Two recent openings testify to the power, and joy, of queer spaces.
The Ruby Fruit, which opened in February, is a lesbian wine bar and restaurant in Los Angeles that’s packed nightly.Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times
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By Tejal Rao
LOS ANGELES — One pleasingly bitter, gently botanical, sort-of purple nonalcoholic cocktail in, and I was just happy to be caught in the gravitational pull of the Ruby Fruit.
What could be better on a rainy weeknight than chatting with friends and strangers squished at the bar, snacking on fried gigante beans and ripping apart floppy slices of mortadella drizzled with hot honey?
The crowd, the food, the playlist, the efficiency and warmth of the staff — a couple of hours later, when my group started to wind things down and put on their coats, I almost resisted leaving. Surely we could get one more round of drinks and hot dogs, or at least order some crispy-bottomed canelés. Surely we could hang out here forever, or at least until 10 p.m., when they closed.
The Ruby Fruit is a small wine bar in an unremarkable strip mall on Sunset Boulevard, sharing a parking lot with a Domino’s and a Baskin-Robbins, but it’s hard to overstate the collective joy in the room. Dedicated lesbian spaces are rare in Los Angeles (or just about anywhere), and tend to exist temporarily as pop-ups. But this one would be here tomorrow night, and the night after, and the night after that.
Emily Bielagus and Mara Herbkersman, the owners, describe the Ruby Fruit as “a strip-mall wine bar for the Sapphically inclined,” and, more specifically, a safe space for lesbians, trans people and nonbinary folks.
The bar, which opened in February, doesn’t take reservations. Most evenings, before the doors even open, people are waiting in a chatty line outside, smoking, running into friends, picking out wines by the glass.
If you land one of the tables, an evening at the Ruby Fruit could easily turn into a proper dinner. Beyond the snackier dishes of marinated olives and grilled bread, loaded hot dogs and grilled chicken sandwiches, there are a handful of thoughtfully composed plates — Japanese sweet potatoes roasted over charcoal, shining with dashi butter, as well as smoked beets on ricotta, and a juicy chicory and citrus salad. A few desserts, including a tender olive oil cake and Cara Cara orange sorbet, are made in house.
But the beauty of the wine bar is in its creative use of nooks and crannies, shared counters and narrow ledges, hallways and corners where bodies and drinks aren’t really supposed to fit, but somehow do. The crowd is cooperative and accommodating. The room is packed.
None of this connects with the recent narrative of the lesbian bar in America, which is one of sad, empty tables and slow, inevitable decline. When Ms. Bielagus and Ms. Herbkersman told people they were opening one, they were strongly advised not to bother: The lesbian bar was dead.
Erica Rose and Elina Street drew attention to the dwindling numbers of lesbian bars across the country — from a few hundred in the 1980s to about two dozen now — with their 2020 documentary short and a campaign called “The Lesbian Bar Project.”
In New York City, only three lesbian bars survive. And in Los Angeles, the Oxwood Inn closed in 2017, while the Palms, the last lesbian bar in West Hollywood, closed a decade ago. Since then, this city’s lesbian bars have been mostly limited to pop-ups (and, as Lena Wilson wrote in The Times, to the fictional queer spaces of TV shows set in Los Angeles, like “The L Word: Generation Q” and “Vida”).
Though the West Hollywood gay bar and nightlife scene is thriving, it generally caters to cisgender men — for the rest of the L.G.B.T.Q. community, it’s not always clear which spaces will make them feel welcome.
Priya Arora, the host of the podcast “Queering Desi” (and a former Times editor), said that as a nonbinary person, they find the term “lesbian bar” unreliable, as it might be used to connote anti-trans ideas about who can, and cannot, identify as a woman.
“But if I see that a bar is ‘lesbian and queer’ or ‘lesbian and trans,’ it denotes this is not just a gay bar,” they said. “This is a really safe space, and it’s changing the narrative of what it means to be a gay bar, a lesbian bar or a queer bar.”
When a second new queer bar opened in Los Angeles this year, it seemed clear the lesbian bar wasn’t dead, and that people were building on it with intention and care, treating it as the expansive space it can be, making it more explicitly inclusive.
Mo Faulk, Kate Greenberg and Charlotte Gordon opened Honey’s at Star Love, at the end of February, and put an emphasis on welcoming everyone to their lesbian and queer bar — particularly the trans community.
The bar, which also has a thoughtful nonalcoholic drink list, doesn’t have much of a kitchen but sells soft pretzels at happy hour and invites food vendors to cater events. On a recent Sunday, Honey’s held its first drag brunch, with performances by Ignacio Daddy and Twinka Masala, among others, and served Jamaican patties from the Gro House.
Honey’s is open late, until midnight or 2 a.m., depending on the night, and D.J.s often bring the dance floor to life. The bar also hosts the occasional comedy and karaoke night, as well as pop-up markets, an Oscars watch party and a recent screening of the 1999 queer classic, “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Ms. Greenberg noted that someone had recently booked their 62nd birthday party there, too.
The team behind Honey’s isn’t sure how long the bar will exist in this exact shape and form — they signed a three-month lease with hopes to renew. But what is clear, after just over a month in business, is that the space already feels essential to the city.
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