Toronto
3 min

New rooster at the Henhouse

Credit: Johnnie Walker

Fans of heartbreaking hottie Bobby Valen may have noticed they (Valen prefers to be referred to as “they” rather than “he” or “she”) haven’t been seen around the Gladstone lately. After five years as one of that bar’s most popular server/bartenders, Valen surprised many with the announcement that they were the new owner of the Henhouse, a small but reliably fun bar space that’s been holding it down in the west end for three years.

“It’s hard to leave any place you’ve worked at for five years,” Valen says. “Everyone there is like family to me. I had the opportunity to bartend and to be a part of so many important and integral events that changed Toronto for the better. It was one helluva chapter in my life, but you get to a point where you need to grow and start something new and move on.”

Valen’s purchase of the Henhouse is fodder for west-end gossips, but we can expect a “don’t fix what ain’t broke” approach. “I’m going to make some minor improvements from the back end that most people won’t even notice. This bar looks and feels like something I would have put together myself. Our intention is to keep it feeling warm, friendly and just the way it’s already felt for years; the jukebox stays, along with the mis-matched furniture. As an owner there’s a hell of a lot more paperwork, but other than that I’m finding the transition between bartending and owning fairly smooth. The reality is I’m still a bartender 40-plus hours a week.”

If you haven’t been to the Henhouse, it’s your loss. Parkdale is more than just Queen St W, and Valen is determined to pick up the slack on Dundas from the recently closed Naco. “I came for the cheap rent and I stayed for the community,” they say.

I agree. The Village seems small sometimes, a few blocks of one street with some huge landmarks. Going back and forth between Queen and Dundas is prime queer hunting ground, and the Henhouse has a loyal clientele of art fags who outgrew that term in 2010 and queers who just want to dance. Valen promises to keep them happy.

So what can we expect in terms of events and lineup?

“Tuesdays and Thursdays will remain low-key jukebox nights, so people can come by and hang out,” Valen says. “Wednesday, Friday and Saturday are our dance-driven DJ nights. Tapette (faggy French pop) and Gayfinity (hard-hitting beats) are two new parties, but we intend on keeping almost all of the monthly parties the Henhouse has had over the last few years, including nights like Snakepit (queer mid-week dance party), That Time of the Month (all-lady R/B, soul, hip hop) and Chicken Party, just to name a few.

“We’re adding new nights, like the Gangbangaz night and CriscoTheque (greasy, gay, guilty dancefloor jams), as well as some surprises yet to come.”

Impressive. As their biggest fan, I’m biased when it comes to Bobby, but it’s clear the Henhouse is in good hands. More than just a tried-and-true partier, Bobby’s dusty old business degree, a long history of activism, community organizing, and tending bars everywhere from back-alley boozecans to some of Toronto’s finer establishments combine to make them pretty much the ideal person to take over this space.

I think queer nightlife in the city is going to benefit from having Bobby at the helm of a space; it feels right to me. It’s also great to see someone standing up for something they love. How many of the rest of us can legitimately say we’d buy a business we liked if we saw it was for sale?

Aretha and Annie have that song about “doin’ it for themselves,” and it’s the first thing I thought of when I heard Bobby was the new owner.

“I like the venue. It’s a great bar. I’ve partied here a lot in the past and consider it one of my locals. It was never my intention to start a bar; this was an opportunity to save a piece of queer Toronto, so I took it. Starting from scratch would mean missing out on that opportunity,” Valen says.

It’s enough to warm my jaded scenester-y heart.