New York City’s population of open lesbian bars is about to double with the re-opening of Henrietta Hudson, the city’s longest-standing gay bar. After being shut since March 2020, Henrietta’s (as it’s often referred to) will open with an outdoor parklet, followed by a completely redone interior, nearly unrecognizable to the thousands of patrons who’ve danced inside the dark club since it debuted 1991.
“We used to be known as the Madonna of lesbian bars because we were constantly reinventing ourselves,” says Henrietta’s owner, Lisa Cannistraci. “Now we’re Cher — the lesbian bar that wouldn’t die.”
Cannistraci never planned to get into the bar business. She always considered herself an activist first and an entrepreneur second. But keeping one of America’s last lesbian bars — a recent count puts the total number at just 15 nationwide — in business is certainly a form of activism. After a 15-month closure, made possible by a generous agreement with Cannistraci’s landlord and a $43,000 crowdfunding campaign, Cannistraci decided to enact a new era for Henrietta’s, pulling expertise from sommelier, mixologist, and restaurateur friends. “Everything’s collaborative,” she says.
What to expect? A vibe that leans into a wine-and-cocktail bar, with charcuterie and cheese, along with a new interior design that nods to a midcentury-modern feel. (Despite it’s similarity to many trendy Manhattan bars, Henrietta’s, Cannistraci promises, will offer a price point for everyone and will absolutely remain a “queer-human bar built by lesbians.”) The wine list will focus on bottles produced by women and POC, and vegan dips, like black-eyed-pea salsa, will be sourced from Cowgirl, a longstanding women-owned establishment on Hudson St. “We’ll serve the best quality of everything,” Cannistraci promises. True to the Zimorcore movement, a new merch shop will also feature live mannequins in the windows, reminiscent of the 1980s aesethetic in queer bars that once clustered below 14th Street.
And the most noticeable change is its most visible: a custom-designed parklet, built in New Jersey and transported to Hudson St. to complement the streetside seating. In 2021, queer visibility in Manhattan may not seem radical, but opening an al fresco lesbian bar in the same spot where windows have traditionally been draped to avoid curious (and potentially violent) passersby signifies a major shift in queer culture’s entrance into the mainstream.
“I worked on marriage equality, knowing it would be bad for business,” Cannistraci says, chatting in her recently renovated apartment above her bar, where she has lived for decades. “I had to hustle, and I had to make my business more interesting.” As gay marriage became law, acceptance for same-sex couples increased. Being visible as a gay couple at a restaurant or bar, especially in progressive cities like New York, no longer felt taboo, and meeting a queer partner no longer required spending time in the same dedicated safe spaces. The years following meant queer bars, usually lesbian bars, were shuttering across the nation, leaving roughly two dozen open when the 2016 election occurred. Trump may have been bad for America, but Cannistraci says she knew he’d be good for Henrietta’s.
“I felt really bad, but I knew my bar was going to be so busy, there would be lines outside, because people were afraid and people ran back into those safe spaces,” she explains. Business increased year after year in the Trump era, and 2019 was the busiest year ever for Henrietta Hudson, thanks, in part, to New York City’s World Pride. People needed community, and people of all marginalized sexualities and genders would pack the dance floor into the early hours of the morning. Cannistraci also kept the bar open on weekdays to host community events like The L Word trivia nights, “dyke karaoke,” and dance parties to benefit SAGE, which supports LGBTQ elders via social services. “Thank God I was open then,” Cannistraci says. “It’s a safer climate now for everyone in the queer community, but if Biden wasn’t elected, I’m not sure I’d open out on the street. Even in the West Village.”
Now, Henrietta’s sidewalk — and soon, its interior — will be the place to be, Cannistraci promises. In the vein of inclusivity, she emphasizes that Henrietta’s isn’t solely a lesbian bar, but a “queer-human bar” where everyone is welcome. “Inclusivity isn’t even a decision, it’s a reflex,” she says. She’s eager to see people mingling again, various generations of queer folks exchanging stories, phone numbers and sipping cocktails in New York’s longest-living lesbian bar.