For 30 years, the lesbian-owned and operated Henrietta Hudson has been a West Village staple, slinging drinks for a large and eclectic crowd. DJs keep the party going until 4am on weekends, and there’s an outdoor patio for when the weather is nice, plus an adjacent covered street structure.
Decades ago, New York City was home to a plethora of lesbian bars in every borough. Beach Haven on Staten Island drew in women’s softball teams and professionals in the 1970s and 1980s; 70 Grove Street wasn’t a pizza place but popular dance clubs Duchess, Grove and Pandora’s Box; Crazy Nannies collected a diverse crowd in The Village from 1991-2004; Bum Bum Bar offered lesbian Latinas in Queens a place to dance from 1991-2018; and the list of long-gone space continues.
In a city with dozens of gay bars (gay men have clubs, lounges, cabarets, sports bars, karaoke bars, piano bars and dive bars), so few remain for lesbians, with none opening in the last 30 years. Until now.
Since 2022, New York City has more than doubled its lesbian spaces, going from three mainstays—Cubbyhole, Henrietta Hudson and Ginger’s (all well-loved modernized relics from the 1990s)—to six, and counting! Oddly Enough, a lesbian-owned queer cocktail bar in Bed-Stuy offers pepperoncini martinis and brown butter deviled eggs in a chic chandelier-lit dining room. Mary’s, a sibling bar to Ginger’s, Park Slope’s only lesbian bar, opened a Greenpoint pub in April 2023. The Bush, a grassroots neighborhood opened in Bushwick in April 2023, regularly filling up since its very first night and attracting a stream of regulars to sip cocktails, dance and feel safe and seen.
“This is exactly what we wanted,” says Nikke Alleyne, who co-founded The Bush with longtime friend Justine LaViolette (they met at The Woods, of course). “This is community. This is our home. It’s exciting to see the space form its own identity, take on a life of its own.” As opposed to a weekly party, The Bush offers a consistent space for people to drop in whenever they want to be surrounded by community space. The spontaneity is valuable, especially in a city with so many lesbians and queer folks, and so few steady options, especially not centered around cis gay men.
“I always wanted a bar like what I imagined Cheers would be,” says Loretta Andro Chung, co-founder of Dyke Beer. “The Bush is really just nice. The owners are lovely and they have great cocktails and diversity. It’s a Dyke Bar, but they are inclusive.” Chung visited The Bush every day in its first few weeks of opening and has noticed a post-pandemic movement of more lesbian and queer spaces opening in New York (and beyond).
This is community. This is our home.
Still, the route to creating any business in New York isn’t easy. “It’s wild how hard it is to open a space in New York,” says LaViolette. Real estate, liquor authority processes and monetary restrictions meant The Bush, a project the co-founders built from the ground up with their community (check out the handmade benches and sparkly bar top), took years of planning, saving and patience for licenses to come through. Even with early success, The Bush’s owners are fully aware that lesbian spaces have struggled in New York in the past, but can see The Bush as a forever project thanks to a new generation that knows what it’s like to assimilate in heterosexual culture, and still very much desire dedicated queer, lesbian and trans space.
“There was a cultural shift that happened. We said goodbye to dyke bars, but we still want them,” LaViolette says. “We now have more language and discussion around space and a deeper understanding of what this space is. We’re not just for cis lesbians, we have an expanded definition and it’s powerful.”
Most importantly, The Bush is one of several options to visit any given night of the week—perhaps for Slutty Punch Wednesdays when batched cocktails are $8 or speed dating or bingo nights—or, it’s not someone’s first stop on a queer bar crawl, and that’s okay. “Optionality is number one,” says Alleyne. “We love all the existing bars.”
Sapphic spaces are in demand
In addition to New York’s newest lesbian bars, Maite, a lesbian-owned Bushwick restaurant lush with lesbian paraphernalia (lesbian film posters and sapphic artwork) hosts queer brunch parties, women’s soccer game viewings, and Bushlickers comedy nights. The East Village’s HAGS offers women-led queer fine dining; pop-up parties and events abound, and still, all these spaces fill up regularly, showing a demand for more.
We now have more language and discussion around space and a deeper understanding of what this space is.
“There aren’t enough nightlife spaces for queer women, or really many spaces for women to meet each other and spend time together,” says Austa Clausen, founder of Grotto, a sapphic cocktail bar concept. While a dance party at Henrietta’s promises a good time and maybe more and happy hour beers at Cubbyhole are a New York lesbian pastime, neither space is necessarily ideal for a first date, or romantic anniversary outing.
“It’s important to have different spaces for different needs,” Clausen says. “As such a robust community, we need a place to enjoy a nice drink, celebrate a birthday, bring a date, catch up with friends. Grotto is a place for the queer community and women to feel intentionality. You can meet new people without fear of judgment or show PDA in this atmosphere.”
Initially, Clausen didn’t see Grotto as a pop-up (a common theme for the dozens of lesbian parties and events roving the city). She wanted a space with intentionality. But as any New Yorker knows, space is at a premium in New York, so Grotto started as a collaboration with Ludlow House, eventually moving to a biweekly pop-up at Talea Beer Co. Funding will start later this summer for investors to help the business open a full-time space.
So far, Grotto has sold out all of its pop-ups and events, including a Pride party with popular boulangerie L’Appartement 4F for which tickets sold out in less than 15 minutes. “This was a shot in the dark, but I immediately realized this was something people were looking for,” Clausen says of the community Grotto is creating. “People want this. There should be all different types of queer bars and bars for queer women.”
People want this. There should be all different types of queer bars and bars for queer women.
Even with these popular new additions, this crowded city has plenty of social space for many more lesbian venues. Boyfriend Co-op launched in the summer of 2022, with a range of pop-up and fundraising events to help create a community-owned and run coffee and cocktail cooperative “for gay gals & their pals.” They aim to open in Ridgewood in 2024 and will host parties, film screenings, clothing swaps and more in the meantime. Also in Queens, Dave’s Lesbian Bar has popped up in the streets and taken over spaces since 2021, when Astoria resident Dave Dausch decided to build a lesbian bar in their neighborhood. A crowdfunding campaign has well exceeded its $100,000 goal, with a Dave’s Lesbian Bar venue with live music every night, mutual aid by day, and a safe space for all queers, to open in a new New York, where lesbian bars aren’t the anomaly, but the norm.
“So many lesbian spaces have closed down in the past decade, so it feels like we’re in a time of rebuilding. Physical spaces for queer women, trans folks, and nonbinary people to gather and build relationships are so important to our safety, healing, and joy,” says Hena Mustafa, co-founder of Boyfriend Coop. “Moreover, continuing to stimulate the queer economy is investing in our own community and abundant future. Intersectional spaces are also lacking, so creating space where BIPOC queer folks can be at the forefront of everything from ownership to cocktail curation feels more representative of the community we live in.”