by Michael Bowen

Dempsey's Brass Rail

909 W. First Ave. * 747-5362

Sometimes stereotypes walk right into view. On a recent visit to Dempsey's, the first person who brushed past me in the entryway was a drag queen in a flimsy silver sequin top, gray miniskirt and black clutch purse.

She was 6-foot-4.

A guy in a Buffalo Sabres hockey jersey approached with his girlfriend, accidentally bumping into the jumbo queen.

"Don't touch me -- seriously, ever ..." the guy snarled. Then he broke into a grin and gave the female impersonator a big hug, burying his face in all those sequins.

People who look askance at the so-called "gay lifestyle" -- extra credit, by the way, if you can define whatever the "straight lifestyle" is -- tend to dismiss gay bars as dark, humorless places where men in leather growl come-ons. Gay people, they say, are all so ... different.

The Thursday night crowd at Dempsey's was different, yes -- definitely not under the bell curve. But what strikes a visitor to Dempsey's is that, unlike so many bars -- where people whisper and avert their eyes, hunched over their drinks like characters in some depressing French painting -- this is a happy, vibrant place.

Faces here are smiling, varied, freed from constraints. From the two guys dressed like lumberjacks, to the AARP matron in sheer black top and slit dress, to the girl in tie-dye leaning over a pool table, to Eric the cheerful bartender ("What can I get ya, hon?"), there's a convivial sense of forget-what's-out-there, I'm-in-here-now at Dempsey's.

As owner Larry Brown says, "We're a gay bar, but we're straight-friendly."

Upstairs, DJ QT ("Quantum Thrust") has dancers of all orientations gyrating until 4 am on the weekends to the pulsating beat of Gwen Stefani, Peter Schilling, Seal, Kylie Minogue and yes, Britney. The wooden floor, the speakers, the neon -- it's flashy and impressive.

Downstairs, meanwhile, during a karaoke party, a stunning woman in enormous raven-black pig tails pirouettes onstage. Whirling and lip-synching, she can bring it. And she knows she can bring it.

So does an entire table-ful of lesbians, who dutifully line up for the privilege of stuffing dollar bills into Ms. Pig Tails' cleavage.

They were self-conscious at first. But somewhere among the down-on-all-fours birthday spanks and the drunken whooping to Prince lyrics and the obligatory young woman in a white wedding dress crooning along to Madonna, the sisters let their shyness go. They were still a little nervous, but they were smiling.

The Merq

706 N. Monroe St. * 325-3871

"We're an alternative bar," says owner John Reid. "I don't want gay people to get the wrong idea, because we're not just for gays. This is a bar for all kinds of people."

Reid has transformed his coffeehouse into a nightclub with $80,000 in refurbishments, resulting in a very comfy and enlarged upstairs area decorated "San Francisco-style" with marble-topped wrought-iron tables, brick fireplaces and cozy nooks.

The Loft

410 W. Sprague * 455-7260

The Loft is flying low, under the radar -- OK, it's a dive -- but owner Lannie Kiehn has added a second level, expanding capacity from 35 to 150. There's "a jukebox for the older crowd" on the lower level -- couples in their 60s sit close together, men still in their work uniforms -- while upstairs there's a dance floor, pool tables and (soon) a karaoke machine. "We're a gay bar," says Kiehn, "but we're also a downtown neighborhood bar."

Mik N Mac's

406 N. Fourth St., CdA * (208) 667-4858

"We're a non-discriminatory bar, " says bartender and bouncer Kami Kiele. "We get mixed crowds here, predominately straight," she says.

With DJs spinning "hip-hop, alternative, techno, '80s music, Top 40 -- a little bit of everything," and drink specials every night (try the Surfer on Acid), Mik N Mac's provides CdA with its own little slice of bohemian living.

Publication date: 2/03/05

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About The Author

Michael Bowen

Michael Bowen is a former senior writer for The Inlander and a respected local theater critic. He also covers literature, jazz and classical music, and art, among other things.