What makes a restaurant gay-friendly?

Putting dining gaydar to the test

It’s Friday night in Atlanta and four of us are creeping forward in the valet parking line at Uncle Julio’s Casa Grande (1860 Peachtree Road, 404-350-6767, www.unclejulios.com). For years, the restaurant has been the gay place to be seen on Friday night.

We watch as mainly young men head toward the door of the restaurant. I’ve already resigned myself to feeling like a nursing-home resident here, although my friends feel no such discomfort. I decide not to confront their denial.

The valet opens our door, announcing, “I should warn you there’s an hour wait for a table.”

“No!” I bark. I’m not about to wait an hour for mediocre Tex-Mex food, watching everyone kill their taste buds with margaritas while I sip tonic water. No scenery is that good.

We swing through the parking lot and hit Peachtree Street. Our mission is to visit one of the city’s restaurants where gay people tend to congregate. Notice that I didn’t say “gay restaurants.” Whenever I’ve identified a place as such, the owners got angry. I assume they don’t want straight people to feel excluded. Please get over it for a few hundred words.

After some discussion, we head to Roxx Tavern (1824 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-892-4541). My friends are not enthusiastic. It’s not because they don’t like the place — quite the contrary. It’s not unusual for them to eat there several times a week. If any restaurant in the city qualifies as gay and good, Roxx is it.

As we enter, I remark to my friend Ryan that this seems just the opposite of the crowd we saw outside Uncle Julio’s. “It’s an older, bear-y crowd,” I say. He winces.

Earlier, Ryan composed a list of the four most important characteristics of a gay restaurant, all of which Roxx displays:

1) A place to be seen.

2) Cheap prices, meaning lower-than-low prices. (I guess that means high-end gay restaurants don’t exist, really.)

3) Gay staff or, at the minimum, staff that can fake it.

4) Very near to our Midtown Mecca. The feeling: We just can’t be bothered, and we feel safe here.

Notice that Ryan doesn’t even mention the food. Over the years, I’ve likewise found actual dining usually secondary to the mise en scene. That was true with the Gallus (R.I.P.), probably the city’s first gay restaurant. It was a converted turn-of-the-century funeral home on Cypress Street. The ornate setting, inside and out, was pure camp and the food bordered on boil-in-bag. And then there was the fact that Cypress Street, until its gentrification, was where you went to find a gay prostitute.

Roxx is far from boil-in-bag. But it does meet the usual requirement that comes with relatively low prices: comfort food. More often than not these days, that means a menu of burgers. Joe’s on Juniper (1049 Juniper St., 404-875-6634, www.joesatlanta.com) is even more burger-centric than Roxx. Hobnob (1551 Piedmont Ave., 404-968-2288, www.hobnobatlanta.com) also features a lot of burgers, including my favorite made with ground lamb. Comfort can also mean a reasonably priced steak at (unpredictable) Cowtippers (1600 Piedmont Road, 404-874-3751, www.cowtippersatlanta.com).

The epitome of gay-magnetizing, Southern-style comfort food has long been the Colonnade (1879 Cheshire Bridge Road, 404-874-5642, www.colonnadeatl.com), virtually across the street from Roxx. Its legendary mix of gay men and blue-haired widows, all munching fried chicken and overcooked vegetables, has thinned out like the hair of us regulars over the years. A similar food spot is the popular but mediocre Roasters (2770 Lenox Road, 404-237-1122, www.roastersfresh.com). These, of course, are not drinking spots like Roxx and Joe’s.

I’ve often wondered why high-end gay restaurants don’t exist here. One reason without doubt is the same primary wish to socialize that also creates gay bars. For higher-end meals, gay people go to pan-sexual venues like Empire State South and One Midtown Kitchen. Also, like single straight people, we don’t have families to feed, so dining out at an inexpensive place is often cheaper than cooking for one. As for the comfort aspect specifically, maybe we’re all mama’s boys, yearning to be fed her cooking again, as Freud might speculate. (Remember Peggy at the Silver Grill?)

There are, though, a few gayish restaurants serving more adventurous food. Einstein’s (1077 Juniper St., 404-876-7925, www.einsteinsatlanta.com) is an example. It was one of the first to feature the sine qua non of the most popular gay restaurants — a large patio where one may drink, see and be seen. Einstein’s is also where I first learned to declare, “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth is a gay restaurant’s owner scorned.” When I suggested that readers limit themselves to a salad and a fun time on the patio, the owners put up a sign urging people to call Creative Loafing to complain. Elliott Mackle of the AJC experienced the same. But the food is better now and the patio still ranks high, as it does at Joe’s and Cowtippers, which the same company owns.

Another example of a gay-appealing restaurant that’s improved a lot to my taste is Gilbert’s Café & Bar (219 10th St., 404-872-8012, www.gilbertscafe.com). It’s located next door to Blake’s, a popular gay bar. Middle Eastern cooking heavily influences the eclectic menu here. Recently I scarfed down a huge bowl of the lamb stew and then devoured a serving of baklava probably meant to feed eight gay men with six-packs. The quirky atmosphere of the tiny restaurant and bar, from the lighting to the upholstery, is still fun.

My friends and I settle into a booth at Roxx. It’s crowded, even with the large, enclosed patio, but on a cold evening the see-and-be-seen place is inside. As soon as we sit down I see at least six people I know. Atlanta’s gay community is still something like a small town and if you go anywhere gay you’re just as likely to see people who hate you as like you. Or embarrass you because of former sexual peccadilloes. No wonder we can so readily alternate a smile with the disassociated look of a zombie.

Everyone at the table orders a burger except me. I’ve ordered them in the past — I like the bacon-cheddar one — and found them better than the usual around town. Tonight, I decide to try the evening’s special, a pork shank over mashed potatoes with green beans. The meat is super-tender and juicy, but, weirdly, reminds me of turkey. I pass a piece to my friends and everyone agrees. I don’t care, really. It’s delicious. I take about a third home.

I’m thinking of Ryan’s statement that in such restaurants gay people feel “safe.” We certainly are not as estranged from the dominant culture as we used to be. Indeed, the urgency to be fully assimilated has become intense enough to create what I frequently call a new closet of contrived normality. Many gay people want to disappear our difference altogether.

But that’s not going to happen any more than it has with African-Americans. Like them, gay people obviously share characteristics, if only same-sex attraction, that bring us together socially. Civil rights do not mean invisibility.

I’m the only one at the table who orders dessert — a slice of cake similar to tres leches, but drier. It’s not the best but it tastes sweet and reminds me that I’m really happy to be gay.

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