Drag queens & DJs & drinks, oh my! Besties nightlife venues & events for 2023

  • by Michael Flanagan
  • Tuesday October 24, 2023
Share this Post:
D'Arcy Drollinger in Oasis' current production of 'The Rocky Horror Show' (photo: Rachel Z Photography)
D'Arcy Drollinger in Oasis' current production of 'The Rocky Horror Show' (photo: Rachel Z Photography)

When you look over the list of this year's Bestie winners and runners-up, you'll notice something worth celebrating: more new venues in more cities around the Bay Area, with performers like these drawing us back.

Yes, some bars have closed, but more nightclubs and bars have recently opened than in years past, despite the pandemic. This includes winners and runners-up, many in Oakland. Celebrate them all by going out.

While the Besties gives you a good excuse to check out your old favorites, perhaps it's time to cross the bay and check out all the new (and some not so new) options in the East Bay as well.

It's a joyful thing to have our community growing, particularly when we've heard so much about venues closing (and admittedly there's one instance of that, too). The Besties as an opportunity to celebrate new places and there are lots of exciting options this year.

The June 2023 cast of 'Sex and the City Live' (photo: Gooch)  

Best Cabaret Venue, Best SoMa Bar, Best Dance Club: Oasis
Runners-up: Best Cabaret Venue: Runners-up: Martuni's, Feinstein's at the Nikko
Runners-up: Best SoMa Bar: SF Eagle, The Powerhouse
Runners-up: Best Dance Club: Beaux, DNA Lounge
Oasis remains a powerhouse of a club again this year as the winner in multiple categories for the Besties. Again a triple winner, it's this year's best cabaret venue (again), best SoMa bar (again) and the best dance club, according to our readers. In a year when Oasis faced sadness at the loss of one of the original owners, Heklina, the bar showed that it was able to face a tragedy with grace and still entertain the community.

When Lil Nas X performed in San Francisco last fall, where else would he go to catch a drag show with his dancers and security team but the Oasis? When San Francisco decided to create its first Drag Laureate, the city chose Oasis owner D'Arcy Drollinger to represent our values in the midst of the national anti-drag hysteria. So it has been a year of dazzling highs as well as tragic lows for the club.

Once again this year the Cockettes graced the stage at Oasis, this time with wonderful Res-Erection. And this year it was Princess, the drag show and dance party that drew Lil Nas X to the club. When Lady Bunny went hopping down the bunny trail to San Francisco, where else would she perform? Who can forget this year's spectacular 27th annual Drag King Contest on the Oasis stage in August? For theater performances like Ray Of Light Theater's "Rocky Horror Show" (playing now through November 4), where else would you expect to see it but Oasis?

In many ways it has been a year unlike any other (and soon we may get tired of saying that), but Oasis has come through it all in a spectacular fashion. Our readers are certainly impressed. Thanks for another award-winning year.

Militia Scunt at Princess at Oasis (photo: GioTographer)  

Best Drag Show: Princess at Oasis
Runners-up: Reparations at Oasis, Oaklash in Oakland
The combination drag show and dance party Princess has had a spectacular year all the way from their "Moulin Rouge"-themed New Year's Eve party to nights with Militia Scunt, Jessica Wild and Sasha Colby. Princess was there with a tribute to Kylie Minogue for the release of her album "Tension" in September and an Ariana Grande tribute the same month. It's been a year of non-stop enjoyment and our readers want to thank them with this award. We look forward to what's in store for us in the coming year.

Mango at El Rio (photo: Instagram)  

Best Nightlife Event: Mango at El Rio
Runners-up: Disco Daddy at the SF Eagle, Daytime Realness at El Rio
Launched by Carol Hill and the late Chantal Salkey in 1996, Mango has been the go-to scene for women, and is particularly welcoming to women of color in a world in which that cannot be frequently said.

London lesbian author Claire Hand remarked in a 2019 article about the event that though she often makes notes on her phone for later articles, when she woke up the day after a Mango party, all her note said was, "ridiculously good party." She was so busy having fun that there was little else to say! Any event that's managed to keep a loyal (if not fanatic) following for nearly 30 years is doing something right.

Town Bar Lounge (photo: Facebook)  

Best New Venue: Town Bar Lounge, Oakland
Runners-up: Fluid510, Oakland; Feelmore Lounge, Oakland
Town Bar Lounge describes themselves on their site this way: "We are a QPOC-owned Art Deco bar and lounge. Inspired by the iconic I. Magnin & Co. building located in the heart of Uptown Oakland, our colorful handcrafted cocktails were created to reflect the vibrance of our community and the city we love."

When it opened on April 20, owner Joshua Huynh told the B.A.R.'s Heather Cassell, regarding the community's response to the bar, "It has been such a huge outpouring of support. Like they just never thought a queer space would be so elevated."

The article also notes that "Town's seven signature cocktails are fashioned after the colors of the rainbow." Our readers are happy to have a new venue in Oakland, Mr. Huynh.

Note that Lyon & Swan, which closed Oct 1 after nine months, was a high-ranking contender in this category. The closure of the space in San Francisco's Jackson Square neighborhood points to the fraught nature of starting a new business.

Twin Peaks (photo: Steven Underhill)  

Best Castro bar: Twin Peaks
Runners-up; Lookout, 440 Castro
Sometimes the best things are the things that have been there all along (or at least for a very long time). I first wrote about the Twin Peaks in 2014, after the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to give the bar landmark status. In that article, I wrote, "Twin Peaks is indeed legendary as the first bar to install floor-to-ceiling windows, replacing the covered windows when it was purchased in 1972 by Mary Ellen Cunha and Peggy Foster. And 'the girls' (as they came to be known) were not opening up the bar to the world to make a statement. They simply wanted to be able to watch the world go by on the corner of 17th and Market."

As it turns out, many people want to watch the world go by from the windows of Twin Peaks. It was particularly gratifying to see the bar reopen after the pandemic and to make use of the outside space. Twin Peaks is a treasure that's enjoyed by long-time patrons as well as tourists who come to town and want a cozy place to have a drink after spending a day in the Castro.

Congratulations on making generation after generation of visitors to your establishment feel welcome.

The White Horse (photo: The White Horse)  

Best East Bay Bar: The White Horse
Runners-up: Port Bar; Que Rico, Club 1220 (tied for third)
The White Horse returns again as our reader's favorite East Bay bar. That's a sentence I used in the last Besties article I wrote about the bar, and it's true once again. There are stories about the White Horse that go back to the 1950s. Iconic gay writers like Jack Spicer used to go to the bar when he attended U.C. Berkeley.

Every first and third Wednesday of the month, the Rebel Kings of Oakland stage their "gender-bending exploration through performance art." You can watch Monday Night Football with your friends and neighbors and enjoy drink specials for Industry Monday. On Tuesday nights there's "Queeraoke" and there's a dance party on Saturday night.

There's a reason The White Horse keeps returning to this spot on our Besties list. You owe it to yourself to check it out.

Katya Smirnoff-Skyy and Joe Wicht at Martuni's (photo: Katya Smirnoff-Skyy)  

Best Cocktails: Martuni's
Runners-up: Blackbird; Port Bar, Oakland
Whether you discovered their drinks while at one of their wonderful cabaret events (I saw an amazing Kurt Weill tribute there this year) or if their reputation for wonderful drinks has drawn you in, once you go you'll be back for more.

The pun in their name for martinis is intentional, of course. The martinis are astounding, and will have you calling them "Martuni's" in no time. One of my favorite drinks there are their lemon drops, and they also have wide variety of Cosmopolitans. There are several options for those readers with a sweet tooth including watermelon martinis, sour apple martini, peach fuzz (with peach vodka), and a cherry blossom with black cherry rum. Whatever is your poison, you have come to the right spot if you're at Martuni's.

Pilsner Inn (photo: Pilsner Inn)  

Best Beer Selection: Pilsner Inn
Runners-up: SF Eagle, Toronado
Pilsner Inn is the winner of the best beer menu again this year. The bar features 18 handles on tap and whether you prefer an IPA, a Brown Ale, a porter, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or Guinness you will find it here. For a current list of what is on tap, see the untappd website. Our readers know their beers.

Aside from beer, the Pilsner has a large outdoor patio area with its beautiful plants. It's the kind of place that I take visitors whenever they are in from out of town as it has the feel of a friendly neighborhood bar. And should you want to play a game of pool there are lively tables there as well.

Blush Wine Bar (photo: Blush)  

Best Wine Bar: Blush
Runners-up: Swirl, Decant SF
Blush returns as the best wine bar this year. Inspired by European wine bars, owner Jef Pauly is proud to be a home to provide live music Tuesdays through Thursdays and Tarot readings on Mondays. Check the events calendar at the website to see who is playing on any given night.

Selections of their wines including Prosecco, Rosé, Zinfandel, Pinot Grigio, Pinot Noir and more can be found by looking though the menu, which is available online should you want to make your decisions ahead of time. Whatever your choice, you're certain to have a marvelous time.

Folsom Street Fair (photo: Steven Underhill)  

Best Leather Event: Folsom Street Fair
Runners-up: Up Your Alley Street Fair; (tied for third) International Ms Leather and International Mr. Bookblack Weekend, San Jose
The Folsom Street Fair has been an institution in San Francisco for nearly 40 years, and the attendance is second only to Pride in terms of the crowds of both serious leather aficionados and those who are simply curious. Whereas many events are trying to become more "family-friendly" the Folsom Street Fair is proudly and happily and adults-only event. Many events around the world have tried to replicate the interest and affection it draws, but in that we see that imitation is the highest form of flattery. We kneel before you in supplication and offer our congratulations.

Good Vibrations (photo: Good Vibrations)  

Best Place to Buy Sex Toys: Good Vibrations
Runners-up: Mr S Leather, Does Your Mother Know
The charming, sex-positive message on the Good Vibrations' website speaks volumes:
"In our world, pleasure is celebrated. Shame is erased in favor of empowerment. Why? Is replaced with How? Or maybe How Often? Curiosity is revered and encouraged. Information is openly shared. And sex, in every form, can be nothing short of extraordinary. This is the world of Good Vibes. Come join us here. We'll be your guide."

Good Vibrations first opened in 1977 and is dedicated to being sex-positive, shame-free and woman-friendly. And for those of you who weren't around then, that was quite the revolution. They continue to be amazing, both online and in their stores which are staffed with friendly, knowledgeable and helpful staff. In short they know what they're doing, and so do our readers, who awarded them the Bestie in this category.

Steamworks Berkeley (photo: Steamworks Berkeley)  

Best Sex Venue: Steamworks Berkeley
Runners-up: Eros, Transform 1060
The Steamworks chain of bathhouses, which along with its Berkeley location have four other bathhouses in both the United States and Canada, was initially opened by the late San Francisco Supervisorial candidate Rick Stokes in Berkeley in 1976. Steamworks is the only traditional bathhouse open in the Bay Area, as it survived the closing of the bathhouses in San Francisco during the 1980s.
Steamworks offers a wide variety of events at its location including Hombre Leche, Gender Fuck, Bears the Baths and Beyond and Sunday Service. For more information on the events (this is only a sample, they are wildly creative) check out the events page on their website.

Help keep the Bay Area Reporter going in these tough times. To support local, independent, LGBTQ journalism, consider becoming a BAR member.