When Valerie Desjardins and a few business partners decided to open a queer nightclub in Montreal last summer, they had a hunch they’d be successful. But as optimistic as they were, the proprietors of the Royal Phoenix weren’t prepared for what awaited them.
Since opening in late June, the Royal Phoenix has proven a huge draw for Montreal queers and their allies. There are lineups to get in on weekends, and even on weekdays the nightclub, located at the corner of Bernard and St Laurent (the city’s traditional dividing line), attracts a good number of patrons.
At a time when so many bars and nightclubs are suffering from dwindling crowds – a double whammy of the sagging economy and the convenience of hooking up online – the Royal Phoenix is bucking the conventional wisdom that queer nightspots are dinosaurs.
“There were a few things we agreed upon when we were planning this place,” says Desjardins. “We wanted it to be open and inclusive. We wanted everyone to feel welcome. It was important for me that it be on the main floor, so it was wheelchair accessible. I liked the idea of it feeling open to the street, and so in the summer we could have tables outside as well.”
Desjardins explains that the idea for the venue came from her involvement with the Montreal Roller Derby. “Now that’s diversity. There are queer women, straight women – we all just get along so well. In a way, we wanted our own clubhouse. I feel like we opened the bar that we didn’t have for ourselves.”
The Royal Phoenix is located in Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood, outside of the city’s Gay Village. “The bar, the crowd, it’s very much a reflection of our neighbourhood. We feel very safe and welcome here. And this isn’t to take anything away from the Village, or to suggest it’s obsolete. It isn’t. If anything, this is just an expansion on that. We felt we really needed a bar in Mile End.”
Desjardins says she worked to make sure the Royal Phoenix would be a welcome part of the neighbourhood. She reached out to neighbours, telling them to be in touch if noise became an issue. She hired as diverse a staff as possible and made friendly service a priority. She spoke to community leaders and local artists, telling them she wanted to host book launches and art vernissages.
“Though I think many think of the Royal Phoenix as primarily a lesbian bar, my idea of utopia is to have a real diversity in the crowd. And that’s happening. And we liked the idea of calling it after the phoenix – to me, it symbolizes freedom.”
Another key has been to keep prices low. “There’s not a huge markup on our drinks or food,” Desjardins says. “It’s more about volume than making a lot on any single item.” The drinks menu features a broad range, from classy Chablis by the glass to divey Pabst Blue Ribbon.
After being open for a month the Royal Phoenix was a proven success, so Desjardins hired a chef and opened a kitchen. “The produce is all locally grown. We have salads and sandwiches, and we’re starting to serve Sunday brunches.”
Desjardins, 32, worked for years as a DJ for Montreal’s legendary lesbian Meow Mix parties and also managed Faggity Ass Fridays, a monthly queer party. “I grew up in the West Island [the Montreal suburbs] as a jock in the closet. This is combining everything I’m really into. I’m having a blast. It’s my dream job.”