← Back

Visibility and Community: LGBTQ+ History in Greenwich Village Bars and Restaurants

Every June, New Yorkers and people from around the world gather in our city to celebrate Pride Month and honor the memory of the Stonewall Riots, three nights in 1969 that helped launch the modern fight for LGBTQ+ rights. And while the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street is indeed a landmark of that movement — one officially designated by New York City and a national monument as well — it is not the only one to highlight that struggle in our communities.

Our map of the Greenwich Village Historic District features more than 40 key locations that have played key roles in LGBTQ+ history. Among those are several eating and drinking establishments that helped increase visibility and build community — not just Stonewall and Village Preservation plaque recipient Julius’ Bar, both landmarked thanks to our efforts, but also three more spots worthy of note.

Stewart’s Cafeteria and Life Cafeteria

Sheridan Square was the location of Stewart’s Cafeteria at 116-118 Seventh Avenue South (building still extant between Christopher and West 4th Streets) and Life Cafeteria beginning in the 1930s. Both based their operations on the idea that allowing gay men and lesbians to gather at their establishments would also attract late-night crowds that would come to gawk. 

Stewart’s Cafeteria ca, 1933 courtesy the New York Public Library Digital Collections

Stewart’s, part of a chain of cafeterias, was particularly noteworthy for having large plate-glass windows open onto the sidewalk, revealing LGBTQ lives that were typically kept hidden from view by both social convention and legal restriction. The gossip magazine Broadway Brevities reported in 1933 that the restaurant had become “a gathering spot for that nocturnal clan, the third-sexers [who] convene there nightly, parading their petty jealousies and affairs of the heart.” (The publication used even more explicit and unfortunately stereotypical language in its description of the site.) 

In 1935 the manager of Stewart’s was convicted of operating a “public nuisance” and “disorderly house,” and of “openly outraging public decency” by allowing objectionable conduct within and large crowds outside. Much of the testimony centered on gender nonconforming dress and patron behavior there. Stewart’s closed within a few years to be replaced by Life Cafeteria, which became an essential entry point into the larger gay world, attracting young people who didn’t have anywhere else to go and bringing them into the gay community. Both establishments inspired local artists to represent the scene, including Paul Cadmus’s 1934 work Greenwich Village Cafeteria.

Paul Cadmus, Greenwich Village Cafeteria, 1934, courtesy the Museum of Modern Art

Uncle Charlie’s

Uncle Charlie’s, a gay bar at 56 Greenwich Avenue (Perry Street), opened in 1980. Standing out from other, older gay bars in the Village with its modern interior and plethora of video screens, Uncle Charlie’s attracted a young professional, MTV-generation gay crowd. It became one of the most popular gay video bars with one of the busiest happy hours at this time, when homosexuality was becoming more socially acceptable and the AIDS crisis was just emerging. Uncle Charlie’s also helped to solidify recording artists Madonna, the Pet Shop Boys, and other musicians as New York gay icons.

Uncle Charlie’s, via the Uncle Charlie Remembers Queer Memories of New York Facebook page.

Shortly after midnight on April 28, 1990, a homemade bomb went off at the bar, injuring three. It was also one of the first terrorist attacks in America by a radical Islamic group, a conspiracy of 12 men led by El Sayyid A. Nosair, who attacked the bar because he objected to homosexuality on religious grounds. The incident was part of a larger plan to target a series of New York City landmarks; Nosair was sentenced to life in prison.

The night of the April 28 attack, the newly formed group Queer Nation took to the streets, with some 1,500 protesters blocking traffic and chanting “Hey, hey, ho, ho, homophobia has to go.” The organization was founded only a month prior at the present-day LGBT Community Center by four founders involved in ACT UP New York to take action against homophobia and increase LGBT visibility; its name was one of the first reappropriations of the term “queer.” 

Uncle Charlie’s closed in 1997, when the gay bar community had moved its orbit uptown to Chelsea and the rent had increased by 50%.

Rubyfruit Bar and Grill

Located in an old carriage house, the Rubyfruit Bar and Grill at 531 Hudson Street (Charles Street) was a lesbian hangout opened by Debra Fierro in 1994 and named for the 1973 lesbian feminist novel Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Inside, the restaurant featured exposed brick walls, antique mirrors, and Victorian fringed lamps. The business appears in Patricia Cornwell’s thrillers, hosted nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navratilova’s retirement party, and was frequented by actress Liza Minnelli and the songwriting duo Ashford and Simpson. Tammy Lynn Michael, who “married” Melissa Etheridge in California before same-sex marriage was recognized by the state, also worked as a bartender at this location. 

Rubyfruit Bar and Grill

By the 2000s, the bar and grill was suffering due to higher rents as well as gay men and lesbians moving to neighborhoods beyond Greenwich Village such as in Brooklyn. In 1994, “there wasn’t this liberation yet for lesbian women, so it became a haven with private, intimate dinners, great wines, a place to hold hands and feel comfortable being out and having dinner,” Fierro told the New York Times. In 2008, however, when the restaurant changed hands and direction, “they no longer need to have their own place. They can go anywhere and do whatever they want. It’s kind of a good thing, I guess.”

Visit our Greenwich Village Historic District: Then & Now Photos and Tours Map to explore more LGBTQ+ history as well as other important sites throughout the historic district

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *