At this time last year, Lisa Menichino was in bed sipping a constant cycle of bourbon and frozen push pops — often mixed for the sulkiest, sweetest drink she could imagine — while fretting over the future of her bar. Today, the phone at Cubbyhole on a picturesque West Village intersection, 281 West 12th Street, won’t stop ringing as regulars are eager to reserve a seat outdoors at the city’s only open lesbian space to reopen.
After Menichino’s month or so of brooding during 2020’s first shutdown in March, messages from guests reminded her of Cubbyhole’s unique status: It’s one of Manhattan’s last two lesbian bars. A place where the queer community could meet partners, grieve, and gather safely. Like many lesbian bar owners struggling to sustain their businesses, she started a GoFundMe to help cover expenses at the shuttered space. Cubbyhole reopened last summer, and closed when the weather cooled down mid-December. Customer-designed T-shirts helped raise additional funds, and even as the taps were closed and the gate was locked, Menichino felt the community’s excitement for Cubbyhole’s imminent return. In fact, a couple got engaged in front of the closed bar on a frigid February day. Those moments keep Menichino going, despite all the restrictions, including patrons not being allowed to order at the bar, at a lesbian bar. The table-only rules didn’t squelch the enthusiasm of more than 300 people who visited for Cubbyhole’s first night in 2021.
“Lesbians need a place to go,” Menichino says, chugging coffee while ensuring all seats, reservations, and hand sanitizers were ready to go for Cubbyhole’s grand reopening after a months-long hibernation. On Thursday, April 8, regulars, newbies, and tourists eagerly snatched up reservations, selling out the bar on a sunny day ideal for outdoor drinking. The bar is back with minor tweaks and improvements: A new frozen machine offers daiquiris, margaritas, and frose. A wooden outdoor dining setup built by volunteer lesbian carpenters safely seats a dozen socially distant guests, and people can order hot dogs or packaged sandwiches with cocktails, as food orders are required with alcohol sales these days.
At a four top, 31-year-old Brooklynite Vanessa Carlone and three friends, all in leather jackets, convened at a sidewalk table, ordering cans of Dyke Beer (a new Brooklyn-brewed saison that supports saving lesbian spaces) and reminiscing over the multiple times a week they’d hang out in a packed corner of the bar. They needed to be back for opening day and start their cycle as regulars once again.
“This is the only lesbian space in New York, it’s a safe space for us to come to,” Carlone says. “You always know you’ll be around a community. It’s special. It’s such a vibe.”
Wives Lynsey, 45, and Mariel, 35, had also been eager to return to Cubbyhole, counting down the days until the “epicenter” of their social lives reopened. The two have been visiting the bar separately for over a decade, and in recent years, after meeting in a softball league, the convivial spot remains the couple’s regular hangout.
“I missed the space,” Mariel says. Unable to reach the bar by phone, which was busy all day, Lindsay walked over from their apartment nearby to secure a seat off the waitlist.
“It’s a staple of the community,” Lynsey says. “It’s a real comfortable place to be. You want to be friends with everyone. You kind of have to be, it’s so small.” Even with social distancing, the couple was happy to have their own table on the sidewalk, remembering nights crowded inside the 500-square-foot bar, and past Pride celebrations outside on the same corner — when drinking outside the bar was frowned upon.
With only two other lesbian bars in New York City, Henrietta Hudson, which will reopen this spring after closing last March, and Ginger’s, a Brooklyn dive that has yet to reopen, Cubbyhole’s endangered status doesn’t go unnoticed. “We’re just so happy it’s still here, and here for a long time,” Lindsay says. “There’s not another place like it.”
Over the sounds of ABBA and Dolly Parton, while longtime and beloved bartender Deb Greenberg rushed between tables, several patrons voiced their relief that Cubbyhole still exists — that the bar and its history served as reminders of memorable (and sometimes hazy) nights out pre-pandemic and as an essential queer gathering space.
Nina, 28, and their girlfriend Mariana, 24, were regulars at Cubbyhole before the March shutdown (and have selfies in the green bathroom to prove it). They donated to the bar’s fundraiser to help ensure its survival. The couple called in sick to work when they heard Cubbyhole was reopening, and drove into the city from Mamaroneck while taking turns calling for reservations until they eventually arrived in time for a last-minute table.
“It’s pretty important for us to keep specific spaces for queer women, for the community,” Nina says. “If you want to experience queer life in the city, it’s here, it’s intimate. We need to support this bar as much as we can.”
Cubbyhole is also often a stop for queer tourists eager to take part in NYC’s limited-but-thriving lesbian scene, and visitors Serena Bell, 36, and Clarissa Burton, 33, were no exception. On day four of their trip from Chattanooga, the first-time New York tourists were surprised how early everything closes now (11 p.m. as opposed to 3 a.m. back home in Tennessee), but they were still eager to take part in the city’s gay nightlife.
“We made reservations at Cubbyhole as soon as possible,” Bell says. “And we [expletive] love it here.” No gay bars exist in Chatanooga, making vacations the optimal time to feel part of a community. “It’s just nice to feel welcome, and be near a lot of people like you,” Bell added.
“I’m just so excited, Burton says. “I’ve known about this place for a long time, and it’s just nice to see it and be in a space where you’ll be accepted.”