Nightlife lights up for Bay Area lesbians
by Heather Cassell
There's a time and place to satisfy lesbian and bisexual women's desire for an entertaining time out on the town L Word style.
This year as the popular Showtime dyke drama winds down, a surge of queer women-owned and -operated night spots are bringing the good times and glamour into women's lives.
In January, Elizabeth Falkner, Sabrina Riddle, and Betty Sullivan succeeded in creating a "place that looks like a big L Word scene," said Falkner, about the first unofficial Ladies' Night at Orson, Falkner's new restaurant in San Francisco's South of Market District.
Ladies' Night started previews at Orson last month, Sullivan said, as they tested the format at the new venue. The official launch for the weekly event is tonight (Thursday, February 5).
During a January preview, erotic images of lesbians projected onto a screen above Orson's bar while an estimated 300 women enjoyed cocktails and fluttered from table to table socializing with friends as they dined throughout the night.
"I'm thrilled," Sullivan said as she watched the swirl of women moving around from her perch at the bar. "It is a great feeling of community and happiness that Ladies' Night is back."
The trio were excited by the unexpected turnout the first night with very little promotion.
"We are happy to be able to provide a cool space for lesbians that has great food and great drinks," said Riddle. "First and foremost we want to offer really good service and to be able to do that for a group of people that we actually connect with and care about – it just makes it all the better."
Falkner, who owns Citizen Cake in Hayes Valley, opened Orson, the posh SOMA restaurant at 508 4th Street, in March 2008 with Riddle, her life partner of 10 years and business cohort. Riddle was Olivia Cruises and Resorts' chief sales and marketing officer until 2007.
"It is the marriage of Betty Sullivan's many, many years of bringing women together and two of our community heroes, Elizabeth Falkner and Sabrina Riddle, and their fabulous space and restaurant, Orson," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "To be in this space feels so right. It's what you dream will happen in a city – any city – but especially San Francisco. [It] is a perfect, perfect start to 2009."
Kendell will emcee the official grand opening of Ladies' Night at Orson tonight.
Cha cha changes
The popular Ladies' Night, which made its home at the swanky Mecca in the Castro for six years, was on the decline in 2008, said Sullivan. So, she made the decision to leave the gay mecca for SOMA.
"It was a hard, hard decision for me because I love Mecca," said Sullivan, who declined to discuss the details other than to say that "change was needed" and the "women let me know that in a variety of ways."
As it happens, Mecca closed its doors January 22. The Ladies' Night move had nothing to do with the supper club's demise, which owners blamed on the "current financial crisis."
"Mecca was wonderful for what it was, but it was really time to have something new and fresh for women," said Laura Spanjian, a San Francisco lesbian politico.
"It's so great!" Spanjian said. "We always talk about supporting women, but we usually don't put our money where our mouth is. Finally, in 2009 Betty, Sabrina, and Elizabeth brought it to us and now we actually get to put our money where our mouth is and support lesbians. It's awesome."
Out all over
In spite of the recession, or maybe because of it, lesbians a
"I think you need your community most of all in this very moment," said Christine De La Rosa, the new general manager of Oakland's Velvet bar. "You have to step up."
Competition doesn't seem to be a problem due to the diversity of the queer women's community, according to club promoters and bar owners, who are excited about the recent surge of places for queer women to socialize.
"We love the competition and the environment because people should have choices," said Laurie Stiffen, who co-owns Vibe Lounge in Oakland with her life and business partner of nearly 11 years, Susanne Borman. Vibe is located in the space that was once Cable's Reef, a predominantly African American gay bar.
Vibe opened during San Francisco Pride weekend last year and doubles as a neighborhood bar and a community space available to local organizations for fundraisers, Stiffen said.
"Every time we wanted to go out to a nice bar we had to go to the city," said Stiffen, who remembers a time when there was a plethora of women's bars and clubs throughout the Bay Area. "We wanted to bring something nice here to Oakland."
Word has quickly spread throughout the community, Stiffen said.
Elsewhere in Oakland, Velvet is remodeling itself as a bar and club and community space due to De La Rosa, who took over management of the club at the beginning of the year. A network architect who recently relocated to the Bay Area from Dallas, De La Rosa was surprised by the lack of queer women spaces in the Bay Area. After hosting a few parties at Velvet, owners Adam Afuvai, Stephanie Sulivan, and Robert Huff decided to step into the background allowing De La Rosa to run Velvet, she said. But she said that she doesn't have plans to purchase the bar and club.
Afuvai, Sulivan, and Huff didn't return repeated messages seeking comment.
It has been a year and a half since Velvet's dramatic opening when club promoter and DJ Page Hodel walked out of the business deal after only nine weeks.
De La Rosa told the B.A.R. that she attempted to contact Hodel to make peace with Velvet's past, but Hodel didn't respond. Hodel didn't respond to the B.A.R .'s attempts to contact her for comments either.
Since De La Rosa took over Velvet and brought in DJ Olga T, whom she's dating, the club has received a surge of business with a steady flow of an estimated 150 women stopping in at the bar and club nightly, she said.
Much like Vibe Lounge, De La Rosa perceives Velvet as a community space.
"I want people to own the space. It's really not my space. It's really a community space and night club," said De La Rosa.
She said that a turning point within the queer women's community came last month when Velvet hosted the benefit for Richmond Jane Doe, the lesbian who was gang-raped in Richmond in December.
"I want everybody to feel ownership of that place, so they can feel welcome there, they feel like they can come there and that they can utilize it," De La Rosa said. "I feel like if I can achieve that, women in the Bay Area and in the East Bay Area will have a place."