Grazing: Dinner and drag at Lips Atlanta
'It looks like Liberace threw up in here.'
You straight people crack me up. Remember when you used dollar bills like anxiety pills — flipping them at the kids to shut them up or filling the collection basket at church? Now look at you. You're lining up to deposit your cash into the cleavage of drag queens, most of whom tower over you like gigantic, shimmering, hissing, shade-throwing creatures from Planet Mannequin.
That was the scene last Friday at Lips Atlanta, the new drag dinner theater on Buford Highway. The place, one of four in the country (New York City, San Diego, and Fort Lauderdale), is ripe with camp — kitschy taste taken to such detailed extreme that it becomes ... fabulous. As my friend Bobby said, "It looks like Liberace threw up in here." (That's a good thing.)
The red-and-gold dining room is hung with huge chandeliers and revolving disco balls. Wherever the gaze falls — on the drag queens or the walls — the eyes are blinded by glitter. It's like staring at the sun.
On Friday and Saturday nights you have the choice of a 6:30 or 9:30 dinner seating, each followed by a show. "Do people really eat at 6:30?" I asked when I called for a reservation.
"Yes, and I need to tell you we do not allow separate checks. We do not split bills." I didn't believe the voice on the phone and hung up.
People think I'm lying when I say we felt like the only gay men at the dinner show. But via email one of the club's owners, Yvonne Lamé, told me that I wasn't hallucinating.
"About the straight crowds at Lips ... God bless them," Lamé said. "Yes, in all of the four Lips locations, they are the bulk of our customers. Straight women love Lips. We are a great place for celebrations, birthdays, and bachelorette parties, so they flock to us." Why wouldn't they? As fucked up and misogynistic as gender roles remain, it's great to see drag queens hack them up.
Yvonne did tell me that the Sunday Gospel Brunch attracts large numbers of Jesus-praising gays, swilling endless mimosas and waving dollars.
Understand that drag, unquestionably mainstreamed by RuPaul, isn't just about female impersonation and musical performance. It's also about quick, bitchy wit. On Friday nights, the show is hosted by the renowned "Bitch of the South," Mr. Charlie Brown. Over 60 and still gorgeous, she is best known for her 14-year run as host of Charlie Brown's Cabaret. The club was upstairs at Backstreet, the feverish 24-hour disco that closed in 2005 after 29 years. Even back then, apparently sadomasochistic straight people often showed up at 2 a.m. to commit hara-kari with Charlie's tongue.
All servers at Lips are drag queens who also perform in the week's different shows. Our server was the voluptuous Justice Counce. She worked 10 years at the San Diego Lips before relocating here.
"Where is your scale?" I asked her. "Justice never appears without a scale."
"Honey, the only scale I care about is balancing this," Justice said, holding her tits. "And this." She bent over and slapped her butt. Drag queens love their tits.
Most of the dining room is filled with long community tables and Lips' menu is like something you'd be handed at a hotel banquet. We didn't get much of a taste of things. I just couldn't face appetizers like calamari, chicken tenders, and butterfly coconut shrimp, one of my most despised dishes on the planet. Entrées? Pasta primavera, grilled chicken Caesar salad, blackened salmon, and pan-roasted filet mignon to name a few. The service is banquet-style, too. Dishes arrive sporadically, apparently whether you're sitting at a table for three (like us) or 50. It's no different from any dinner theater I've been to.
I chose the Mr. Charlie Brown Chicken Roulade. How could I resist the surely intended irony of putting the word "chicken," slang for a young thing, next to Charlie's name? My friends both ordered the Regina Ryan Peach Bourbon Glazed Pork Chop. Regina's known as the "Diva of R&B" at the bar Burkhart's.
The roulade was perfectly thawed and heated. The chicken wasn't dry and the filling was all there: mozzarella, spinach, and ricotta. The menu says the roulade is finished with a Marsala and mushroom sauce. Barely. The accompaniments were yawners: mashed potatoes and sautéed broccoli. For the love of Ru, if you're going for glamour, even campy glamour, don't make us eat the vegetable that has become a plate-filler as common as rice and beans in Tex-Mex joints.
The pork chop was better. Bobby declared it bland as he gnawed the bone bare and complained that it was too small for the $15.95 price. I have to agree that the peach-bourbon glaze was insufficiently intense, but it sure beat my roulade's taste. The chop was served with mac and cheese allegedly flavored with smoked bacon. Watery. "It tastes like Kraft," Bobby barked. He should know.
All entrées, except a couple of steaks, are less than $20 and apps are mainly less than $10. So you won't terribly mind the mediocre food, considering that the experience is the main draw.
The show, $7 (the cover on Friday and Saturday), was fun. Lips takes its name from most drag queens' main art: lip-synching songs of divas. For example, Justice brought down the house with Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody." Charlie Brown performed a couple of numbers, including the infamous "Fuck Me" by Wendy Ho. People streamed to the stage during the performances to fill every bodice with cash. Six straight girls at a nearby table stayed on their feet the entire time, dancing as if choreographed.
As charmingly obscene as Charlie Brown's "Fuck Me" was, her tongue wasn't nearly as dicey as in the old days. Of course, this was a politer, earlier crowd. Her main task as host was to entertain a line of women celebrating birthdays. Each was handed a paper crown and a cupcake with a candle, then brought up on stage to be seated and photographed. Charlie shot a few lines their way and off they went. Frankly, it became tedious. And where were the birthday boys?
We signaled Justice for our bill. She had agreed, after we begged, to give us separate checks. When I asked the manager earlier why they couldn't divide checks, he said, "Hey, our servers are drag queens. They are not mathematically inclined. And, really, that takes a lot of time they just don't have." OK. So you probably need to carry cash or use the ATM on the premises. Ridiculous.
We hugged Justice goodbye, thanking her for keeping us safe from the straight people. Really, I'm not sure accepting straight people has been such a good idea, considering how they are appropriating everything fabulous in gay culture. Oh wait, they've always done that.