Empire Fall Dinner

Fresh Looks

New views of gay fave San Francisco; the Appalachian gayborhood in Asheville; and Chicago, the City of the Big Shoulders and Bigger Appetites
SAN FRANCISCO: Queer Wonderland

The proud world capital of homo- and transexuality continues to live up to its reputation. Dear San Francisco, we always leave our hearts with you, and depend on you to show us a good time. With the warm weather on its way, now is the time to drift over to the City by the Bay and soak in all of its queer-filled sunshine—which of course shines on well after the sun goes down.

A wise starting point for joining the San Francisco LGBT mix is the Mission District. Head to Valencia Street and browse the cute shops between 16th and 23rd Street, where you can pick up very cool and affordable locally made art at cooperatives like City Art Gallery (828 Valencia St, 415-970-9900, cityartgallery .org) and Fabric8 (3318 22nd St, 415-647-5888, fabric8.com). Even if you’re not buying, they give glimpses into artistic innovations, plus City Art has a collection of Katie Gilmartin’s cool prints inspired by lesbian pulp novels.

Vintage clothes shopping is golden these parts. Duck into Retro Fit (910 Valencia St, 415-550-1530, retrofityourworld.com have India take photos) whose racks are filled with timeless classics, and hosts a t-shirt bar (make your own!) and fabulous beauty counter of wigs, moustaches, make-up and much more.

Grab a bite at one of the corridor’s delicious restaurants, like yummy Tacolicious (741 Valencia St, 415-626-1344, tacolicioussf.com), a locally owned tacos-only shop. If it’s spice you crave, try amazing south Indian dishes at Udupi Palace (1007 Valencia St, 415-970-8000, udupipalaceca.com), where they will vary the heat to your tastes. Beretta (1199 Valencia St, 415-695-1199, berettasf.com) is a more romantic Italian dining option, which is always full for good reason.

Great people watching awaits two blocks west on busy Dolores Street, where you’ll find countless cool shops and restaurants, and gorgeous old Victorian houses that lend the area some photogenic history. The hillside Mission Dolores Park, between 18th and 20th Street, is a must on a sunny day. Spread out a blanket under a shady palm tree and take in the captivating views—of both the city and the lovely, often scantily clad locals.

It’s easy to be seduced by the open sexuality and gender-identity freedom found in glorious San Francisco. Whereas in other cities one must investigate to find where the lesbians are on which nights, here the dilemma is deciding which crowd of ladies to join.

Anyone in town will point to the Mission’s Lexington Club (3464 19th St, 415-863-2052, lexingtonclub.com) as the anchor of all things lez, seven nights a week. Rightfully so—its free parties, theatrical events, and Friday $1 margarita nights draw a stunning array of eye candy with regularity.

The other mainstay is Wild Side West (424 Cortland Ave, 415-647-3099 have India take photos) in Bernal Heights, just south of the Mission. Lesbian-owned and open since 1962, the locals love kicking back here for its casual attitude and lush back garden, filled with plants and quirky objets d’art. This neighborhood is now the main ’hood for lesbian families, and Cortland Avenue is a great strip that appeals to those with nesting sensibilities.

Though not technically a gay bar, El Rio (3158 Mission St, 415-282-3325, elriosf.com) has emerged as a hotspot for attitude-free queer parties. One of the biggest is the totally fab 60s and soul-music monthly party Hard French (hardfrench.com) happening every first Saturday from 2-8pm, drawing a dazzling gender spectrum. Don’t forget to duck into the $1 photo booth for a picture with the homemade backdrop, used as fundraisers for local charities. Like several rotating parties, Hard French’s “season” is March through November, timed with outdoor-patio season.

Another El Rio tea dance fav is Mango, one of the more racially mixed girl parties in town with lots of Latin, hip-hop and other funky beats, held every fourth Saturday from 3-8pm. Daytime Realness is a fun third-Sunday party at El Rio, with themed food and drag shows.

Trannyshack is San Francisco’s infamous drag performance institution that regularly shocks and delights the throngs who flock to it, usually at The Stud (399 9th St, 415-252-7883, studsf.com), though it travels. Here is the queen bee of all drag scenes, be they avant-garde, high camp, or totally lowbrow. They are a must to complete any SF trip.

Don your dance shoes to keep up with the hardcore grooves at Cockblock (cockblocksf.com), every second Saturday at the Rickshaw Stop (155 Fell St, 415-861-2011, rickshawstop .com). Made for lesbians but friendly enough for the fellas, Cockblock has great DJs spinning a mix of 80s, electropop, hip-hop, and disco. Qbar (456 Castro St, 415-864-2877, qbarsf.com) hosts 13Licks (13licks.com) on Tuesdays, a mostly girls party that attracts pretty faces and serious dancers in the Castro.

Visit TheQueerist.com for the latest local party rundown, or hit TheBoldItalic.com for a nice mix of lesbian-oriented cultural happenings. Michelle Tea’s RadarProductions.org has a calendar of free queer-author readings, some held at the public library. The Bay Area Reporter (the city’s LGBT newspaper) and the San Francisco Chronicle’s SFgate.com also forecast the latest parties and events.

Planning ahead is a vital aid to honing in on what’s most important for your sure-to-be ravishing San Francisco visit. It may seem a bit overwhelming, but a little homework can help a lot in the great queer wonderland.

CHICAGO: Flavor and Flair

It’s been compared to many cities, but Chicago is a truly dynamic metropolis strong on personality and rich with culture. This burg of 2.7 million clocks in as the fourth largest on the continent. It’s also home to some of the country’s best restaurants, architecture, art and public transit, as well as a thriving queer population—home one of the biggest Pride events in the world (June 24 this year). In other words, Chi-town is second to none in global appeal.

Yet something about Chicago feels like a real network of communities. Office and residential towers mingle throughout the city grid, and there is a sense of rebirth in once forgotten industrial areas like the West Loop, which has an impressive set of restaurant rows lining West Randolph, South Halsted and side streets.
One of the standouts comes with a bit of national TV fame: Girl and the Goat (809 W Randolph, 312-492-6262, girlandthegoat.com) founded by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard. The innovative culinary combinations are the main reason it’s tough to get a table, but the space itself—built with reclaimed or recycled materials in a stripped-down former warehouse—is gorgeous and romantic. Reserve far in advance and prepare to splurge.

Of course, Chicago is arguably most famous for one very hearty food that shouldn’t be missed: deep-dish pizza. One of the many Lou Malnati’s or Giordano’s outposts will definitely make you as “stuffed” as your pizza. But for something more mind-blowing, head to Lincoln Park’s Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder (2121 N Clark, 773-248-2570, chicagopizzaandovengrinder.com
) for their famous pizza pot pie, whose delectability defies words. Bring your appetite and plan on coming during off-peak meal hours lest you face a serious table wait (no reservations at this old-school joint).

Barbeque is another local trend, and it’s hard not to catch whiffs of char-grilled smoke in this carnivorous town. One of the best is Barn & Company (950 W Wrightwood Ave, 773-832-4000, barnandcompany.com). Join the locals inside or on the covered patio at this friendly, surprisingly affordable Lake View smokehouse, home to freshly pulled pork and ribs with  your choice of sauces, local draughts and delicious cocktails (like “redneck sangria” with bourbon).

Head north to find the queer scene. Lake View East is prime real estate for gay joints (which are plenty lesbian-friendly), and serves as the gateway to the well-known gayborhood of Boystown. It would be easy to spend an entire visit flirting your way through this area, home to a great shopping mix along Belmont, Clark and Broadway. An entire afternoon could be lost trying on hats at Goorin Brothers (3243 N Broadway, 773-348-4287, goorin.com) and browsing vintage shops and new clothiers like P+L Boutique (2956 N Clark, 773-248-3758, pandlchicago.com).

If it’s a cocktail you covet, duck into retro-chic Scarlet (3320 N Halsted, 773-348-1053, scarletbarchicago.com) to hang with the locals. The Closet (3325 N Broadway, 773-477-8533, theclosetchicago.com) has been a women-owned mainstay since 1978, while Sidetrack (3349 N Halsted, 773-477-9189, sidetrackchicago.com) draws crowds for its drink specials and parties.

Lake View East also is a bumping area for the boogie, so stick around for late-night dancing at Roscoe’s (3356 N Halsted, 773-281-3355, roscoes.com) and Berlin (954 W Belmont, 773-348-4975, berlinchicago.com). Pretty people abound—just check their calendars to find the ladies’ nights (or at least avoid the guy nights).

Andersonville is giving Boystown a run for the more sophisticated queer scene. True, it’s further north and not that close to the train lines, but it’s worth your time. Kick it off with a visit to the Chicago institution known as Women & Children First (5233 N Clark, 773-769-9299, womenandchildrenfirst.com), with the noteworthy tagline, “Shop as independently as you think.” In addition to many worthwhile books, the store has an fab handmade card selection, and cute literary gals behind the counter.

Grab a cupcake from the gay-owned A Taste of Heaven bakery-restaurant (5401 N Clark, 773-989-0151, atasteofheavenchicago.com), where you can also enjoy delightful weekend brunch, and light lunch and dinner menus. Gay restaurant chain Hamburger Mary’s is just across Clark Street, with fun events at Mary’s Attic and the sports-bar-ish Mary’s Rec Room.

Women-owned Parlour (6341 N Clark, 773-564-9274, parlouronclark.com) is one of the newer bars to open in Andersonville. A friendly, mixed scene, this is a welcoming place to kick back sans cover charges. A few blocks away is T’s bar and restaurant (5025 N Clark, 773-784-6000, tsbarchicago.com), where outdoor seating makes the place a summer hotspot.

It may be an understatement to say that you’ll never go hungry in a food-culture town like Chicago. Fortunately there’s a ton of walking to be done, as well as bike rentals along scenic Lake Michigan and plenty more sporting events to join (even if it’s just watching the Cubs at Wrigley Field).

Food and music festivals, block parties, parades, and live theater also happen all year, with many shows held outdoors in warmer weather. The latest copy of Windy City Times, the city’s longtime gay newspaper, or Chicago Reader should help figure out the best to-dos.

And in case you find yourself needing a hearty morning meal, head to legendary Lou Mitchell’s (565 W Jackson Blvd, 312-939-3111, loumitchellsrestaurant.com) restaurant and bakery in the Loop—helping nourish Chicagoans back to health since 1923. Some might even say it is, like Chicago itself, beyond compare.

ASHEVILLE: ‘Sheville’ in the South

There is a thriving hub of lesbian activity happening deep in the mountains of western North Carolina. Asheville has long been a liberal-minded hotspot in the middle of an otherwise conservative neck of the woods.

Nowadays, this gorgeous college city has a reputation for a strong queer community and is making strides towards marriage equality that are rippling around the Bible Belt—including the “We Do” movement by the Asheville-based Campaign for Southern Equality (southernequality.org). The group is fighting to reject a state amendment banning same-sex marriage being put to a vote this spring, and taking innovative live, online, video and PR measures to gain momentum.

“Sheville”—the nickname the ladies give Asheville—is home to a network of out and proud gay women. Some of them even banded together back in 1997 to launch Sheville.com, an online e-gathering place for western North Carolina women to share resources and meet up. Gayashevilleonline.com is a similar directory for gay-friendly businesses, events, and activities; as is ALPsofasheville.org, or the Association of Lesbian Professionals, which keeps a list of social groups and retreats.

A trip to Asheville will surely appeal to travelers seeking scenic beauty, and there is plenty of that with the huge Nantahala National Forest less than 20 miles southwest, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park a short drive due east.

But inside this city of just under a half-million people, a relaxing getaway awaits. Much of the action and good people watching is in Downtown Asheville along Patton Avenue, College Street, and Biltmore Avenue. You’ll see the name Biltmore all over the place in these parts, since that’s the moniker of “America’s biggest home” (and the area’s biggest tourist draw), the stunning Biltmore Estate (1 Lodge St, 828-225-1333, biltmore.com).

It’s easy to find delicious Southern cooking in Asheville, where you may encounter menus offering “meat and three,” as in, a meat entrée and three sides. One of the best is Mayfel’s (22 College St, 828-252-8840, mayfels.org), a gay-welcoming neighborhood place with Cajun-inspired delights like po-boys, beignets and fried green tomatoes. A fancier version is a few steps away at  Tupelo Honey Café (12 College St, 828-255-4863, tupelohoneycafe.com).

Gay-owned Zambra (85 Walnut St, 828-232-1060, zambratapas.com) is a beautifully dynamic restaurant, with a tapas-heavy menu that changes nightly. For a Mexican or Spanish feast, you won’t go wrong at either Mamacita’s Grill (77A Biltmore Ave, 828-255-8080, mamacitasgrill.com) or Chorizo (1 Page Ave, 828-350-1332) in the Grove Arcade. Rosetta’s Kitchen (116 N Lexington Ave, 828-252-0738, rosettaskitchen.com) serves up deliciously creative vegetarian and vegan meals daily starting at 11 a.m.

West Asheville, on the far side of the French Broad River, has emerged as another hipster gayborhood. Along Haywood Road, you’ll find a mix of cool eateries and funky shops, top among them is the Admiral (400 Haywood Rd, 828-252-2541, theadmiralnc.com), which pulls off a divine, seafood-heavy menu in a dive-bar kind of space.

Downtown is dotted with cool shops that can fill many days of exploration. Malaprops Bookstore and Café (55 Haywood St, 828-254-6734, malaprops.com) is a can’t-miss, longstanding local favorite, while LOFT (53 Broadway, 828-259-9303), an acronym for Lost Objects Found Treasures, is a store where you could easily get lost browsing the eclectic inventory.

Upon cocktail hour, Asheville offers plenty of options ranging from pubs to dive bars to thumping clubs. Live music in a New Orleans-inspired lounge sets apart gay-owned Tressa’s (28 Broadway, 828-254-7072, tressasdowntownjazzandblues.com), home to Asheville’s finest martini. Head to legendary Smokey Tavern (18 Broadway, 828-253-2155) for a cool jukebox, pool, strong drinks and friendly bartenders.

Get your groove on at Club Hairspray (38 North French Broad Ave, 828-258-2027, clubhairspray.com), a festive bar with a pool table and big dance floor—though it is a “club” that asks around $5 “membership fee” (really just a cover charge that filters out riffraff). Scandals is the other main gay nightclub (11 Grove St, 828) 252-2838, scandalsnightclub.com), located in the Grove House and hosting weekend drag shows (kings and queens).

Asheville lives up to its nickname of “Beer City” by being home to a dozen microbreweries. To get a guided sampling of them, reserve a space on one of several Asheville Brews Cruise tours (ashevillebrewscruise.com) that depart daily from downtown locations.

In a gay-friendly town like Asheville, it’s easy to find a gay-friendly B&B, such as the eye-catching pink Cedar Crest Inn (674 Biltmore Ave, 877-251-1389, cedarcrestinn.com). Another gorgeous inn is Beaufort House (61 N. Liberty St, 828-254-8334, beauforthouse.com) in the Chestnut Historic District, where you’ll find gardens and waterfalls within walking distance.

For current listings of outdoor activities, tours and events check out AshevillePurplePages.com and RomanticAsheville.com. They can show you why enchanting Asheville earned the nickname “Paris of the South.”
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