One year ago, the Roosterfish, a small, divey gar bar on Abbot Kinney in Venice, closed its doors after 37 years. The Westside gay community was devastated, since the closure meant that there were no remaining gay bars west of the 405. Various bars or restaurants around Venice and Santa Monica tried to capitalize on the now-untapped LGBT market over the next 12 months with various gay-themed nights, but the community lacked a space it could call its own — until now.
Just last month, a new Westside gay bar opened called the Birdcage, located on the top floor of the Victorian on Main Street in Santa Monica. “I was surprised nobody else opened anything on the Westside,” says Garrett Gerson, who co-owns the Victorian and, as a gay man himself, recognized that there was a community in search of a new home. “Everyone was kind of doing these pseudo [gay] nights on their off nights and to me, I hate that. Why should the LGBTQ community have to go to someone's straight bar on an off night? [So I said], why am I bitching about it? Let's just do something about it.”
The Victorian is an 1892 mansion on Main Street that offers four different bars: the Basement Tavern, the West Room Lounge, Leo's Lobby and, now, the Birdcage. The entire property is owned and run by Gerson, his brother and a third partner. The Birdcage, which has its own entrance and is open Thursday through Sunday, is located in what Gerson calls the attic or the library and features an outside patio. “It's Miami meets the Hamptons,” Gerson says. “It's like having a house party in an amazing mansion, but you don't have to clean up.”
On the Saturday night my friends and I went, we arrived on the early side to have dinner (although the kitchen, which serves the lobby, patio, West Room and Birdcage, is open until 2 a.m.). The menu offered a variety of delicious options, including fried chicken, burgers and our favorites, sausage pizza and mac and cheese. We were warmly greeted by house drag queen Big Kim (who actually was named by rapper Lil' Kim herself). Head bartender Joey Mar (tall, dark and perfect cheekbones) kept the drinks strong and flowing, conjuring up delectable cocktails based on what we told him we liked.
As the night grew later, the crowd grew in size and the dance floor filled up with Birdcagers shaking their booties to a fun mix of current hits and favorites from the '90s and 2000s. While you could definitely feel that it was a gay lounge, the crowd was a bit more eclectic than a traditional gay bar — and became even more mixed the following afternoon, when I returned for the bar's laid-back “Sunday Funday” daytime party, which includes beach chairs on the upstairs patio and interactive games like Plinko and giant Jenga.
“It is so diverse,” Gerson agrees. “We have a group from the Roosterfish who are here, the guys from Venice Pride that come, we have a huge lesbian community that loves and supports the Birdcage.”
It's not just out gay people who can be found at the new hot spot. “In Santa Monica, I've found there [are] a lot of people who are curious and exploring their sexuality,” Gerson says. “There are a lot of guys that are really discreet.” This is part of why the Birdcage has a strict no-photo policy. “It's kind of a safe place that everyone can hang out, put away their phones and just be present.”
Despite occasional encounters with “drunk straight people” wandering up from the Birdcage's downstairs neighbors, Noe Mendoza, 28, is enthusiastic about the new venue. “The Rooster closing sucked. That's where I met most of my current friends,” he says. “The Birdcage will never replace Rooster, but I'm sure it'll come [into] its own.”
Another longtime Roosterfish customer, James Gierczak, 50, has an even more personal connection to the former Venice gay bar. “I met my husband, Fred, [at the Roosterfish] and after he died it actually felt like the Roosterfish wasn't the same. … I see the Birdcage as a replacement of sorts, definitely,” says Gierczak, who says he's already been six or seven times since the place opened. “In fact, my second weekend there, I saw over 15 people I hadn't seen since the Roosterfish! So it is bringing the people back together.”
So what's next for the Birdcage? In addition to being involved in this year's upcoming Venice Pride, Gerson says, “The idea is as it grows in popularity, we'll take over the front patio, the front bar and we'll move outside onto the lawn. As we start to expand, we'll [also] expand that whole outdoor sunbathing [area] like you're at the beach into different parts of the house, into the front patio and then into the lawn out front.
“You know what I'd love to build it into? What the Abbey used to be before SBE took it over and turned it into what it is now, a nightclub,” he adds, referring to the nightlife and hospitality corporation that bought the popular WeHo bar in 2006 (though two years ago, SBE sold it back to its previous owner). “What it [used to be] was this really cool, eccentric, eclectic place where you could hang out, eat, drink, meet your friends.” Gerson hopes the Birdcage can eventually provide a similar space for the Westside's LGBT community.
The Birdcage, 2640 Main St., Santa Monica; (310) 396-2469, thebirdcagesm.com.