There’s a lot to be said about the state of queer bars lately, particularly in non-male sections. The number of lesbian bars in the United States has fallen from 200 in the 1980s to fewer than 30 today, it is documented Lesbian Bar Project, a documentary and campaign to preserve these spaces. Simultaneously, a wave of new bars and parties emerge in the post-pandemic landscape.
Blake Colea former manager of Oakland’s Hopscotch bar and fried chicken shop, who also ran the pop-up Hot House, spent three years preparing to open her uptown bar friends and family. One day after receiving final inspection approval in March 2020, COVID-19 on-site housing orders arrived in the Bay Area. Cole scrapped all her plans and began selling bottled gin martinis to take away, along with expertly mixed classic cocktails and new flavors such as coconut oil-washed Japanese whiskey, served with coffee-infused Cynar and non-alcoholic spritzes , peppered with homemade “Campari.”
“As a bar manager, the whole goal is to enjoy a cocktail in the glass that we chose for it,” says Cole. “I’m very grateful that we’ve built a customer base through the to-go offer alone, because the cocktails stood on their own and when we opened our doors, the queer community took over our space as well.”
For the past three years, Cole and her team have been busy collecting awards from institutions like the James Beard Foundation and the 50 Best Bars in the World, while nurturing a community with events like celebrity-style bingo nights and craft markets (think vintage , herbal medicine and tooth jewellery). On the Precipice of a tumultuous month-long tour that will see Friends and Family’s popular queer speed-dating events take place as a pop-up series in Los Angeles and New York – complete with “’90s NASCAR racing style merch—I called Cole to talk about riffing the classics and running a queer bar today.
What inspired you to come up with “Friends and Family”?
I always knew I wanted a place of my own. I’ve worked for many different people and learned what I wanted to do – and what not. Being a woman in this industry entails so much nonsense that there is no better term for it. I wanted to create a place where not only did I want to be, but where people wanted to work and where they could feel safe.
At the same time as I started the bar, I had a late coming out. I was immersed in my queer identity in a strong way, and because the bar is so personal to me, a lot of elements of the queer community I’ve built and queerness flowed into me.
Explain the concept behind the separate “Friends” and “Family” cocktail menus?
The “Family” cocktails are our twists on the classics, with a slight twist or two depending on how a family member liked the drink. They always stay on the menu. Grandma’s standard is our signature martini—it’s a Plymouth Gin Martini served with a hint of lemon, the signature cocktail my grandma used to have. Mom’s Rosy Cheeks is a gimlet, my mom’s favorite cocktail, and has rose hips added to the simple syrup because she always gets rosy cheeks drinking a gimlet.
The “Friends” drinks are our opportunity to explore, and these can be found on and off the menu more. All cocktails are named after a place or person. For me, going to a bar or eating together is one of the most human experiences we can have – I’m incredibly sentimental and a hopeless romantic, so it’s all about the stories we have for each other. My family means a lot to me and they’re the first people I’ve learned how to make a cocktail with and for them, so given the bar’s name it seemed a natural place to start.
What does it mean to you to be a queer community bar?
You can hire queer people and have queer people around you, but you have to make the effort to honor them and cater to their unique needs. We host vendor markets where we highlight people from the queer community, comedy and storytelling nights, and our popular speed dating series. There are lots of little things we do to make our queer space a safe place, like putting a notice on the menu asking customers to use gender-neutral pronouns for our staff, creating the opportunity not to be just a bar, but an educational space where people who don’t belong to the community can come and improve through it.
I’ve always wanted to have a consistent “charity aspect” because there is so much power in a bar. The Daily Affirmation is a mini cocktail shot and 100% of profits go to different people raising funds for gender affirming surgery or care each month. We have many people on our staff who have undergone top surgery and people are constantly posting GoFundMes or Venmos on Instagram, so helping individuals in our community directly is a given. We’ve made a twist on a white Negroni, fun five-spice daquiris, and mezcal-infused drinks infused with house coffee. Sometimes we get a liquor sponsor to help fund us and make a cocktail based on their liquor, or we make some up on the fly depending on what we have left that day or what fresh juices or syrups we have that we made. We have this incredible collection of vintage glassware and the Daily Affirmation comes in a little cocktail glass – it really fuels our vintage shopping addiction.
Tell me about the idea of queer speed dating. How did it come about and why are you taking it with you on your journey?
Once people were able to come together again, we felt like we had to do something to encourage people to connect again. Some people didn’t know how to meet new people after being apart for so long. Some people haven’t had enough time to even see what it’s like to meet people in bars, especially in the younger queer community. There, together with my co-creator Meg Strait, the idea for queer speed dating was born. Everyone is so used to meeting online, so we’ve helped them step into the real world connection very slowly.
We tell people at events that a “love affair” is the icing on the cake. This is more about building a community. It’s about being in a space with other queer people and being vulnerable enough to put yourself in there. There was an amazing response to that. A whole group of friends formed; Some people even started a bowling league. People appreciated that it was a safe place for them to be outside and we ended up being facilitators for conversations that can be stimulating.
We saw how successful it was and how much fun we would have in making this connection point available to other communities, so we decided to travel around and take it with us everywhere. We’re starting with Los Angeles and New York, but the dream is to eventually expand to smaller places with a less noisy or open community.
In June there is always a large number of queer events related to Pride. How do you reconcile that interest with the reality of being a queer community that’s in the pub 24/7?
We are certainly not holding anything back and are waiting until June. We do sporadic queer events throughout the year, but we’re trying to make the June event a bit more intense because we want to capitalize on the moment when people are looking forward to being out and about for the whole month. I think June is just the actual start of summer here, so there’s an added celebratory feel to it.
As the owner, how do you assess the condition of the lesbian bars today?
It’s just so exciting that we’re part of the conversation again and I hope the bar count just explodes. For years I’ve researched all of these women, lesbian, and queer spaces in San Francisco that were historic and incredible – and there’s very little reporting, footage, or photos. There is so much rich history here, and if the community is given the opportunity now to tell those stories, bring them to light, and move things forward, it’s incredible. Ultimately, the more we talk about the queer community and its normalization in places outside of the big cities, the more it benefits everyone. We’re places where people can feel safe and seen, and that’s just the most beautiful thing in the world.