Bars are good for drinks and laughs, and sometimes they even make history.
Let’s face it, communities come together in bars. A great happy hour or well-made cocktail is enticing, but bartenders and fellow patrons are just as important for having a sense of place where, some say, everybody knows your name.
For the LGBTQ community, bars have played vital roles in history. They’ve served as safe places where like-minded people could connect, commiserate, and celebrate. Some bars even played pivotal parts in LGBTQ civil-rights rallies, and in some fateful cases, riots. However, in this age of online social networks, and in a world with more equality than decades’ past, many historic gay and lesbian bars have shuttered. But not all of them! Here are 12 fabulous bars that are still pouring, stirring, and shaking things up across America.
WHERE: New York City
On a quiet corner of Greenwich Village, the nationally registered historic landmark that is Julius stands like a reminder of old New York. That includes its legacy as a bar that changed state law prohibiting liquor sales to homosexuals, when Julius’s gay clientele organized a “sip in” in April 1966. But its heritage dates back to 1840 when the site opened first as a grocery in 1840, then as a bar in 1864. Queers frequented the saloon starting in the 1950s, making it New York’s oldest LGBTQ bar, a favorite watering hole for Truman Capote and Rudolph Nureyev, as well as contemporary luminaries like John Cameron Mitchell and Michael Kors who continue to drop by for a pint. At its heart, though, Julius is a neighborhood hangout with a well-worn wooden bar, friendly staff, vintage décor, and a rare in-bar burger kitchen to help soak up its potent libations.
Café Lafitte in Exile
WHERE: New Orleans
In the running for “America’s oldest gay bar” is Café Lafitte in Exile, a two-story nightclub in the French Quarter. Café Lafitte has been filling glasses since Prohibition ended in 1933, though it started on the other end of the block at what is now Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop—until the relocation in “exile.” In the early days, lesbian bar manager Mary Collins served food as well as booze and welcomed tipplers of all stripes. These days, you can sit at the street-level bar and enjoy stiff drinks at good prices, or head upstairs for late-night dance parties or a spot on the balcony overlooking Bourbon Street.
White Horse Bar
Oakland’s White Horse Bar is another gay bar that swung its doors open in 1933, the year Prohibition ended. (Though some say it was pouring as a speakeasy before then, making it tied with New Orleans’s Café Lafitte in Exile as the country’s oldest continuously operating gay bar.) Still in its original corner location, the White Horse remains an East-Bay staple, with a fun, mixed crowd; “epic karaoke”; pinball and pool tables; serious drink specials; and rowdy drag shows.
WHERE: New York City
The legend of Stonewall lives on, attracting locals and tourists alike. The “inn” has long been a bar, and was the site of a historic LGBTQ uprising on June 28, 1969, when patrons fought back against systematic police harassment with a three-day riot—and event that’s inspired annual civil-rights marches ever since. In 2016, the bar became the Stonewall National Monument as “the place where Pride began.” The two-story bar lives on as a busy tavern on Christopher Street, with a pool table, drink specials, weekly parties (including its fun Friday-night lesbian disco), and plenty of sequin-clad shows in its upstairs performance space.
Lesbian bars have been hard-pressed to survive in the digital age, when so many of its once-loyal patrons have turned to online dating over bar flirtations. But Seattle’s Wildrose has endured 34 years as a neighborhood hangout and nightclub, making it the oldest bar for gay women in the country. Still lesbian-owned and an anchor on Capitol Hill, the ’Rose is a friendly spot with a mixed crowd, with regular DJs, great happy hours (including all-day Sunday specials), and the ever-popular Taco Tuesdays. Seattle’s LGBTQ community couldn’t be as strong without it.
Wild Side West
WHERE: San Francisco
It’s artsy, it’s friendly, it’s an easygoing lesbian-owned tavern that served Bernal Heights since 1962. Wild Side West is a long-running haunt for queer folks and their pals to play pool, fill the jukebox, watch sports, and catch up in the shady sculpture-filled garden out back. Regulars shore up its convivial vibe, flocking for drink specials and especially its Wednesday trivia nights hosted by drag queen Miss Kitty Tapata, possibly the fiercest trivia contest in town.
WHERE: West Hollywood
Opened in 1991, the Abbey may not be among the oldest LGBTQ bars in America, but it’s one of the most dynamic. The giant indoor-outdoor bar and eatery sits on one of West Hollywood’s main boulevards, welcoming guests to its restaurant for lunch, brunch, and dinner; to its patios for open-air flirtations; and to its enormous dance floor for almost-nightly parties. Its owner recently opened the Chapel next door, providing a refreshed gay-centric nightclub vibe in a smaller venue, featuring the relocated Wednesday-night GirlBar lesbian party. But the Abbey remains the stuff of legend, earning the “best gay bar” crown year after year in a slew of Los Angeles publications—so it’s extra fitting that the Abbey’s also home to WeHo’s Gay Walk of Fame.
Dug into Dallas’s Oak Lawn “gayborhood” since 1980, the Round-Up Saloon is the nation’s top LGBTQ country bar and dance hall. The sprawling club is as friendly as a Western saloon should be, with a huge dance floor outdone only by the long, wraparound bar. You may feel an Urban Cowboy atmosphere here, (minus the barfights) and out-doing that movie’s dancing with same-sex boot scooting that lures even the newcomers. Fortunately, the Round-Up hosts fun two-step, line, Texas cha-cha, and other free dance lessons almost every night.
Cape Cod’s Atlantic House opened as a gay-friendly tavern in the early 1900s, but it definitely wins the gold medal for oldest building—dating back to 1798. The A-House has played host to the likes of Tennessee Williams and other well-heeled queers who helped make Provincetown a popular LGBTQ destination. Today, Massachusetts’s oldest gay joint operates as a year-round nightclub housing the Little Bar, the Big Room, and P-town’s leather club the Macho Bar. Weekly parties, bingo nights, and seasonal events keep place hopping seven days a week.
Blake’s on the Park
In Midtown, Atlanta’s main LGBTQ neighborhood, Blake’s on the Park has been a long-running local’s hangout for thirsty, hungry, and flirtatious folks since 1990. The multi-level club hosts drag shows, go-go dancers, and DJs, and it’s also a restaurant serving pub food that comes in handy after a few rounds of stiff drinks. The upstairs patio is a sweet spot to make friends, and every night offers a theme, be it Latin music, poker night, or spectacular drag cabaret.
Tavern on Camac
Many cities have a gay neighborhood, but Philadelphia is the only one that actually labels it on maps as the “Gayborhood.” These days, it’s a busy district dotted with LGBTQ hotspots. But down on tiny South Camac Street, one bar can claim a heritage that goes back to the Jazz Age. The Tavern on Camac began in the 1920s as Maxine’s, a gay-friendly speakeasy that endured seven decades until it became Raffles, then transformed under its current ownership in 1998. Now the Tavern on Camac serves as a fun piano bar that also houses the Tavern restaurant and Ascend nightclub with an array of theme nights, from country to show tunes.
WHERE: San Francisco
A staple on San Francisco’s LGBTQ scene since 1975, the Cinch is now one of the city’s oldest gay bars. Back in the day, it was one of countless in the Polk Gulch neighborhood; but these days it’s among the sole remaining queer saloons in the Russian Hill area. The good news is, the Cinch’s Old-West flair still draws a mix of clientele to its patio, pool tables, and nightly games and events.