There's a first time for everything, but the first visit to a gay bar occupies an entire place of its own. For many of us, it's hard to describe that strange, stomach-churning combination of trepidation and expectation, a sense that here is a place where you can drop any pretense, study the go-go boys with abandon, shimmy to Cher, and blow kisses at the drag queen vamping on the stage. We talk a lot about how times have changed, but the gay bar remains a staple of gay life'a lifeline for many of us, an old friend for the rest. There's no such thing as a definitive list of anything, but that hasn't stopped us from scouring the world to find 50 bars with all the right qualities to make you feel at home.
Theme nights range from outrageous to downright unsavory: Hanky Code Party, No Pants Dance, and MondoHomo, to name a few. Attention-whore hipsters compete with rowdy lesbians and off-duty DJs for space on the miniature dance floor. On karaoke night the pocket-size emcee channels Motown divas. Go ahead'try to leave before last call.
There's something about watching two Marlboro men two-stepping to 'Cotton-Eye Joe' that does the soul good. Nothing is ironic about this scene. Throw on your old Wranglers and cowboy boots, order a domestic beer, and leave your pretensions at the door. Hoedowns is a Brokeback fantasy come true.
OIL CAN HARRY'S
A little nip/tuck classed up Oil Can Harry's faster than jail did Paris Hilton, but this 17-years-and-running institution hasn't lost its edge. DJs spin quirky, creative sets (Rihanna segueing to Ultra Nat' to Robyn) while pretty people swig Cosmopolitans, cowboys play pool, and University of Texas students go wild. (512) 320-8823
The oldest gay bar in Boise attracts a mixed-gender crowd ranging from buffed-and-shined college kids to older couples in matching Western garb. The pool tables give way to a dance floor and a stage, where weekly drag contests are held. Emerald's Saturday night parties are packed with pretty young things kicking it to a soundtrack just a few years behind Chelsea. (208) 342-5446
Gays from all over the country flock to this popular but low-key Boystown favorite, where the music is unabashedly bouncy. If you're in town for a weekend and want a taste of Midwestern man-candy, Roscoe's is the place to find the barrel-chested white boy you've always dreamed of corrupting. (773) 281-3355
Check out the cabaret, the drag, the deep house'there's room for everything in this sprawling club east of downtown Cincinnati. While Adonis boasts that trademark Midwestern friendliness, you'll also find plenty of heat, especially on summer Sundays, which draw scantily clad men from throughout the region who
like lounging around the swimming pool. (513) 871-1542
UNION BAR + FOOD
Union's new classy location and increasingly mixed crowd (tourists, straights) still has some locals grumbling, but crowds flock to see the video and comedy montages (especially Showtunes Sundays) and to share crab cakes and chocolate martinis. Looks like Parker Posey was wrong'Union is your best bet to put the 'Oh' in 'Ohio.' (614) 421-2233
GUN BARREL, TX
A rainbow-painted wooden flag hangs defiantly on the outside of small-town Texas's friendliest bar, where more money is raised for charity than for renovations and the fish tank is filled with local well water. While the bar is small, everything else is big, especially the community pride, the fund-raiser musicals, and the drag queens' hair. (903) 887-2061
THE BAR COMPLEX
The gay crown jewel of historic downtown Lexington, this converted speakeasy radiates faded glamour and genteel manners with its three bars, huge upstairs dance floor, and plenty of dark nooks to enjoy gentleman callers or a mint julep. Bonus: When a Kentucky boy asks for your number, he always says please. (859) 255-1551
LOS ANGELES, CA
Perhaps the social epicenter of hard-partying Alterna-Wood, Akbar is the go-to spot in the middle of Los Angeles's antigloss neighborhoods of Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Echo Park. The stuck-up attitude of the Westside just isn't tolerated here, and the haven that the place represents from all that West Hollywood phoniness gives the place its ample charge. Great indie music on the jukebox, stiff drinks, hot guys, good times. Gay guys, women, and straight dudes pack the joint nightly, and the bar has expanded into a full-fledged dance club on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. When Dirty Dirty House Club takes off on Thursdays, the crowd gets pretty diverse'the more racially mixed vibe is a welcome change in the often-segregated L.A. nightscape. (323) 655-6810
A perennial 'Best of L.A.' champ, this over 16,000-square-foot party place attracts celebs aplenty (mostly queers and straight lassies, but occasionally a famous straight lad). Famous for creative cocktails (mmm, creamsicle!) and the perfect patio, this is where many a gay Angeleno brings his or her out-of-town pals to see'and experience'the heart of WeHo.
MIAMI BEACH, FL
THE RALEIGH HOTEL*
Miami Beach hotels boast the finest in poolside partying, and nothing tops the Raleigh. Its distinctively designed art deco pool and adorable cabana bar were the setting of several Esther Williams movies and draw an incredibly attractive mix of locals and visitors. The Raleigh's Sunday Soiree pool party (noon-10 p.m.) is an especially popular place to slurp copious amounts of hangover-battling bloodies.
NEW HAVEN, CT
Southern Connecticut's biggest gay destination draws a widespread crowd to its three sleek floors of dancing and debauchery. From Yale and Wesleyan undergrads to Bridgeport riffraff, the crowd at Gotham Citi is looking to branch out and hook up. Find a friend early, because after hours the basement turns into a hard-core goth playground with thumping house and gloomy performance art'unless you're into that.
NEW YORK, NY
After a long week in the big city, a drink at a sexy club in the heart of the new gay village (Hell's Kitchen) is therapeutic. The centerpiece of this chic, brick-and-wood bi-level club is the staircase, a virtual runway that leads to the lounge, which features cabaret, comedy, karaoke, and a comfort-food bar.
Notorious for decor that looks like a party supply store turned upside down and shaken out, the Cubby Hole is a closet-size West Village lesbian mainstay. The bar draws neighborhood professionals for a well-priced happy hour and a mixed crowd for nightly drink specials and a jukebox heavy on current pop favorites and lesbian standards vvfrom k.d. lang and Melissa Etheridge. The bar's leave-a-drink-for-a-friend board offers the bashful an easy way to make a move on a regular.
While Friday night theatergoers are hitting the barricades nearby'well, after the long shows'the toned and tightly T-shirted are literally rubbing up against one another (sometimes a busy room is a good thing) to get to the bar and the gorgeous upper-level lounge under the huge retractable roof. Don't eat too much garlic at the attached restaurant if you plan to sweet-talk a cutie at the bar.
Predictable, yes. But reliable too. Manhattan's ever-busy gay staple shows no sign of flagging, and though you really may not care for Musical Mondays, this two-floor Chelsea staple has something for everyone'especially when you're wasted and not too fussy. Happy hour fans sing karaoke and swill cheap cocktails served by pec-heavy, underwear-clad bartenders, while young nightlife lovers revel in trancey Top 40 remixes until the wee hours.
WHITE HORSE INN
Come for the party carpet'featuring stars and rainbows that glow in the black light'and stay for the karaoke (the winner of the East Bay Idol contest takes home a cool grand) at 'the Ho,' an East Bay institution that's one of the country's oldest gay bars. The Ho's comfy, campy aesthetic provides a welcome respite from the high-gloss bars across the bay in the Castro. (510) 652-3820
The City of Brotherly Love's best gay bar is arguably its skankiest. Woody's slutty bartenders sling flavored Stolis in plastic cups to barely legal students and lifer townies. Wednesday college nights are the best, when the bar's (inexplicably) carpeted floors are packed with kids from U. Penn., Drexel, and Thomas Jefferson University. (215) 545-1893
Definitely the best Latin club in the area, Karamba makes a point of embracing elements of Latin American culture beyond Mexico. Friendly and colorful, it's the kind of place where you're as likely to run into a papi chulo as you are a Celia Cruz look-alike. ''Az'car!' anyone? (602) 254-0231
SANTA FE, NM
SILVER STARLIGHT LOUNGE AND CABARET
Yes, this is a bar in the RainbowVision gay retirement home'er, 'condominium, independent and assisted living community''but the Starlight offers the best damn pomegranate margarita (made by Mike) you're ever going to have.
Off the beaten path in the Belltown neighborhood, Re-Bar is full of surprises. Patrons compete in spelling bees, play bingo, or have video game tournaments, but the biggest events take place on Re-Bar's stage, ranging from comedy to Shakespeare to drag shows to a cappella performances'it's
like being in college on speed. On Saturday night the DJs play pop and hip-hop are the major draw. (206) 233-9873
DUPLEX DINER (pictured) D.C.'s gay A-list assembles at this tchotchke temple every Thursday night to gawk and squawk. Though the lobbyists and Supreme Court clerks that gather there are a highly compensated bunch, it seems like no one pays to play, since they've all slept with the hunky bartenders. Don't miss the naughty bathrooms, where postcards of gay resorts and Madonna propaganda serve as wallpaper. (202) 265-7828
Drinks? Nah'it's all about two floors of more than 80 hot male exotic dancers (completely nekkid, BTW) go-go dancing and grinding, and if one tickles your'ahem'fancy, it's lap-dance time! 'Nuff said, eh? The Canuck male stripper overload almost makes us forgive Canada for unleashing C'line Dion. Almost. (416) 977-2160
Just north of Quepos on the west coast of Costa Rica, Arco Iris ('rainbow' in Spanish) has long been a gay enclave. There are plenty of gay or gay-friendly guesthouses and restaurants, and the gay nude beach is a hot spot during the day with Euros, Canadians, and Americans as well as Costa Ricans. When the other more touristy bars close at midnight or 1, the disco at Arco Iris starts jumping and doesn't stop until 5, attracting locals and only the more adventurous visitors. Anything goes in this down-home, decidedly rustic dance club, where men and women, gays and straights, professionals and prostitutes, and Costa Ricans and Ticos alike mix and mingle, and language is no barrier to the business at hand. It's the melting pot of Quepos'it's like New York City on the beach. No number available.
The grand facade of this colonial-style church belies the sensory overload that waits inside. A Br'er Rabbit impersonator serves watermelon slices, a laser light show illuminates the spectacular go-go boys on stilts, and a m'lange of high-energy beats emanates from the many nooks and crannies in this multilevel party kingdom. Fridays and Saturdays boast a raw dance party reminiscent of New York's Limelight complete with an all-star lineup of DJs (Offer Nissim, Peter Rauhofer). An in-house bodega serves up hot tacos and lavish fruit cocktails, and siesta rooms are available for the faint-hearted. 011 52 483 528 60671
CLUB 69 AT THE ROXY
Held every Thursday at the Roxy, Club 69 reeks of rabbit-hole mischief, where burlesque meets ninja turtles, and trannies and showgirls show off. Performances include break-dancers, trapeze artists, and magic shows, and electro-infused beats tickle the ears of the straight, gay, and straight-up pijos in the crowd.
011 54 11 47 79 9396
Maybe the last gay bar in Prague that still has a buzzer. This minor irritation is quickly forgotten once you step inside (you'll be reminded when you have to leave and the door won't open). Intimate basement, youngish crowd, few tourists. Never uncomfortably full or uncomfortably empty.
011 42 224 257 869
The French are not known for their friendliness, but Okawa is charming and cozy, with staff who will go out of their way to engage you. Okawa stands out on Rue Vielle-du-Temple, a street punctuated with the gay bars of the Marais, the gayest part of gay Paris. It's mixed and relaxed, with a fair standard of food and a varied clientele of locals and tourists.
011 33 (01) 48 04 30 69
Le Raidd is an enduring favorite in the cruisy Marais district. Its most famous feature is the Plexiglas shower stall above the DJ booth, where naked boys rhythmically rinse all night long. A good evening starts during happy hour in the streetside patio and ends downstairs on a couch in the
dark lounge with a new Parisian friend. No number available.
Like a French speakeasy, this hush-hush place requires skill to find, but is worth it once you get there, if only because the crowd is so decidedly unanything (not queeny, beefy, or hipster), except hot. Although not particularly fashionable, it's always crowded in a good way, with lots of nooks for snogging. 011 33 (0) 140 209 859
Oui, you'll probably end up shelling out a thick wad of euros at this heaving Paris megaclub, situated on the superchic Champs-Elys'es. But once you get inside'and we suggest arriving very, very late'you'll be greeted by bouncing fashionistas, muscular strippers, and, of course, sashaying drag queens. Resident DJs include heavyweights like Paul Van Dyk and Deep Dish, and the fete rages on until 6 or 7 A.M.
011 33 (0) 892 707 330
On approach, the lights from the shuttered windows of this former power station are blinding, but an enormous Ferris wheel inside sets the stage for Berghain, the ultimate ringmaster's den of iniquity: myriad caves, dens, dance floors, locker rooms, and bathtubs. Panorama Bar, a world-class dance club with an unrivaled lineup of international DJs, occupies the upper level. 011 33 (01) 40 20 98 59.
The crowd is young, rugged (think T-shirts, flannel, and leather), and 'ber-naughty at Berlin's classic gay den. It's so notorious that a German tabloid reported the city's flamboyant mayor, Klaus Wowereit, knew the exact date the doors of its dark, shadowy back room opened. (He couldn't, however, recall the year World War II ended.) 011 49 30 2134570
No European neighborhood embodies decayed decadence like Lisbon's Bairro Alto'so it's no surprise that the seaport's most fabulous gay bar is nestled among its cobbled hills. Packed on the weekend with dark-haired Portuguese demigods, the old-school hangout is best on weeknights just before a long evening stumbling around town.
011 351 21 346 6471
AXEL SKY BAR (pictured)
Perched atop the Hotel Axel, which bills itself as homo-friendly, Sky Bar commands stunning views over the Catalan city, and it's also handily situated by the hotel's pool and Jacuzzi. The bar hosts a party every year to welcome the start of the summer, and although it has begun to show a bit of wear and tear, it's still a hot place to cool down under the Spanish sun. Located in the Eixample, the heart of the gay quarter of Barcelona, Sky Bar is perfect for kicking off an evening or hanging out all night. 011 34 933239393
Keep your eye on the back booth at this Franco-era speakeasy on Madrid's pulsing Gran Via'director Pedro Almod'var and his posse hang out here. Anyone fashionable is welcome among the mostly gay crowd here, where handsome bartenders can hand-crack ice for your mojito or serve you at your art deco banquette.
011 34 915 326 737
This cozy tavern is tucked away in a quaint alley in the bohemian Cihangir neighborhood. During the week it's perfect for intimate t'te-'-t'tes, though once Friday rolls around, bartenders shower the bar top with whiskey and set it afire to the delight of a mixed crowd of Turks and tourists'guys, girls, trannies'who usually get caught up in sing-alongs to golden oldies and international hits. 011 90 212 243 2879
THE POLO LOUNGE
Glasgow'like its sister city Edinburgh'has a small gay scene in proportion to its size. This is because its bars overall tend to be mixed. Of the five or six gay bars or clubs in the city, the Polo is probably the most popular, catering to an upmarket crowd'or at least as upmarket as Glasgow gets. Polo is stylish downstairs, with a warren of dance floors and seating areas. 011 44 141 553 1221
THE JOINERS ARMS
This traditional East End boozer was once a haven only for scally gays from the housing estates that surround it, but the gentrification of Shoreditch has brought in a new clientele. Club kids and fashionistas, who frequent nearby bars and clubs such as Boombox or the George & Dragon, now drink alongside a mix of rougher, readier, and quite possibly sexier customers, whose outfit of choice often consists of tracksuit bottoms and Reeboks'and not much else. Busy enough during the week, Joiners is packed on weekends.
011 44 070 90 422 729
ROYAL VAUXHALL TAVERN
There has been a pub on the site of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern since 1893. It was erected on the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, one of the most decadent cruising grounds in the Victorian era. Even then it was a focus for performance, camp, and drag'which remain central to the pub to this day. From its cabaret and comedy nights through its bingo and live-music evenings to its legendary Saturday night event Duckie to the last defiant gasp of the weekend on Sunday, the RVT is an institution attracting a wide range of gay locals and visitors from across London and beyond.
011 44 020 77 374 043
THE STEAM PACKET
The only gay bar in the Lake District, the Steam Packet (known, affectionately we assume, as the Fag Packet) is a truly bizarre place in unlovely Workington. Here the trannies do cabaret dressed as Nazi frauleins, snort Ovaltine like cocaine, and spit it into the audience's hair. Gay-loving straight boys invade for last call and throw the trannies around like large, fluffy cushions. On the night we were there, they tried to give a young wide-eyed boy a Lambrini enema. It's surreal in a way that would make Gilbert and George puke with envy. The proprietors will also helpfully put you up in a gay B&B in the middle of a nearby housing project . The opposite of every metropolitan try-hard cabaret bar you ever visited, this place is Weimar Berlin with cling-wrap ham butties. 011 44 19 006 2186
ASIA + PACIFIC
THE IMPERIAL HOTEL
From the outside, the mauve (ochre?) building looks blah, but walk in and discover a thriving icon of gay Australia. Nestled in the Sydney suburbs is the three-bar Imperial Hotel, which is home to a mixed community of gays and lesbians (together at last). Intricate vintage fixtures sprout dusty rainbow flags, and 1980s videos play from 12-inch TV sets. A restoration is under way, but right now the Imperial is a faded beauty queen reliving her prime. There's zero attitude but a ton of frills. The final scenes from The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert were shot at the Imperial, and drag legend Mitzi Macintosh has been reenacting them here ever since. If not Priscilla, she'll do The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And her show's free before midnight.
011 61 (0)2 9519 9899
FUSION BAR AT
An unassuming valet stands guard outside a small door on one of Kathmandu's busiest streets, but just beyond the door lies Dwarika's Hotel, a cluster of the most painstakingly handcrafted terra-cotta- and wood-adorned buildings in the city. Poolside at the two-level bar is the best spot for evening cocktails and live music. The crowd, though mostly straight, is almost exclusively expat, so if there's a well-heeled homo traveling through Kathmandu at the same time you are, chances are he'll swing through here. 011 977 1447 3725
One night in Bangkok? Then the oyster is at the end of a gay alleyway just around the corner from the notorious pussy shows of Patpong. Tourists, expats, and locals all converge on DJ Station. Admission is the price of a drink, and you get a drink ticket with admission. That's justice. The music blares, the space consists of three levels of industrial metallic, and the dance floor is always in full swing. Thai boys have the taste for a new face even when it's an old face. At DJ Station fresh meat is ageless, and there's so much body contact on the dance floor, one wonders if the sexy locals are looking to dance, find love, or pick a pocket. Probably all those things, but who cares? It's Bangkok. 011 66 (02) 433 4029
Down a dark and gritty alley in Patpong, look for a brightly illuminated sign spelling out G.O.D. (Guys on Display). On one night around 3 A.M., this three-level club packed with stages, cages, and zebra-patterned couches was almost empty save for Coco, a dazzling transsexual parading around the bar. G.O.D.'s notorious drag shows don't really get going until after 5 A.M. but continue into the late hours of the morning. No number available.
BANYAN TREE* (pictured)
Situated 61 floors above the bustling streets of Bangkok, Vertigo restaurant's Moon Bar is the highest outdoor bar in the Asia-Pacific region. Settle in for stunning views, sumptuous cocktails, or an unexpectedly inventive barbecue menu. Don't let the setting sun distract you from finding visiting corporate executives flashing black Amex cards and suggestive smiles.
011 662 679 1200
In Hanoi's French Quarter the solid-oak bar at GC (Golden Cock) greets you from the street while a huge pool table dominates a back room full of expats, transvestites, and hairless Hanoi hipsters. Farther back is a lovely open-air garden. A word of caution: GC not only closes early but is also often raided by local police'even if at last visit they seemed more interested in the pool stick'straddling transvestites than in pimping bribes.
011 84 4 825 0499
HO CHI MINH CITY APOCALYPSE NOW
One of the oldest clubs in the former Saigon, AN is the unofficial after-hours spot in the city. Amiable pimps and local prostitutes shoot pool as hordes of foreigners drink tequila and party until dawn. The best night for those looking for action is Tuesday. 011 84 8 825 6124
YOUR LOCAL BAR
Naturally, the only bar that really counts is the bar you like to spend your time in. Go to Out.com and give us a description of your favorite local watering hole. Does it have a kickass jukebox? The best bargain beer bust? The sexiest bartender? We'll print the best ones in the January issue of Out. n
Matthew Breen, Emily Drabinski, Aaron Hicklin, Jimmy Hilburn, Bill Keith, Jason Lamphier, Bruce Mason, Gareth McLean, Jonathan Riggs, Christopher Rovzar, and Jason Rowan contributed to this article.