Lesbian Bars Are Popping Up and Popping Off in NYC and LA
These new bars provide hope that more are on the way.
In 1980, there were 206 lesbian bars across the country. In 2021, that number dropped to just 15.
At bewildering rates, dedicated nightlife spaces for queer womxn and lesbians have closed their doors over the past few decades. Exacerbated by the pandemic, this shift can be attributed to a multitude of factors: from the gentrification of gayborhoods (leading to an inability to pay rent) and pay inequality to more nuanced realities within the LGBTQ+ community for gay and queer womxn such as imposed gender constructs and lack of societal acceptance.
But not all is lost. In a year when the LGBTQ+ community is battling anti-drag and anti-trans laws across the country, beacons of hope have appeared in the shape of new lesbian bars. Half-way through 2023, 28 lesbian bars are now in operation across the US.
If you’re still a bit muddled on what qualifies as a lesbian bar, the beauty of the answer lies in its fluidity. In the words of The Lesbian Bar Project, a fundraising organization/documentary series with a mission to uplift and empower the remaining lesbian bars in the United States, “the label lesbian belongs to all people who feel that it empowers them.” Lesbian bars create an inclusive space for “people of marginalized genders including women (regardless if they are cis or trans), non-binary folks, and trans men.”
In New York and LA, a crew of new lesbian bars have popped up that embody this mission statement while honoring the long, storied, and turbulent history of lesbian bars in these cities.
The Bush, NYC
For friends, co-owners, and long-time New Yorkers Nikke Alleyne and Justine LaViolette, The Bush, now open in the Brooklyn neighborhood Bushwick, is a passion project seven years in the making. As a young girl in Jersey City, Alleyne often found herself hanging around the West Village lesbian bar Cubbyhole. “But I can’t pinpoint a favorite [lesbian bar],” says Alleyne. “They all made me feel so safe, so seen, and so happy to be a dyke.”
In 2016, it became apparent to Alleyne and LaViolette that the city heavily lacked nightlife options that catered to their community. “We spent a lot of time going to parties at gay bars or straight bars that were hosting a lesbian or queer-centered night, where we were the guests,” says LaViolette. “We wanted to create a space of our own where it’s basically a bar for the queer community that doesn’t center around gay men.”
Enter The Bush. Opened in April 2023, the new watering hole differentiates itself from other lesbian bars through its selection of bespoke cocktails, which are organized by flavor profile. For example, a smoky and sour craving will lead you to the Guest Star (mezcal, passion fruit, aperol, lemon, Tajín), while a hankering for something floral and boozy sends you in the direction of the Venus Fly Trap (gin, lychee liqueur, dry vermouth, Cocchi Americano).
“We loved the existing bars [in NYC], but we wanted a place where we could go and have a cocktail,” says LaViolette. “At the time, none of the [NYC] spaces had cocktail offerings. We want and deserve more options.” When asked about what the duo hopes to see in the future for the lesbian bar community, they answered, “We dream of a world where we can do a dyke bar crawl in North Brooklyn alone.”
The Ruby Fruit, LA
On the opposite coast, Los Angeles’ woman-loving-woman community was similarly hit hard by quarantine, but sapphically inclined spaces have always been tucked among the city’s many communities. Unlike West Hollywood’s concentration of predominantly white, gay clubs, the most popular lesbian events, like Dana’s Night or Lez Croix, tend to jump between various locations. Opened in February 2023, The Ruby Fruit in Silver Lake breaks this trend by offering a day and night location for lesbians, non-binary, gender-nonconforming and trans people. At opening, The Ruby Fruit was the first permanent lesbian bar in LA since 2017.
Owners Mara Herbkersman and Emily Bielagus set out to create a homebase for those who seek a womxn-run space, whether it be for late-night karaoke or a mid-day book club. “This kind of community moves me to tears on a daily basis,” says Herbkersman. “I’ve been living in LA for 20 years and I’ve always searched for this and could never find it.”
Herbkersman and Bielagus have also made it part of their mission to acknowledge the history of lesbian spaces in LA. While they may have been the only lesbian bar in the city at the time, they used their platform to amplify all queer spaces. And they’re not alone anymore. Since The Ruby Fruit opened, a new lesbian watering hole and lounge, Honey’s at Star Love, has raised the number of lesbian bars in LA to a mighty two.
Inside The Ruby Fruit there’s ample space for groups celebrating birthdays and anniversaries, ambient corners for recently paired singles, and a bar that welcomes solo readers. The bartenders have quickly established a repertoire with regulars who are greeted as soon as they hit the door. Despite Silver Lake’s popularity with tourists, The Ruby Fruit mostly attracts locals even on the busiest nights. “It honestly feels energizing to come to work,” says Bielagus. “Everybody here is of the lesbian, queer, or sapphic identity and every time someone walks in the door, you can see the look of shock on their face. In a good way!” Even though The Ruby Fruit only opened a few months ago, it’s already the place to run into old friends while making new ones. “There’s a lot of stress involved with running a restaurant and wine bar, but the people who come here are just so grateful that there’s a space for them, it makes it all worth it,” continues Bielagus.
The Ruby Fruit also features an inclusive menu with lunch and dinner items for a range of dietary restrictions and budgets. The restaurant’s best seller is the Danish hot dog–crispy shallots, remoulade and sweet pickles create a more upscale experience than the LA or Chicago renditions, and it's a great deal in Silver Lake at $8. Paired with the already-famous $20 Bucket-o-High Lifes (that’s a six-pack of High Life in a bucket), The Ruby Fruit makes for a fairly inexpensive night out.
Named for Rita Mae Brown’s novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, a story about finding oneself as a young lesbian, Herbkersman is excited to offer a place for people who don’t know everything about themselves. “They need an opportunity to learn a little bit more about themselves,” she says. The Ruby Fruit invites you to stay for as long as you need.
In NYC and LA, there is finally hope. These pockets of inclusivity and freedom offer more than just a safe space to grab a drink, The Bush and The Ruby Fruit are emblematic of an inspired resurgence for spaces catered specifically to the lesbian and queer womxn communities.
Lesbian bars in NYC:
333 Troutman St
218 West 12th Street
New York, NY
363 5th Ave
438 Hudson Street
New York, NY
Lesbian bars in LA:
Honey's at Star Love
1532 N. Western Avenue
Los Angeles, CA
The Ruby Fruit
3510 Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA