The Death and Life of America’s Gay Restaurants
By Mike Albo
Illustrations by Derek Rippe
I love a gay restaurant. You know — that scuffed-up spot with a rainbow flag decal prominently posted in the window, staffed with gay waiters in fitted shirts and rump-rounding trousers, with a décor trapped in the year 2003, as if the Queer Eye guys swept through wielding Ikea catalogs.
A gay restaurant has menu options that are always behind-trend: chicken Paillard (1995’s French bistro trend), mac ’n’ cheese (2001’s comfort food trend), kale salad with pomegranate seeds (2011’s cruciferous trend). There are some staples at a gay restaurant, like margaritas, for example, and, lately, a cauliflower purée as a side (because it has fewer carbs than mashed potatoes and even bears are paleo now). You often find a “chicken-fried chicken” dish and a meatloaf entree that’s purportedly the provenance of someone’s mama, grandpa, or aunt. And if you are in Fire Island or Provincetown or some other LGBT vacation destination, you may be lucky enough to open a menu and find an item with a sexual innuendo for a name, like the “Meat Rack Hoagie” or “Tops ’n’ Bottoms Surf ‘n’ Turf.”
I spend way too much money at such places, here in New York where I live. If I’m feeling rich I go to Cafeteria. If I’m poor, I go to The Dish. Last fall I truly went to Vinyl on a date. We held hands, ordered two Joan Riverses (frozen margarita with jalapeño tequila) and tried to have a conversation while Sia blasted through the speakers. I’ll even go to Elmo by myself and read my Kindle in the too-dim light while I eat sesame-crusted tuna steak on top of mixed greens. It may be some other entree, but I can’t remember specifically because the food is always forgettable.
People don’t Instagram their dishes at these restaurants. They don’t discuss the nutty aftertaste of the blackberry reduction or quietly make moony faces over their food like they’re channeling Padma Lakshmi.
“I would say the food was serviceable at Paris Commune,” says songwriter and singer David Clement, who worked at the now-defunct very gay restaurant in the West Village during its heyday in the nineties. “The owners were big on keeping food prices down.”
This is important to the ecosystem of a gay restaurant. It must eschew star ratings and ignore Yelp reviews. A gay restaurant may serve bold, thoughtful food that would encourage even someone like Gael Greene to use her adjectives. But a gay restaurant is still, in its spirit, not about that, because a fussy Top Chef-like dish is kind of a party pooper. It’s why so many gay restaurants (like Marix in Los Angeles, or the now-closed Bandito in the West Village) serve Tex-Mex, which is to a snobby restaurant critic what garlic is to a vampire.
“It was never about flashy food,” says Pailo Heitz, who worked at Marion’s on the Bowery, also now closed. “It was not expensive. You went there because it was fun.” And to be fun, you need to create an energy circle that wards off things like Pete Wells.
In other words, a gay restaurant is a throwback to that time, long, long ago, before the American palate had been Bourdained.
A gay restaurant isn’t discerning. It’s not subtle. A gay restaurant is your gay uncle in a yellow Day-Glo blazer who sings “All That Jazz” at piano bars. It’s your friend who wears boot-cut diesel jeans and too much cologne and becomes a drama queen when he gets drunk. It’s your best lady friend who gets even drunker and tries to belt “All That Jazz” over your drunk uncle, then gets in a fight with your drama queen friend over the piano. Basically to be a gay restaurant, you have to be a bit of a mess. A gay restaurant is drunk, imperfect, slightly out of style.
But because of all this, it is somewhere you feel you belong. Which, ironically, makes these spaces more on-trend than any farm-to-table, locavore food emporium, because here, it’s not about the food at all, it’s about the experience. A gay restaurant makes you feel less alone.
Will Schwalbe, editor and author of End of Your Life Book Club, recently wrote about the famous, now-defunct restaurant Company for the magazine 426. Located on Third Avenue between 26th and 27th Streets in Manhattan, Company closed in 1983. With its underlit Bette Midler posters, bursting flower bouquets and profusion of chrome and mirrors, it was the quintessential seventies gay restaurant. Leonard Bernstein entered and the house piano player would break into a rendition of “Maria.” And although Company actually did get a starred review in the New York Times, it was about the atmosphere. “No one knew the name of the chef then. It was like knowing the name of the stage manager at a play. The waiters ruled, not the kitchen. You would go there because there was no other place you could hold hands and be gay without any threat.”
At Marion’s the theory was that fun begets fun. “The managers at Marion’s hired big personalities,” says Heitz. “I served tables with a martini in my hand and cigarette in my mouth. You could drink during work. We even would clean the bar and tables with the cheap vodka. It was better than 409.” Another big personality? His co-worker, Amy Sedaris. “Once she came in from a photo shoot made up like she had been beaten up. She didn’t say a word and just served tables. I asked her what she told people if they asked about her black eye. She said ‘I just say I am in love and walk away.’” She made major tips that night, Heitz remembers.
Heitz had a “starving artists program,” where friends could come, order a
drink, and get the rest for free (I was a frequent patron). “That would totally create the atmosphere. A lot of famous people would come in,” says Heitz, “people from SNL, Sean Penn and Marisa Tomei on a date. Todd Haynes and Toni Colette were there often while they worked on Velvet Goldmine.”
Paris Commune hit its peak when Marc Jacobs and his crew discovered it and had parties there, but before the entire area became known for Magnolia Bakery and his many stores. One night Clement discovered a supermodel and her mother in the bathroom doing lines. “They offered me some but then my boyfriend at the time stopped me.” And not a moment too soon: it wasn’t coke, it was heroin.
But the presence of celebrities, or even a supermodel snorting heroin, isn’t crucial to create the energy needed of a gay restaurant. It may just be eavesdropping a conversation between two waiters realizing they both slept with PowerTopTen on Grindr. It may be the presence of an aged porn star escort you recognize from your 2 a.m. online exploration of Treasure Island Media. It may just be a loud birthday table for someone named Ramona, watching her eight gay best friends get tanked.
It may even be toxic or sad. Many years ago, my friend almost overdosed at Vinyl and had to be wheeled out by paramedics. “Legendary exit!” yelled a queen while we scurried out the door. Heitz remembers at Marion’s that they often let the friendly neighborhood junky shoot up in the bathroom. Clement says that one of the owners of Paris Commune was so obnoxious he would call heterosexual clientele breeders to their faces, while also getting a little too friendly with other guests. “I would have tables ask me to keep him away from their table.” But, also, according to Clement, when a waiter fell ill and was in the hospital, the owners fed his entire family that’d come into town to care for him.
What makes a gay restaurant die? “AIDS probably had a massive effect on the closure of Company, sure,” says Schwalbe, “But it is a whole confluence of things. Once a gay venue gets a reputation of being a ‘wrinkle room,’ it is doomed.”
And of course nothing shrivels a struggling restaurant like the bloated real estate market. “We had lots of patrons, it was just that they jacked the rent up and we couldn’t compete,” says Scott Stiler, the co-owner of the popular, now-defunct Big Cup café in Chelsea. (What’s there now? A nail salon. Quelle surprise!)
Gentrification wears many hats. The gentrification of food and rise of Foodie culture has slowly killed off many of the more diner-based gay restaurants like Stingy Lulu’s in the East Village or the Gem Diner in Chelsea. Linda Simpson, the drag queen, writer, and presenter of her ongoing photo series The Drag Explosion, remembers Tiffany’s on Sheridan Square. “It was a typical Greek diner with revolving cakes behind glass. A huge destination. People came in from sashaying down Christopher, mixed ethnically, in tacky fur coats, making their way to formica booths for scrambled eggs.” It’s difficult to imagine such a scene gathering somewhere so affordable these days.
Heitz believes Marion’s decline began in the late nineties, when computers started showing up in restaurants. Orders became automated, waitstaff were surveilled. Goodbye free drinks; so long, comped entrées. “It really made the atmosphere less friendly,” he recalls.
Then there is the gentrification of gayness itself, which has birthed popular gay joints like The Abbey in West Hollywood or Lips in midtown NYC. More theme parks than gay restaurants, these are industrialized gay spaces serving an easily digestible experience to a larger more mainstream demo.
“Gay restaurants are probably endangered for the same reason gay bookstores no longer exist,” comments Schwalbe. “We forget that just arranging to meet people was a pain in the ass not long ago. Gay restaurants were the bars for people who didn’t like bars. And part of the frisson is to have the whole community in one place, which is difficult to happen in our Grindr era. But now I am not sure there’s much socializing across generations in America, period.”
Still, for as many gay restaurants that have closed (Manatus, Eighteenth and Eighth, Universal Grill) others are thriving.
Cafeteria and Elmo are always crowded. Cafe Lafayette and the Duplex Diner in Washington, DC, are tentpoles to the city’s gay culture. LA still has a thriving West Hollywood gay restaurant scene, including Marix and the genre-definitive franchise Hamburger Mary’s (its West Hollywood location prominently featured in the movie Tangerine). Stiler now owns and operates Harlem Food Bar, which he says is about 60 to 70 percent gay. “Harlem has become a big destination for young gay people. We have a great crowd, a wide age group, black and Latin people, and also a lot of older gay men moved up here from Chelsea with their partners.”
He admits that his first round of hires for wait staff was for their looks (it’s a
gay restaurant, of course), but now he is just looking for good staff. “It’s difficult to find people who are willing to work and not be on their phone all the time, so you take what you can get.” Apparently another thing at risk of extinction: the ability to focus.