Loud laughter and pop music bounced off pinstriped walls as bright pink hues spotlit the lively pub crowd on an October night around midnight in Morningside Heights. There was no dance floor, but people danced anyway, college students twerking to Ariana Grande’s 7 Rings alongside those with grays. Everyone ignored the televisions playing highlights from a tennis game. As the music faded, excited murmurs grew in anticipation for the main act of the night. Saturday nights at Suite Bar NYC are for drag shows.
Divinity Banks wore her Beyoncé-inspired silver detachable dress and sparkling black boots, prompting many to swing their stools around to watch her power strut onto the small stage. The opening note of One Night Only by Jennifer Hudson plays, and everyone hurrahs.
Suite, located on the corner of Amsterdam Avenue and West 109th Street, is a popular neighborhood gay bar. When Suite faced danger of shutting during the pandemic, like many restaurants and businesses, the community came together to pull them through, said co-owner Sujit Balachandran.
“They came every day,” he said, to have a drink outside the bar. “They spent their money and didn’t complain.” And despite the big financial hit from shuttering for three months in the past year while still having to pay rent, Suite is recovering with a slow increase in customers and revenue. Balachandran says the bar now serves up to 150 people every night.
He says Suite, which opened in 2004, is the only Indian-owned gay bar in New York City. It took the place of a previous gay bar called Saints, which closed in 2003. Balachandran, a regular at Saints, felt the need to keep the space open for LGBTQIA people. “It was the best thing to do,” he said. “It became a spot for people to feel comfortable.”
Over the years, the bar has become a haven for the Upper West queer community, bringing together people of different cultures and backgrounds under one roof, even throughout the pandemic.
“This was a godsend during the pandemic,” said Philip Ambrosi, who has been a regular at Suite ever since its opening. He frequents the bar several times a week and even met his partner of 11 years there.
As soon as the city eased restrictions as part of the Phase Two reopening plan, Ambrosi says he and his friends gathered outside the bar, which was renovated to accommodate outdoor dining. After staying home for months, being out with his community was refreshing for him. “It kept me sane,” he says. “I’ll always support this place because of that.”
Uday Dhar, another loyal customer, has been going to Suite for the past 17 years. Despite the cold, he was there to show his support, bundling up next to the outdoor heaters. “It was important to come out and socialize with people,” Dhar said. “It helped us get past those dark winter months.”
He says that for older customers like him and Ambrosi, going back to their friends at Suite was a big comfort through uncertain times.
When tragedies strike, like the pandemic, Dhar says those in the queer community can feel more vulnerable, stressed, and lonely than the non-LGBTQIA population. This is where spaces like Suite can fill gaps for support, said Adam Blum, the founder and director of the Gay Therapy Center, a LGBTQIA therapy service.
“We’re an under-resourced community when it comes to social and family support,” Blum said.
For Dhar and his friends, Suite is also a safe place to engage in meaningful conversations about other cultures and communities. Their discussions range from places to visit in India to the decriminalization of homosexuality in the country.
Balachandran’s Indian roots are also visible in the fast-food restaurant he owns, which is attached to the bar, called Bombay Frankie Roti Rolls. It was important to him and his business partners that their customers further experience and understand their culture through food.
Reconstructing two businesses to allow for outdoor dining and accommodate for COVID-19 safety protocols put a lot of financial strain on the owners. They pulled from their savings at a time when there was no revenue. Then, the bar staff quit to relocate out of state, unable to keep up with the cost of living in New York. Balachandran and his business partners took shifts to keep the doors open.
“We had to do everything ourselves,” Balachandran says. Though government assistance brought in $60,000 from a Paycheck Protection Program loan, he says they needed up to $250,000 to keep up with their rent and insurance payments.
Despite this struggle, Balachandran feels fortunate to have survived the worst parts of the pandemic, unlike hundreds of small businesses in New York that shut down.
Mohammed Shaik Hussain Ali from SALGA, a South Asian LGBTQIA organization in New York, said that gay and lesbian bars have been increasingly shutting down due to the COVID-19 crisis. Popular spots like Therapy, located in Hell’s Kitchen, and the Westend Lounge on the Upper West Side closed permanently, while other historic bars in the city like the Stonewall Inn and Julius’ Bar resorted to crowdfunding to stay open.
But as the city continues to reopen, things are looking up for Suite and its queer community. With new staff and returning customers, the bar is edging its way back to its former glory.
The bar has seen a steady increase in customers throughout October, said Brett Temple, a bartender there. Though they are not yet close to pre-pandemic numbers, the bar now attracts around 75 to 100 people a day, he said, making it an exciting time to be at Suite. “People are wanting to pick up where they left off,” he said. “The energy and the spirit” that the crowd brings into the bar has been inspiring to the workers, he added.
And being back indoors is a huge step in the right direction for this community that thrives on performances and shows. While karaoke nights, drag shows and stand-up performances have already returned, Balachandran says he is also planning to bring back crowd favorites like open mics nights and drag attack, a competition where two drag queens face-off with the audience voting on a winner.
Divinity Banks, the drag queen who has performed at Suite for 11 years, is also grateful to be back indoors. The COVID-19 health crisis moved her performances online to Facebook and Instagram, and she eventually got to perform in some socially distanced outdoor shows. While Banks made the best of the situation, she says she missed actively interacting with her audience. And out of all the locations she’s performed at, Banks loves coming back to Suite to see familiar faces.
“I feel safe at all times,” she says. “There’s so much support and love.” While Banks currently performs at the bar once a month, filling in for other drag queens on occasion, she hopes to return to Suite as a regular performer once all shows resume. “We’re trying to rebuild,” she adds.
Whether it be for the energetic performances or the affordable drinks, customers old and new are finding their way to Suite.
“A lot of people come in and say, ‘I’m glad this place made it,’” said Temple, who was a customer at Suite before he started bartending in August. “It’s diverse, in a fantastic way.” He says one of his favorite things about the bar is seeing “different groups converge at the booths.”
The bar’s layout was intentionally designed to bring people together, Balachandran says. With open booths and no partitions that keep people turned away from one another, customers at Suite are encouraged to speak to the stranger at the next booth.
Regular customers like Ambrosi and Dhar say they’ll continue to frequent Suite for the friendships they’ve cultivated and what it’s meant to them over the years. “The community is very stable,” said Dhar, referencing the regulars at the bar.
Later in the night, the music and lighting changed in preparation for the younger crowd that rolls in, looking for a dance party. Seeing the next generation of the LGBTQIA community celebrating their identities brings Ambrosi joy. “I’m glad that the world has become more accepting,” he says.
“It’s like a second home,” said Balachandran, who has seen the queer community double in size at Suite since its opening. “It doesn’t matter what you are,” he said, “it’s an open venue.”
This story is the work of a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Other news organizations are welcome to publish this story as long as they adhere to these guidelines.