Photograph by Cayce Clifford
When Mai-Thy Vuong first heard rumors of a new lesbian bar opening in San Francisco, she could barely contain her excitement. She’d recently moved from Providence, RI, and was surprised that San Francisco, “a city with such a rich and deep queer history, didn't have more spaces for queer women,” she says. Mother opened in early 2023, becoming the city’s first new lesbian bar since the Lexington Club, which opened in 1997 and closed in 2015. Vuong soon became a regular at the lavender-hued lounge, sipping beers from women-led breweries.
There were once hundreds of known lesbian bars across the United States, but by 2020 there were fewer than two dozen. The trickling closures of these bars since the late ’90s is only partly owed to the rising cost of running an independent business. As queer people in many parts of the US fought for increased rights and attained a higher level of mainstream acceptance, the demand for dedicated lesbian bars diminished. Bars catering to queer men also struggled to remain open, but lesbian bars shuttered at an even more alarming rate, with very few new ones opening. As a result, they became a rarity, typically existing only in major cities.
A wave of new lesbian bars, fueled by a rekindled desire for dedicated queer spaces where women, nonbinary, and trans folks can sip a cold drink, listen to the new MUNA single, and spend time with like-minded people, promises to change that trajectory: With the opening of establishments like Mother, the number of lesbian bars across the US has nearly doubled. And while lesbian bars have traditionally been either dives or clubs—without much in between—these new ones are focused on becoming spaces where their communities will want to stay a while, with thought-out menus, gussied-up cocktails, and warm environments.
“There is nothing like being in a safe public space that specifically and emphatically welcomes you and encourages you to be your authentic self,” says Krista Burton, author of Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Track Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America. “Once queer people realized these bars were closing all over the country, and that a bar closing in their own community was not an isolated event, I think folks decided to do something about it and open some new ones.”
Mara Herbkersman had never actually visited a lesbian bar before opening their own. Herbkersman and Emily Bielagus opened Ruby Fruit in February 2023, following several months of wine and hot dog pop-ups out of Herbkersman’s VW van. Named for Rita Mae Brown’s seminal queer novel, the pair created their LA wine bar because, while the California city has a “rich, thriving community of lesbian events,” as Bielagus puts it, there were no dedicated lesbian bars. “We have a vast, diverse, thriving lesbian scene, and the fact that there was no brick and mortar was surprising,” Bielagus says.
The last lesbian bar in LA, the 45-year-old Oxwood Inn, closed in 2017. With a lack of longstanding institutions to visit, Herbkersman and Bielagus realized that if they wanted such an environment, they’d have to create it themselves: a warm, stylish space where LA’s lesbian communities would want to gather. “We wanted to create space where people from all walks of life feel comfortable,” Herbkersman says.
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Some lesbian bars of the past were notoriously exclusive, especially of trans people. In contrast, Ruby Fruit is inclusive to an expanse of genders and identities. “Our bar is not just for cis women," says Herbkersman. “With the word ‘lesbian’ we’re inviting all people.” That means not assuming the pronouns or gender identities of staff and diners, and offering a menu with non-alcoholic drinks and vegan options. “I feel really, really proud of the fact that everyone can come and feel welcome,” says Herbkersman.
Located in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood is another new bar that’s finding a balance between carving out space for lesbians and ensuring that all people feel at home—regardless of their identity. Dorothy isn’t in one of Chicago’s largely queer neighborhoods like Boystown or Andersonville, but it aims to be a destination both for neighbors and queer people willing to make the trip to sip cocktails and kombucha in a welcoming, stylish space. Located below chef and restaurateur Zoe Schor’s restaurant Split-Rail, the lesbian-owned establishment is meant to evoke a groovy 1970s lounge. A conversation pit, disco balls, vintage lamps, and funky wallpaper set the vibe. It is open to anyone in the community, including straight allies who “just want a beautiful cocktail,” says Whitney LaMora, the bar’s creative director. “Anyone who isn’t a jerk,” as they put it, is welcomed with a smile.
Femme, which opened in Worcester, MA, in 2023, takes the same approach. “We don’t discriminate against anyone,” says Danielle Spring, who owns the bar and restaurant with her wife. “As long as you love us, we love you.” The space sits somewhere between an old-school lesbian bar and a homey restaurant, with black walls and pops of gold and pink. It’s an aesthetic Spring dubs “not too girly, but really girly.” Cocktails and mocktails are named after queer bops, such as Fletcher’s “Becky’s So Hot” and Kehlani’s “Wish I Never.”
The people behind these new projects share a desire to create neighborhood institutions where their communities don’t just drink and leave but feel at home and want to stick around. That extends to building menus and cocktail offerings that are enticing. “We wanted the food to be really fun, approachable, and not too fussy,” says Herbkersman, who leads the kitchen at Ruby Fruit alongside two sous chefs. There are loaded raclette fries dolloped with mostarda, charcoal-roasted Japanese sweet potatoes with anchovies, and seasonal fruit-topped olive oil cake, all to be enjoyed in a joyful pastel-colored space. Ruby Fruit’s wine list exclusively features bottles from queer and female winemakers, which can sometimes prove challenging due to affordability, small production, and limited distribution.” It’s hard to do,” says Bielagus, “but it’s fun.”
These new businesses are challenging the notion that lesbian bars of the past closed because they were no longer wanted—or needed. For its part, Femme is often so packed that there’s only standing room. You can eat a hot honey chicken sandwich or swipe pita chips through hummus as you stand shoulder to shoulder with new friends. “Women come out,” Spring says of the bar’s success. “I see familiar faces all the time.”
Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit