It’s a weird time for gay bars in America. Even before Covid-19 torpedoed nightlife nationwide, queer spaces were shuttering left and right. Nobody was quite sure why: Some blamed the bad run on the advent of dating apps like Grindr, which made it easy to flirt from the couch. Others chalked it up to soaring rents and an increasingly challenging business model. Then the pandemic hit, driving another nail in the coffin for even more LGBTQ businesses.
But happily, and against all odds, many of our go-to LGBTQ spaces are still standing. Not only that, they’re back with a vengeance—and need your business now more than ever in light of discriminatory anti-transgender legislation and distressing Don’t Say Gay laws. To that end, here’s a pared-down list of our favorite queer bars, restaurants, and clubs in major cities across America. Drop in for a drag show, catch a late-night DJ set, or simply pull up a stool at the bar—no matter your gender or orientation, you’re in for a good time.
The Stonewall Inn, New York City
“We really are like the gay Church,” said co-owner Kurt Kelly. Mecca for America’s gay liberation movement, Stonewall is the site where a dayslong protest for LGBTQ rights ensued in 1969 after police violently raided the establishment. In 2019, an estimated 5 million people made the pilgrimage to Greenwich Village to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the pivotal event. Today, Stonewall is more than its brick-and-mortar location; behind the scenes, the Stonewall Inn Gives Back Initiative is taking the “Stonewall Inn legacy to the most marginalized in our community and in the toughest places to still be LGBTQ+,” said Stacy Lentz, Stonewall’s co-owner and CEO of the nonprofit.
Round-Up Saloon, Dallas
Next time you’re in Dallas, lasso up your friends and take them to this kitsch Oak Lawn dance hall where queer culture meets line dancing and twangy country music. Thursdays are the best nights to go for the uninitiated; that’s when instructors give free lessons on, say, how to do-si-do your partner and dance the “Hoedown Throwdown.” Nobody goes for the gastronomy (the menu is basically burgers, fries, and wings)—though it helps to have something to nibble on to mitigate the dangerously generous pours.
Cheer Up Charlies, Austin
Austin’s LGBTQ residents are up in arms: It may be too late to protect three emblematic Fourth Street queer bars from the wrecking ball as they’re slated to be replaced with luxury highrises. That makes Cheer Up Charlies—which is safe, for now—all the more important to support. With a well-furnished outdoor patio, bubbly staff, and a vegan food truck always parked outside (sweet potato fries! blood orange hard cider!), this bar is our favorite spot for partying in Texas’ blissfully “weird” capital.
Atlantic House, Provincetown, Massachusetts
The “A-House,” as locals call it, is so old that its original owner was a mounted postman who died of cholera. Opened in 1798 as a stagecoach inn, it became a hub of Bohemian life at the turn of the 20th century as artists and writers fled gritty, industrial Boston for a freer and more solitary life. As early as the 1950s, the A-House was an openly gay establishment, a badge it wears proudly to the present day.
Big Chicks, Chicago
The first thing you notice when you walk into Big Chicks in Chicago’s Far North Side is the diverse clientele: a wonderfully motley mix representing virtually all ages, races, physiques, and gender identities. Translation? Everybody feels seen at Big Chicks. Consider starting your evening with updated diner fare at Tweet (the sister restaurant) next door, before unbuttoning your shirt and heading over to the dancefloor.
Akbar, Los Angeles
Akbar is all “good vibes and pretty guys,” according to Los Angeles-based music and travel writer Taylor Henderson. But it nearly shuttered due to the pandemic, when it was running up debt to the tune of $10,000 per month. In a do-or-die plea for aid, the owners created a GoFundMe page that, to their surprise, met its goal within 24 hours. Such is the commitment of this cozy watering hole’s clientele, which doubles as a community space and open mic venue.
Slammers, Columbus, Ohio
Here’s a not-so-fun fact: There are only 21 lesbian bars left in the entire country. And Slammers, fortunately, is one of them. A downtown Columbus standby since 1993, this indoor-outdoor establishment serves pizza and jalapeño poppers and strong drinks against the backdrop of live performances. There’s also karaoke, darts, and pool for those who like some friendly competition.
Jolene’s, San Francisco
A relative newcomer on the Mission District scene (est. 2018), Jolene’s is a casual queer bar whose Insta-famous neon sign says it all: “You are safe here.” At a time when lesbian bars are closing at an alarming pace, Jolene’s is bucking the trend as a non-male-centric space that doesn’t feel exclusive. The bar food punches well above its weight with dishes like craggy fried chicken served with mashed potatoes and succotash, and cheese-cloaked sliders served alongside thick-cut fries.
Whenever Mark Stoner wears his Pony hat in another city, he can’t believe how many people stop him to say, “I love that bar!” The owner of this Seattle institution housed in a defunct 1930s gas station loves the compliments, but to Stoner, what “feels even better” is “when marginalized people in our own LGBTQIA+ community tell me that it’s one of the only spaces where they truly feel safe and relaxed,” he said.