, is on Eater’s list of “NYC’s Hottest New Cocktail Bars” as of June 2022; Nobody’s Darling, the only Black-owned lesbian bar in the Midwest, became the first queer bar to be nominated for a James Beard Award for Outstanding Bar Program; and Friends and Family, a queer woman-owned cocktail bar in Oakland, landed a spot on the list of North America's 50 Best Bars this year. “When you think ‘gay bar,’ you don’t think they’re focusing on cocktails; they’re focusing on a space that’s inclusive, somewhere you drink vodka-tonics,” says Nobody’s Darling co-owner Renauda Riddle. “It’s cool to see a change-up.

So what does that look like in practice? At Oddly Enough, bar patrons can order seasonal cocktails like the New Moon in Leo, starring a house-made grapefruit cordial and mint; the tequila-forward Earthy Baby, which combines turmeric, pineapple and lime; or a Stone Fruit Fizz, made with fresh peach juice and basil. Cocktails are designed to be approachable and juicy, complementing the natural wine and queer-brewed beer menu, as well as low- and no-ABV drinks and a collection of small plates, like fava bean hummus and a tinned fish spread.

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For Lindsay Brown, a first-time Oddly Enough guest in early June, the bar offers a space to drink nonalcoholic beer (rather than the soda water she typically defaults to at old-school lesbian bars like Cubbyhole) and see familiar faces as well as make new friends, rather than just get drunk and dance. “Having these spaces where we can just hang out, carry a conversation, is really important,” says Brown. 

A few hours away in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, Cockatoo, which opened in 2021, is also creating more queer space differentiated from the typical gay dive. “We wanted a place where people can come by themselves, hang out, get elevated cocktails,” says Cockatoo owner Ram Krishnan, adding that alcohol consumption is no longer the go-to activity for queer people to connect. With low- and no-alcohol drinks available, Cockatoo offers an antidote to the mass-produced light beers and well drinks found at most other gay bars. “The scene is changing,” he says.

In Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, Nobody’s Darling serves riffs on classic cocktails, like the Eartha Kitty, a spin on the Daiquiri that incorporates Mexican and Venezuelan rums alongside honey and ginger, and offers a menu of zero-proof cocktails under the header “Keep It Cute.” “It’s inspired by what we love to drink,” says Riddle. “Chicago was missing a queer cocktail bar that has all this good inclusive energy.”

The rise of the queer cocktail bar, in all its splendor, has, perhaps just as intended, initiated a greater conversation about inclusivity, economics and who higher-end LGBTQ+ spaces are for. Artist and activist Gwen Shockey sees a big difference between a venue like No Bar, the queer-adjacent cocktail bar at Manhattan’s The Standard, East Village that opened in partnership with queer chef Angela Dimayuga in 2019, and a longstanding community space like Cubbyhole, where drinks are cheap and giving back is inherent to the culture.

“Inclusive” feels different when “a huge part of the queer community can’t afford to go there,” Shockey says of some upscale bars. She wants to see these new spaces answering urgent needs in the community, as the West Village’s Henrietta Hudson, which itself has revamped as a wine-and-cocktail bar, did when becoming a COVID-19 testing center last summer. “Ideally, queer bars provide space for community to be together, host fundraisers and are a really generous space, not just a bar,” Shockey says. “It’s fantastic that new spaces are opening, and I’m really impressed. Right now, people are craving collectivity and also feeling pretty broke and desperate. It’s a weird time for nightlife.” 

At Oddly Enough, the co-owners are aware that they are two women who opened a space in a historically Black neighborhood (the space’s previous tenant, Eugene & Co., was also not a Black-owned business), and are exploring what it means to be part of that and give back. “We thought it was necessary to show that we’re not just here for the LGBTQ community, but for the community as a whole,” co-owner Caitlin Frame says. A portion of opening month sales were donated to Brooklyn Community Pride and a portion of May’s sales will go to Dyke March, a grassroots protest down Fifth Avenue every June. 

A couple hours north of New York City in Hudson, cocktail bar and restaurant Lil’ Deb’s Oasis follows a similar ethos, adding 69 cents to every menu item, like the Fermented Turnip Top(Less) ’Tini and the Garden Orgy (cilantro, house-infused spicy tequila, lime) to donate to racial justice and mutual aid organizations. “69 represents reciprocity,” says Lil’ Deb’s owner Carla Perez-Gallardo. “We really believe in sharing. We’ve been lucky enough to build this, and build in a way to give back, that’s only allowing for growth within the community.”

As queer social space continues to evolve, further integrating with drinking culture, there’s no limit to what the queer cocktail bar can become. Inspired by the rise in queer cocktail culture, Hena Mustafa is planning to open the aforementioned Boyfriend as a queer-run coop in 2023. “It’s not so much that we want to do something vastly different, but the more options we have, the better,” she says of her aspirations of a worker-owned and -managed cocktail bar. It’s not a party spot, but a relaxed space putting marginalized people at the center—a collaborator, rather than a competitor, with fellow New York bars like Kween and Oddly Enough. Each of these spaces, Nobody’s Darling to Lil’ Deb’s Oasis, is not just transforming the LGBTQ+ social experience, but proving that the queer bar is not a monolith—and, importantly, that it is far from extinct. After all, as Oddly Enough co-owner Laura Poladsky puts it, “The queers are thirsty.”

All photos shot at Brooklyn's Oddly Enough.

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Tagged: culture, queer bars

Melissa Kravitz Hoeffner is a writer based in Brooklyn. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.