The significance of the Stonewall Inn is a settled matter. No overview of the gay-rights movement would be complete without a thorough account of the rebellion that followed a police raid on this Greenwich Village bar on June 28, 1969. Inevitably, many hundreds of New Yorkers thronged to the bar this Wednesday to celebrate the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision. Inevitably, it will be packed this weekend, with many hundreds more building a pilgrimage to the dive into their Gay Pride Weekend itineraries. But a crucial question remains: Is it a good place to get a drink?
Discussing the past and future of the gay bar, June Thomas passes along reports that the Stonewall of the ‘60s was “a regular hell hole”—an unsanitary, overpriced, superlatively tacky firetrap. Now, I can imagine that such a scene had its pleasures (in a John Waters kind of way) and also its acute pains (in a don’t-drink-the-water kind of way). Has time eroded the Stonewall’s charms? Does its place as an icon of American social history encourage or inhibit proper socializing? Last night, Slate investigated the scene at 53 Christopher Street. We are, all in all, glad we went but remain chagrined to have missed the two-for-one happy hour.
Approaching, the patron eyed a straightforward neon sign and a notice signaling an A rating from New York City Department of Health. Entering, he first confronted the Daily News headline regarding the riot—“Homo Nest Raided….” Turning left, he entered a room that combines the modest dankness of so many old-school Greenwich Village establishments with the ambient charm and minimalist decorating sense of a frathouse taproom. The ceiling feels lower than it is. If it weren’t for the historical photos on the walls, it could have been the Beta Theta Pi house at Dartmouth.
Beer. None on draught. The selection of 13 bottled beers resembles that of an Applebee’s experiencing delivery issues; best bets are Guinness, Bass, and Sam Adams.
Wine. “Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Syrah, Merlot.”
Spirits. The most significant deviation from dive-bar standards concerns the Stonewall’s notably thin collection of whiskeys, particularly bourbons. This shelf space has instead been given over to a diverse array of flavored vodka. Note also the display of Malibu Rum variations (pineapple, melon, etc.) on the shelf at the downstairs bar, adjacent to the Red Bull mini-fridge.
How is the pool table? The pool table is disgusting. Its felt is so thoroughly layered in beer stains that I wanted to report the management for neglect.
Are there purse/coat hooks on the face of the bar? Criminally, there are not.
Are there any other amenities? There is a phone-charging station that I couldn’t manage to operate ($1.99 for unlimited charging in a locked drawer).
Erratic but cordial. My first drink was a Tanqueray gimlet on the rocks. The female bartender mixed it with a combination of fresh and bottled lime juice, and it delivered a tang that made its $8 price tag seem entirely fair. My second drink, prepared by another female bartender, was a Tanqueray gimlet on the rocks. It was not quite as well balanced as the first. I am tempted to attribute the variance to this second bartender’s technique: She poured gin over ice and then perfunctorily squeezed in one lime wedge. “That’ll be $11,” she said. Oh, but the first one was $8. “That was a mistake,” she said, with a smile, and then resumed her work of dumping high volumes of Crystal Palace vodka into glasses of fruit juice for the benefit of kids in their early 20s.
Last night, any visitor who went to Stonewall hopeful of chatting with any of the bar’s septuagenarian regulars would have been sorely disappointed. I get the sense that on occasions like Gay Pride Weekend, Ruggeri’s Paradox comes into play here: It gets so crowded that no one goes.
The median age seemed to be 24, and women slightly outnumbered men. The bar seemed like a good place to meet an attractive young woman, even if you weren’t one yourself. The vibe seemed terribly wholesome and tremendously friendly, as if the patrons—despite being thoroughly drunk and joyfully noisy—were determined to behave respectfully while on a field trip. I found myself mildly offended that I didn’t get cruised.
On the ground floor, it was karaoke night, and the patrons duplicated the rhymes of ’90s hip-hop with finesse, making lyrical adjustment to suit their own tastes (e.g., “Bro, I got to maintai-ain: It's Pride Weekend, and I’m going insane”).
On the second floor, a club-music dance party transpired at a low boil. The crowd was energetic but neither densely packed nor remotely freaky-getting. I don’t quite trust any dance floor that it is possible to cross in a straight line.
All in all, the mood resembled that of a frosh-week LGBT mixer at, I don’t know, B.U.? Doubtless the atmosphere will be somewhat different at tonight’s Lesbo-A-Go-Go dance party (“Come make your own history”) and Sunday’s Bear Happy Hour ($3 beer, free hot dogs).
There are two just-barely-clean bathrooms downstairs, one of which is wheelchair accessible. There are two just-barely-clean bathrooms upstairs. There are, to the disappointment of bargoers who expect a lot of random hookups and vivid raunch from their gay-bar experience, neither condom machines nor glory holes in any of these just-barely-clean bathrooms. The lines for these bathrooms are short.
If you are at the Stonewall Inn and you want a good beer, then open a tab at Kettle of Fish, which is just a few doors down, and shuttle back and forth all night between your friends and your IPA.
If you are at the Stonewall Inn and you want a proper cocktail, approach the bartender and ask for directions to Little Branch.
If you are at the Stonewall Inn and you’re not, like, just out of college, you will likely find your gay-bar-going needs better satisfied by the nearby Cubbyhole, especially on Tuesday, when the gals serve up $2 margaritas until 1 a.m.
And yet, if you are at the Stonewall Inn, you are probably having fun. The kids, with their Crystal Palace-and-cranberries, converted the historic site into a rec room. The place is just a bare-bones theme park, but the theme—“Where Pride Began”—gets by on its own merits. The most famous gay bar in the world is in its way the happiest place on earth.