Wednesday, April 23, 2008

West Village Gay Bars

Having lived here for a while, I’ve cycled through most of the gay bars in the West Village. When I travel, I’m always reminded how lucky I am to have an abundance of gay bars at my doorstep.

Each one has held my interest at some point. A few have closed, but a surprising number are still here 20 years later despite the insane increases in commercial rents in the West Village. For now, at least, the gay bars don’t seem to have fallen as quickly as most of the other long-time retail establishments.

Christopher Street's survival is due, in part, to its reputation as a gay mecca around the world. Every spring and summer, you can see the European and Asian gay tourists walking down the street with their gay guide books looking for the “hot spot” that doesn’t really exist.

Christopher Street’s survival is also due to gay minorities who have replaced the white Manhattan queens in a lot of the bars. Even when I moved here in 1990, Christopher Street was changing from THE place to be gay to an historical gayborhood populated by minority kids and tourists. Most of the young, trendy gay men went to Chelsea, even if they lived in the Village. When Splash opened in 1991, it was indicative of the mass exodus of "mainstream" gaydom to Chelsea.

But I still prefer the Christopher Street gay scene to Chelsea and Hells Kitchen. Its more diverse and less pretentious and preening. And somewhat cheaper if you’re smart about where and WHEN you go.

So here’s my round-up starting at the top of Christopher Street at Sixth Avenue.

Pieces -
Tacky, sweet, surprisingly busy, with a mix of twinks and older men. Though its popularity is due in part to its location as the first bar on Christopher Street, its also due to its friendly vibe, attitude-free bartenders and pretense free scene. They have lots of special nights and Liquid Brunch (until 8PM) on the weekends with $3 margaritas, mimosas and bloody marys. Definitely a drinking crowd who can occasionally get messy but a nice change of pace from the Chelsea scene. And people actually hook up here unlike a lot of the other bars.

One block off Christopher on 10th Street and Waverly, its known as the oldest gay bar in NYC and looks it. The quintessential dive bar with older men drinking at noon, burgers and beer and a bar that looks its age. Which is what makes it fabulous and entertaining. Its starting to get a lot of trendy Gawkers mixing with the old-timers. Not always comfortably, but generally they won’t turn away your straight friends. Also some hustler action with the meth-head hookers who cruise the corner. A great blast from the past and an escape from the glitzy new West Village. But at risk of becoming a zoo for “cool” straights to condescendingly watch the old natives who can no longer afford to live (or drink) in the West Village.

Stonewall Inn
The museum of gay history bar. Without exhibits. Though a lot of tourists come here to see where it all began, its primary customers are regulars who have been coming for a long time. But in addition to the messy 70 year old who has had 5 too many, it also gets after-work suburban gays and non-scene city guys getting together with friends. It’s recently changed hands and the new owners are trying new things to keep it alive including new, friendly bartenders to replace the surly long-timers who seemed irritated by customers (though in truth they need to be a little rough to deal with some of the hustlers and homeless addicts who often wander in off Sheridan Square). Some of the new events include “Stonewall Sensation” (a gay American Idol), ethnic nights and porn star appearances upstairs. 2-for-1 happy hour 2-8 PM.

A piano bar on the ground floor and performance space on the top floor. But my favorite is the second floor bar. It’s mellow with really nice, no-attitude bartenders, good $3 draft beer (yeah!) and $4 well drinks until 8PM. A good place to go to have a conversation without a scene. Mostly NYC locals not necessarily on the cruise, but open to meeting people. Combined with the social bartenders, it makes for a good place to meet new friends. Later in the evening when the shows start, the piano bar downstairs is more active with a mix of gay and straight people who love karaoke and cabaret.

The Monster
Kind of bi-polar. Older, cruisy gay men upstairs where you can look out the windows or sing along with the piano man. But downstairs, when its open, is a dance floor with a younger scene and great dance music. One of the most diverse crowds in NYC with a mix of young hip-hop boys, old school dancers, tourists and the occasional Chelsea boy. Sunday night Tea Dance is my favorite. One of the few places where you can dance in a low-key environment with a low or no cover charge. To me this place epitomizes the difference between the West Village gay scene and Chelsea/Hells Kitchen. Nightly, not so great, drink specials on mediocre beer and mixed drinks.

Boots and Saddles
Weird and small but good draft beer. Its been here forever, but recently changed hands. They tried making it new and hip and changing its name to BSNY (as in SBNY, aka Splash), but its too small and old school to ever be a hip trendy club. So I think they’ve accepted their clientele and are just going with it. Middle aged, social gay drinkers who have been coming to the Village for years and some locals. Embracing their demographic, they now have a go-go boy on a platform in the middle of the floor. Which is weird because the whole place is the size of a studio apartment so the go-go boy’s platform takes up a significant portion of the little available standing room and your face is almost in his crotch. But the crowd seems pleased as they stuff the straight go-go boy’s thong with dollar bills (or as I witnessed the other night, take out a bag full of sex toys and engage in a one-on-one conversational interaction with the go-go boy who is apparently on a first name basis with John). On the plus side (for me), they are one of the few gay bars with draft beer that includes some good dark imports. And they have 2-for-1 happy hour.

the classic Christopher Street bar that doesn’t try to change to keep up with the times. Wood floored, brick walled room with windows facing the street. You can easily imagine yourself being in the 1970s (though without the sexual carnival atmosphere). Low-key, not overly friendly or mean, mellow place popular with bears. Relatively attitude free and I’ve met a lot of random people here including tourists and locals. Generally middle aged but with younger and older guys mixed in. Not necessarily hard core drinkers or cruisers – more “have a few beers and see what comes along”. No great drink specials, but not expensive either.

The Hangar
the only “modern” bar on the strip, though its been here since the early 90’s. Pool table in the back. Mix of outer-borough gay men, tourists and locals. Pretty diverse crowd and cruisy. Nightly, pretty good, drink specials. Has a window to look out on Christopher Street.

African-American bar. The only one left after the closure of Two Potato down the street a few years ago (the original One Potato at 10th and Hudson closed in the early 90s). Not particularly welcoming otherwise. But if you’re white and want to know what its like to be an African American in a Chelsea gay bar, you should check it out.

the (in)famous bear bar that only gets a crowd on Sunday for their Beer Blast. Otherwise its pretty consistently empty but for a few older regulars, some tourists and random Christopher Street hustlers. But cheap draft beer for happy hour and Beer Blast. Bartender is either a sweet queen or a nasty dickhead. Nice on Spring and Summer Sundays when it occasionally spills out onto the street (though thanks to the new NIMBY attitude, this happens less frequently). And you can meet a lot of other bears (and the occasional blogger).

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