“It’s like the queer Cheers,” says Angela Barnes of Nobody’s Darling, the bar she owns with her longtime friend Renauda Riddle. It’s true: While Chicago is not a city devoid of gay bars, the cocktail lounge acts as a sort of neighborly oasis for those seeking something other than a grungy dive.
“We were very intentional about how we went about it: the community, the culture and the feel,” Barnes explains. As two Black queer women, the founders built the space knowing that the city’s typical gay bars primarily cater to cis white men. There are only 21 queer woman–owned bars left in the United States, and with that in mind, Riddle and Barnes knew exactly who they needed to center. “We wanted to make sure the space was woman-centered, for women to feel comfortable, but also for all members of the LGBTQ+ community to feel at home.”
Named after the Alice Walker poem, which begins “Be nobody’s darling; / Be an outcast,” the namesake bar is a testament to its inspiration, a juxtaposition of tavern-like sensibility mixed with upscale décor. On any given night, queer tattooed women in their 20s, gay men in their 50s and trans women in their 70s—among a whole host of others—can be found sitting at the burgundy bar under its Art Deco chandeliers. While the speakers blare 1980s pop music, the environment is still quiet enough to gather and make friends. “I see a lot of people come in by themselves to sit at the bar, and by the second time they’re in here, they know at least three more people,” says Barnes.
Even the cocktail menu at Nobody’s Darling has community in mind; it’s collaboratively developed, giving those who work behind the bar a chance to highlight their personalities. “It’s just another way for us all to connect with the patrons,” explains bartender Becca Petersen, as she garnishes the All About Love, a minty vodka drink that she and co-worker Xavier Sumter created together. On both sides of the bar, “there shouldn’t be an expectation of having to be someone else,” says Barnes. “Come as you are.”
To get a sense of the scene on any given evening, we sat down at Nobody’s Darling to talk about the bar with the people who know it best: The Regulars.
Elizabeth Anderson (29, she/her)
When can we usually find you here?
Anytime I’m not in class. I’m now friends with all the bartenders, so when I come in but I’m not necessarily drinking, they’re like, “Cool, here’s some water.”
I usually let Xavier pick out a whiskey for me, and he’s recommended some great Japanese whiskies. I’m being fancy tonight and drinking a Darling Old-Fashioned [Old Forester, walnut liqueur, cherry bark vanilla bitters, Angostura, orange bitters] that Becca made, and it’s incredible.
How would you describe the people who come to this bar?
Queer and weird and loving. When you’re here, you can literally make friends with anyone. You can walk up to anybody and say, “OK, we’re in the same space, so we’re probably friends,” and you’re not going to be weird if I start a conversation with you. I had an awkward moment where I was laughing at myself and stumbled out of my chair and landed on a stool next to a stranger. They were like, “Hey, whatcha doing here?” and I was like, “OK, I guess we’re talking now.” And then we were friends. It’s that easy.
What made you become a regular here?
This is a really special place. I come here not specifically to drink; I come here when I want to be in a loving, safe space. I don’t think there’s another bar in Chicago like this, where it’s queer-centered and woman-centered. So much of Boystown and Andersonville is made for white gay men, and this isn’t that space. Everyone is welcome, including white gay men, but it feels more like a community for every person.
Ghassan Moussawi (37, he/him)
How long have you been a regular and how did you hear about the bar?
I heard about Nobody’s Darling through some queer friends of color, and I started going about a month after they opened last May.
What was it about Nobody’s Darling that made you continue to be a patron?
There are so many things! As a queer person of color, I don’t feel included in most gay spaces, and I prefer queer spaces because they make me feel comfortable in my own body. Nobody’s Darling made me feel welcome, and I never feel any pressure to perform [when I’m there]. I’ve also never felt scared that there was going to be racism against me, which I have experienced in many establishments in Chicago and other major cities. The owners and the managers came up to me and introduced themselves right away and were so kind. From the first time I went alone and started meeting like-minded people, it was so easy to make friends. Also, the drinks are amazing.
What is your go-to drink?
I love their winter Martini [Cognac, lemon, butternut squash syrup, Amaro Montenegro and black walnut bitters]; I believe it’s called the Winter Darling.
Why is it important to you to support a bar like this?
Queer spaces have been shrinking—as opposed to gay spaces. And by queer, I mean a definition that is more encompassing of gayness and is not tied to only cis people and cis bodies. This is a queer space that centers trans, nonbinary and queer people of color. Racism in the gay community is really apparent and can be blatant in some bars, but this is one of the few spots that allows you to be exactly who you are, as long as you are respectful of others.
MC Newman (33, she/they)
How long have you been coming here?
Last summer, Dyke March had been rained out, so my friend took me here, and I was like, “How did I miss this?” Then I just kept coming back to sit out on the patio to read or write. Eventually, I’d seen Angela over and over again, and I finally introduced myself. She thanked me for being a patron, and I thanked her for providing a wonderful space, and then over the months, if either one of us were at the bar, we would sit next to each other. Over time, Angela and I became very close friends and that eventually led to them offering me a job a few months ago. I thought, “Wow, what a lovely way to get work.” That attitude is the energy of the space.
What makes a regular a good regular?
Respect. I feel like this is how I became so close to everyone. Even though I am a regular that moved to [work as] an employee, I never expect to be served first.
Do you interact with the people next to you when you come in alone?
Everyone does. It’s a tiny bar, so you sort of have to make conversation. But even more than that, people want to talk to their bar neighbors. The amount of times I’ve woken up and have so many new numbers in my phone, and not from being drunk, is simply because I just end up having all of these wonderful conversations. It’s incredible, the emotional and social impact Nobody’s Darling has on the queer community here in Chicago.
So I’m allergic to basically everything and I can literally only have one drink: the Mezcal Old-Fashioned.
Favorite feature of the bar?
The poem hung up on the wall. I really love that Alice Walker poem, and I think it perfectly sums [up] what Nobody’s Darling values. And it’s funny, because it says “Don’t be anyone’s darling,” but when you’re here, everyone’s your darling and you’re everyone’s darling.