Toronto
3 min

The secret to a successful gay bar

It's the circulation stupid

It’s Vazaleen night at Lee’s Palace and it’s so loud that when some cute guy approaches me I can’t even get his name. No, not even after three repeats. All I can figure out is that it starts with a C. Chris, Carl? By the end of our little conversation, he’s reduced to making hand gestures. It finally dawns on me that he’s imitating a lemming diving over a cliff. Cliff, his name is Cliff. Wow, I’ve managed to register his name. Have we hit the emotional gold mine or what?

Wrong night, wrong vibe. I turned around and left.

The problem with bitching about the bars is that you never quite know whether it’s the bar, the night, the season or you. Always, there is the suspicion bordering on certainty that there’s a better party somewhere else and everybody in town, certainly all the cute people, has been invited except you.

Like AIDS, like life, like getting laid itself, a bad night in the bars is a multifactorial problem. Still, time and time again, I just want to scream at people, “It’s the circulation, stupid.”

The crowning glory of Lee’s used to be a big four-sided bar stuck smack in the middle of the room like a second stage. Lit by candy-coloured lights it had a kind of 1960s/Antonioni rock star glam and it showed everyone in a very favourable light. No matter which way you approached, you had a great view of everyone else at the bar, making it a great place to see and be seen without actually looking like you were trying too hard.

Better yet it funnelled people around the edges of the bar and in and out of the area near the dancefloor and stage, ensuring that there was always fresh scenery for your viewing pleasure.

Then Lee’s management went and ripped it out, giving me one less reason to ever go back.

Folks are fickle and who knows what they really want from a bar. They say one thing and they mean another. They say they want a quiet place to talk but you know damn well they’d run in droves from any place that was too quiet — not enough energy.

Still, every one of the great gay bars I’ve ever been in has had one thing in common — a physical layout that caused people to circulate. Almost all of them are built on some sort of a circular pattern, causing people to mosey and mingle without being self-conscious about it, kind of like those big arrows on the floor of Ikea that push you toward the door-crasher specials you won’t be able to resist.

All the great bars like Chaps and the Manatee have had this feature. They all sent you roaming around in circles, trying to find out what lay around the next corner.

The Barn was a dark, dingy dump that always smelt of last year’s poppers but it survived and prospered because it had all those winding stairways that lead up and down and around, and convinced you that just around the next corner was the god of your dreams. The layout was a tease, a slow revelation that almost invariably promised more than it delivered but always kept you coming back for more.

One of the few good things about the legendary but depressing St Charles Tavern on Yonge St was its eminently practical layout. Shaped like a giant horseshoe, it allowed you to walk in one Yonge St door and out the other without ever seeing the same face twice. For twinks, it was a great way to check out your fuckability. How many heads could you turn in one tour of the bar?

Woody’s had great flow until that glass box fell on the back of the bar like the house that killed the Wicked Witch in Oz. Now it only works when it’s not too busy.

The changing business climate on Church St — higher rents, more tourists — has dictated a change in strategy. Now there’s more entertainment, less socializing. (Have you noticed how many clubs now sport nightclub-style signs advertising drag queens like they were Celine in Vegas?) Personally I could do with a lot less entertainment and a lot more contact, but you can hardly blame the bar owners. How else are they going to put bums in the seats? Still, you do have to wonder if maybe they’ve got their priorities reversed.

Whether it’s the symphony or the local drag show, there’s only one really good reason to go to a live event and that’s the people. No people, no excitement. Without decent circulation, you don’t get the chance to see what you came for. Poor circulation means bored faces and boring clumps of stand-and-model. So don’t forget to keep it moving, folks. The real entertainment in any bar is never, ever on stage.