LGBTQ nightlife in Los Angeles can be a bit detached, but each separate “gayborhood” has its own vibe and appeal. There's the glitz (and the expense) of West Hollywood, L.A.'s best-known gayborhood, and the burgeoning one of Downtown L.A.. Then there's the important and well-established gayborhoods in Long Beach and the valley. Then there is perhaps the most historic gayborhood: Silver Lake. On the eve of the seventh anual Off Sunset Festival, which is being held March 31, L.A. Weekly put together a guide on how to have a great gay Friday or Saturday night out in Silver Lake.
Before we dig into recommendations around LGBTQ nightlife in Silver Lake today, we first must acknowledge and discuss the neighborhood's historic significance. Back in the 60s, like most gay bars across the country, the police were constantly raiding Silver Lake's best known LGBTQ hangout, the Black Cat Tavern. At midnight on New Year's Day 1967, two and a half years before the Stonewall Riots in New York City, plainclothes police officers had infiltrated the bar, watching same-sex couples kiss and embrace to welcome the New Year. They beat the LGBTQ patrons and arrested 14 people, charging them with lewd conduct for same-sex kissing.
The brutal force aspect of this raid shook up the LGBTQ community of Silver Lake. On February 11, 1967, they publicly protested the police raid outside of the bar, something rare for the time. The size of the protest was even more rare. The raid also led to the first incarnation of LGBTQ magazine The Advocate, which began as a local newsletter by activist group PRIDE (Personal Rights in Defense and Education) following the Black Cat events, before it transformed into a newspaper called The Los Angeles Advocate. Predating Stonewall, the Black Cat raid and protest were significant steps forward in the gay rights movement and laid the groundwork for the events at Stonewall two years later.
Billy Clift, the director of the documentary A Long Road to Freedom: The Advocate Celebrates 50 Years, kicks off the film by discussing the events at the Black Cat Tavern and how they have a direct connection to Stonewall. “It was the first time it got LGBTQ people angry enough to say what do we do, how can we fight back?…Two months after this moment, having that many gay and lesbian and allies come together to protest police brutality was major,” he tells L.A. Weekly. “No one knows about [the protest] because the regular press wasn't there, but those who did know about it were LGBTQ people in New York, in San Francisco because they all spoke. In some way, it got them angrier and angrier when they heard what happened somewhere else, it started inspiring that thing where [they were] finally like, 'I don't give a shit, I'm going to fight back,' which is what happened at Stonewall.”
While many consider Stonewall to be the birth of the gay rights movement, Black Cat laid the groundwork for it to occur, so one could argue that the true birth of the national gay rights movement began right here in Silver Lake. Though it ran as Le Barcito for several years catering to a gay Latino clientele (and hosting legendary queer fetish night Club Fuck), new owners who took over in 2012 returned the Black Cat Tavern to its original name. It's mostly straight a hipster hub but it is gay-friendly, and it's worth visiting to see photos of the 1967 events displayed inside.
Keeping the historic significance of Silver Lake to the LGBTQ community in mind, the first stop on our gay night out in the neighborhood is for some dinner at 33 Taps. The first 33 Taps opened in Hollywood in 2013 but its Silver Lake counterpart, which first opened in 2016, is different. While the Hollywood location is tourist-driven and bigger, the Silver Lake restaurant has more of a neighborhood feel. It isn't officially a “gay” establishment, but since the neighborhood is very LGBTQ, so is the restaurant. Like its previous guise, The Crest, it's known as a place where LGTBQ are welcomed. “The Silver Lake [location] is very neighborhood-specific and has a very big gay following in general. We are a beer and sports bar, but we have a very big gay clientele and we're gay-owned and a lot of our staff is gay. This has been a somewhat of a gay-centric place,” says owner/found Ryan Floyd. While sports bar and gay don't often go together, many of us do enjoy sports! And for those that don't, the restaurant hosts a very successful drag bingo night that coincides with a RuPaul's Drag Race viewing party.
“I would describe [33 Taps] as a sports bar with great beer and health-conscious bar food,” says Floyd. “So we still have our burgers, wings, pizzas, but we [also] have vegan items, we have some entrée-style stuff [like] rotisserie chicken. We make all of our food in house, nothing's frozen. … We really put a lot of effort into pretty great quality food.” The food is locally sourced as well. Highlights include buffalo cauliflower, any of the wings and, of course, the burgers. Vegan customers will like the Impossible taco salad or Impossible burger. Aside from the drag night, 33 Taps also hosts showtunes karaoke every week, trivia twice a week and brunch on the weekends. And even though it only offers beer and wine right now, it plans to start serving hard liquor this summer. “This neighborhood, which is why I think it has such a cool vibe to it, was always kind of like the gays and the gangsters for many, many years,” says Floyd. “The location from the days of Crest on Sunset [is a community], 60 percent of our business are regulars.”
After our bellies were full from food, we made way to our second stop of the night: Eagle L.A. Much like the community itself, Eagle L.A. has a long, rich history. It first opened as a gay bar called the Shed in 1968 before it became the Outcast from 1972 to 1983, then Gauntlet II from 1983 to 2005 before opening as Eagle LA in 2006 (all were gay bars). Eagle L.A. is one in a long line of leather/uniform/fetish gay bars. “[Eagle L.A.] is a leather biker bar, kind of a dive bar. We've been rated one of the top five dive bars in all of L.A., which I consider a good thing, not a bad thing,” says co-owner Charlie Matula. Indeed, it was the perfect place to stop for some cheap, stiff drinks. While we're recommending to start your bar hopping here, it definitely has more people the later it gets, so anytime you pop in you'll have a great time.
Matula was the general manager of the Gauntlet II for its last five years when he and his partner bought the bar. “I worked at the original Eagle in West Hollywood, which closed in 1995. It was always my intention to try and find a place to reopen the Eagle, so this was the perfect opportunity,” says Matula. And while Eagle L.A. is definitely a leather bar, they're also welcoming to anyone who wants to come in for a drink. “[The leather scene] is still very alive and well, although, the Internet and social media has changed the gay scene and the gay nightclub scene across the board,” says Matula. “I still try to hold true to our roots where the leather community came from, but also cater to the younger generation, the bears, the cubs, the hipsters. I pride myself with the Eagle L.A. having an open-door policy and we're not so rigid where it's just all leather all the time because that just doesn't survive anymore these days. But we still are very true to our roots.”
Matula and his husband, Hunter Fox, were two of the minds behind the creation of the Off Sunset Festival, happening this Sunday, in 2013. The festival's organizers, the Off Sunset Association, describe themselves as “a group of individuals who live, work and play in the Silver Lake area. “It was our brain child from a time when most gay bars in Silver Lake were closing. This is an effort to maintain a place in our community and our long standing history in Silver Lake,” says Fox. “It is also a place of gathering and fun for not only the LGBT community, but the Silver Lake locals, artists, musicians, etc. It's simply a good time.” Their mission statement reads, “We own businesses here. We frequent the local restaurants and bars. We spend time in this incredible section of Los Angeles and we want to give back. It is our goal to support beautification, art and youth programs with an emphasis on the LGBT community. Not only is this street fair an exciting day of music, culture, art, food and fun, but it also brings a way for us to offer our support for the place and people we love.”
A far cry from the closeted life of the LGBTQ people who were arrested or beaten at the Black Cat, the Off Sunset Festival is a day for the community to come together, much like Pride, and the now-gone Sunset Junction Street Fair, which took over a nearby stretch of Sunset for several years. Both LGBTQ and their allies can celebrate not only who they are but also the community they belong to. “It's been 13 years now [since Eagle LA has opened] and it's just getting better everyday,” says Matula.
After getting nice and buzzed at Eagle, we made our way to Faultline Bar. Opened in 1994, Faultline had previously been home to various gay bars including The Stud and Griff's. Before that it was a place called the Red Rouge, which was owned by Judy Garland's husband at the time, Sid Luft. In 1963, Garland put her signature and handprints into a slab of concrete that was being laid at the bar. The signed concrete still exists today, although not fully visible to Faultline patrons. Faultline co-owner Ruby De Fresno describes the bar as, “unpretentious, comfortable, fun, hip and always full of surprises,” and we couldn't agree more. Whether you want to hang out on the outdoor patio or indoor lounge or dance on the dance floor, the Fautline is big and open enough for everyone to find their space and enjoy their time.
Faultline hosts many unique parties including a comedy night once a month on Wednesdays, a RuPaul's Drag Race viewing party on Thursdays followed by the “original and best” (according to De Fresno) underwear night, as well as the Legendary Sunday Beer Bust. Saturday night events are a rotating roster that includes MaDonna Summer four times a year, which is a tribute to Madonna and Donna Summer, Sweet and Tender Hooligan, which is a Morrissey and The Smiths tribute night, and Gag Me With the ’80s.
“Just as society has become more diverse, tolerant and inclusive, we've made sure the Faultline keeps pace,” De Fresno says. “We feature artists and events as diverse as Tiffany to JJ Fad and pretty much anything you can think of in between…We want to make sure that the Faultline continues to be one of the iconic gay bars in Los Angeles.” And of course, De Fresno credits the bar's patrons and the Silver Lake community with making it so special. Though it's a little outside of Silver Lake, Faultline does a great job of keeping the spirit of the gayborhood alive and kicking.
After some more drinking and dancing, we were off to our final spot of the night: Akbar. The bar is similar to Faultline, in that it also has a space for everyone. The front room is perfect for hanging out and lounging. Or, if you head to your left, there's a second bar and a dance floor, which is where we spent most of our time at the end of our night. “We have two bars, we have the front lounge bar that's open seven nights a week and then the dance bar is a full separate room that you access through a hallway,” says bar manager Jeffrey Wylie. “On weekend nights for dancing, [it's] very clubby, pounding dance music on a packed dance floor. And there's another bar back there also, but people can go back and forth within the bar depending on whether they want to dance or just chill out for a little bit.”
First opening on New Year's Eve 1996, co-owner Scott Craig describes Akbar as a “neighborhood bar and clubhouse with a proud rainbow flag in front.” Opening right after the AIDS epidemic was at its most brutal force, the owners felt that, at the time, the stigmas and fear in place meant more isolation for the gay community, but they wanted to change that. “There were bars in the neighborhood, there were gay bars in the neighborhood, there were straight bars, but there was not a bar where us and our mix of friends, which are straight and gay, could go together. So we decided to open a bar for us,” says co-owner Peter Alexander. It's hard to imagine a time when this wasn't the case, as many gay bars today are now a mix of not only straight and gay people, but also transgender, gender-nonconforming and queer people as well. “We're proud to say that anyone walking into the bar tonight for the first time is basically walking into the same bar from 22 years ago,” says Wylie. “We really have not changed. We haven't really changed the decor, it's the same atmosphere for people to walk into and feel welcome.”
What has changed is how the space is used. After it doubled in size and expanded around 2004, the owners were able to implement their vision, which was to turn it into more than just a bar. “We've worked really hard to bring in a divergent mix of nights, different clubs, different performance pieces. And we've become more of a bar slash performance space. We have singing, comedy nights, queer performance nights, dance club [nights], more than we had 20 years ago,” says Alexander. “We always had that vision in our head.” And that goes for the music as well: on club nights, don't expect to hear the same Top 40 or house music anytime you visit. “We go all over the place. It could be anything from a deep house night to a rock & roll night to classic disco to new disco to ladies from the '80s,” says Craig. Indeed, with a little bit of everything, Akbar is the perfect place to end an evening. We danced our asses off and also sat and chilled before calling it a night and heading home.
Steeped in history, the LGBTQ community of Silver Lake is one that has remarkably transformed over the years, from a place where same-sex couples could be arrested and beaten for just embracing their partners, to one that now has an entire street festival dedicated to celebrating who we are. Whether you're into leather or club kids, MaDonna Summer mash-up nights or classic disco, lounging or sweating on the dance floor, there's a place for you in Silver Lake. “[The LGBTQ community of Silver Lake is] diverse, dynamic and vibrant. The best!,” De Fresno says. “In short, it’s an honor to be part of such a storied and historic community.”
The Black Cat, 3909 W. Sunset Blvd. Silver Lake; (323) 661-6369,theblackcatla.com
33 Taps Silver Lake, 3725 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 338-7777, 33tapssilverlake.com
Eagle LA, 4219 Santa Monica Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 669-9472, eaglela.com/
Faultline Bar, 4216 Melrose Ave., East Hollywood; (323) 660-0889, faultlinebar.com
Akbar, 4356 Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 665-6810, akbarsilverlake.com
Off Sunset Festival, N Hoover St & Santa Monica Blvd., tickets range from $15-$35. For tickets and more info, visit offsunsetfestival.com.