New York City, renowned for its pulsating energy and diverse population, has long been a haven for LGBTQ+ individuals seeking acceptance, community and just some old-fashioned no-holds barred gay fun! At the heart of this inclusive culture is its nightlife and a host of iconic gay bars, which have played a vital role both in shaping LGBTQ+ history and served as the motherships to generations of gay and queer people within the big apple.
The gay bar scene still thrives to this day, with these mothership bars evolving as the years go by, giving birth to a whole new generation of gay bars. From the historic Stonewall Inn – the birthplace of the modern LGBTQ+ movement – to the leather-clad daddy welcoming Eagle to the gay cowboy joint Flaming Saddles, we weave a rich tapestry within the gay community and New York city represents any part of it you could possibly name or imagine.
Let’s look at some of the best with just a splash of history to wash down with whatever your poison may be:
Of course, no list of New York gay bars could start with anything less than the most iconic gay bar in not just New York, but perhaps the whole world. The Stonewall Inn is now a National Historic Landmark due to its legacy in being the location of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, which were a catalyst to change for gay rights movements across the globe – ultimately leading us to the Gay Pride marches and parties we enjoy to this day.
Fast forward to the present and it remains a popular bar both with residents and, of course, gay tourists looking to take a walk-through history. The Stonewall Inn’s old school stylings really do make you feel like you are having a drink in a living monument. The bar has adapted to the modern day by hosting drag shows and cabaret shows, alongside other events and parties. No trip to New York is truly complete without a trip to where it all started.
The Manhattan Monster
Conveniently placed right in front of Stonewall Inn, the Manhattan Monster – sometimes simply shortened to The Monster – is legendary in its own right. As an interesting side fact the bar is named after the mysterious rat-like dead creature with a mutilated face which washed up under Brooklyn Bridge some years ago. Grossly fascinating as that may be, it is not the reason the bar is so legendary but that it has been frequented by some of the biggest names in the gay world – such as the mother of modern drag herself, Ru Paul.
The Monster is also a bar of contrasts with a piano bar upstairs for the cultured to enjoy sing along sessions with a wealth of talented performers, whereas late in the evening the basement opens to reveal a fun-fuelled – often packed – nightclub replete with go-go dancers and an eclectic mix of pop and dance hits being played. DJs such as drag icon Lady Bunny are even known to make an appearance.
The Eagle is another institution of a bar, having been open since 1970 in wake of the Stonewall Riots and it has been the gathering place of hot men with a kinky streak ever since. The building was – perhaps aptly – originally a horse stable and now has a sleazy, yet welcoming, vibe. Ostensibly a leather bar, in reality it now attracts more of a mixed clientele and welcomes anyone. There are still all the fetish elements though, with porn playing in the background and if you’re going there for the kink, you’ll no doubt find someone that matches your style. During the weekends The Eagle gets very busy but there is a cozy roof terrace to chill out on and enjoy some good gay company – especially in the summer. At the back you’ll also find a pool table and darts board all the better to challenge a leather daddy to a game at. The Eagle runs events ranging from jockstrap Wednesday to cigar nights to their (in)famous Mr. Eagle competition.
Rebar literally means a reinforcing metal bar and the bar is certainly a stable force in New York’s gay scene found in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Its key selling point is the sheer mixture of different types of men drawn there – from circuit party boys to local twinks to businessmen. Its second is the fact it stays open every day of the week till 4am – making it the ideal locale for a cheeky mid-weeknight drinking session. Rebar boasts an eclectic roster ranging from cabaret, drag and jazz shows to sexy weekend dance pop parties. Rebar might not be pushing the boundaries with respects to originality but what it does, it does well, and it is everything a modern gay bar should be: diverse and fun!
Boxers KH is New York city’s “gay sports bar”, which in itself makes it rather unique. Inside you can both watch sports games in the lounge or video-equipped basement and enjoy the bar’s namesake: hunky bar staff serving drinks in their boxers. There are an impressive three bars, including an outdoor terrace and a rooftop deck, as well as a pool table and its own mini nightclub with an overlooking balcony. As well as your typical sports games, they also hold showings of our own beloved “Gay Olympics” – or Ru Paul’s Drag Race to the initiated.
On the subject of drag, Barracuda Lounge in Hell’s Kitchen is renowned as being one – if not THE – best place to see an intimate drag show in NYC on any given night of the week. Having been open since the 1990’s, some have even argued the bar was part of the inspiration for Drag Race itself. Regardless, it is a popular celebrity hangout with which to rub shoulders with big names like Eartha Kitt, Charo and Jennifer Coolidge. Every Thursday the entertaining drag competition, Star Search, takes places to weed out the best in upcoming drag talent. Barracuda Lounge is also well-known for the promotional events for Broadway shows – once a spontaneous performance of Memory from Cats allegedly happened. The bar itself is small but has a cosy intimate feel that makes you feel you can truly lie back and enjoy the show. It is also inside an old bunker, so is the ideal retreat should you wish to enjoy drag during the event of nuclear war.
‘If you climb in the saddle, be ready to ride’, a wise cowboy once said and Flaming Saddles is a most definitely a place to go to enjoy the ride. If the title didn’t give it away, it’s a gay cowboy bar that really goes all in on the Wild West theme. There are swing doors, wooden furniture, country music, line dancing bar staff and cowboy go-go dancers. Flaming Saddles is – as you can imagine – a bit raunchy, but it is also a tourist and bachelorette party magnet – meaning it gets packed and with a mixed crowd including a lot of women there for the view, but hey…who can blame them. Just remember to follow the rules displayed on the sign behind the bar stating ‘no wahooing´.
Barracuda’s naughty sister bar in Chelsea has been voted New York City’s best gay bar by New York Magazine and various other publications. Industry Bar is huge, and the décor gives it a Berlin styled industrial look, which stands in contrast to the stylish crowd and the pop music hits played. The clientele tends to be young – and rather attractive – professional types come to let off steam after work. Towards the back is a big dancefloor to enjoy some cheesy hits on. Whether it’s the best bar in NYC is highly disputable but it is definitely one of the most enjoyable.
Rise Bar is a much beloved venue within Hell’s Kitchen and a wonderful place to have a cocktail during the day or night while taking advantage of its outdoor seating ideal to watch the city roll by. They hold drag shows and – if you have a taste for crucifying yourself publicly – karaoke nights. Rise Bar isn’t a restaurant, but it has a reasonable menu of yummy food to order during the day including steaks, omelets and burgers. By night the bar tends to fill, as does their dancefloor, especially on ‘Thirsty Thursdays’ – a night where the men are indeed thirsty. However, Rise Bar is perhaps best known for its Drag Brunches, which includes unlimited mimosas, Bloody Marys and St-Germain Spritz included in the show’s entrance fee.
You’re only as old as you feel, and Julius is still very much feeling its oats despite being – arguably – the oldest gay bar in NYC. The classic tavern bar opened in the 1860s and has an underrated legendary status itself: it was the location of some early gay activism in the form of a “sip-in”, where activists challenged the act of homosexuals being refused service by announcing their sexuality whilst ordering drinks. Julius now operates under the rather old-school sounding slogan ‘Good Drinks, Fine Food and Great People ́ – and it serves up all three with happy hours, tasty burgers and friendly bar staff. Adding further to the vintage feel Julius is cash-only and tends to draw more of a mature crowd. Julius remains a staple in New York’s gay scene and is a testament to just how far NYC – and indeed the world – have come with respect to LGBTQ+ rights. One such right is the right to enjoy a good drink in peace and let the night take us wherever it may.