Photo above: Baz Here Photography
Are gay bars redundant? Should we mourn their decline or celebrate our ability to socialize in heterosexual spaces? For the most part, the collapse of a distinctly queer urban topography speaks to growing cultural acceptance and integration. So when actor Garrett McKechnie announced he was opening a gay bar in downtown Los Angeles, the news was met with mixed feelings. But for McKechnie, gay bars have never been simply about refuge. "Gay bars are not [just] there now so we can feel safe ... they are there so we can be together," he says.
Community is at the heart of Bar Mattachine, McKechnie's swanky gay cocktail bar named in honor of one of the earliest gay organizations, Mattachine Foundation (later renamed the Mattachine Society), which was founded by Harry Hay in Los Angeles in 1950. In some ways, Bar Mattachine is McKechnie's way of giving back to the queer community all that gay bars have given him.
McKechnie grew up in Salem, N.H., but the aspiring actor later moved to the Big Apple because of the gay bars, and in them he found "a community I identified with."
A life of auditions and regional theater was funded by nights pouring cheap drinks at Barracuda, Chelsea's ever-popular gay bar. Bartending quickly became less about making ends meet and more about satisfying creative urges. Seven years later, McKechnie moved to the West Coast, where he ended up in the "straight" cocktail world.
"It wasn't my idea to open a gay bar," McKechnie admits. Instead, he says it was the brainchild of a woman he met at CrossFit. At first he wasn't sold on the idea, but then he checked out the proposed space.
It transported him back to the Barracuda, the birthplace of not just his career but his sense of queer belonging. He had just one demand: "If the bartenders know about spirits and how to balance cocktails, I'm interested." Bar Mattachine was born as a watering hole that pays impeccable attention to cocktails.
The bar also pays homage to both Hay and the community he fostered, which, along with the lesbian organization Daughters of Bilitis, gave refuge to queers before the fabulous movements of the 1960s and '70s. Back then, there were no crop tops, no rainbow flags, no Pride parades. Instead, there were tweed jackets and few career women. Hay's legacy also lives on in cocktail form -- served with a marasca cherry for $12 (see recipe, below).
McKechnie has created a nurturing environment for LGBT mixologists and bartenders. "I wanted to provide gay men and women with a creative outlet," he says. He's developed a drinks program that excels on all fronts. The menu changes seasonally, with beverages providing a tongue-in-cheek tribute to history. Pershing Square Fix pays homage to a popular 1930s cruising ground, while Rudi's Downfall, a seasonal cocktail, is named after Hay's closeted boyfriend, Rudi Gernreich. According to the menu, after one sip of this drink, Rudi "wouldn't be able to pretend" he was straight. These juicy tidbits of queer history, served with delicious and sophisticated cocktails, make Bar Mattachine a charming and important venue.
Recipe: The Harry Hay
Honoring Harry's formative years in downtown Los Angeles's gay bars of the '30s and '40s -- and his noted love of whiskey -- McKechnie's Harry Hay mixes 100 proof straight rye whiskey, vermouth, bitters, and maraschino cherry liqueur.
2 oz. Rittenhouse Rye 100
0.5 oz. Dolin Rouge Vermouth
0.25 oz. Amargo-Vallet Angostura
0.25 oz. Gabriel Boudier Maraschino Liqueur
Stir, strain into a coupe glass, garnish with caramelized lemon oil and a marasca cherry.