After losing his job performing drag last spring, actor Olaf Eide saw his luck change one night in July, while having a drink at Guyer’s restaurant and bar on the Upper West Side. He spoke to the owner, Cindy Guyer, and proposed an idea.
“I met Cindy, and I was like ‘Hey, I’m a drag entertainer. Let’s get something going here.’ And she was down,” said Eide.
Given the effect of COVID-19 on the hospitality and performance industries in Manhattan, restaurateurs and performers are looking for ways to adequately survive. With limited outdoor dining and performance spaces and no safe indoor options, restaurants like Guyer’s have worked to increase business by partnering with drag queens for outdoor dinner performances.
Eide, who performs as Lola, was doing a steady show weekly at Black Barn Cafe in Chelsea, up until the pandemic hit in March. The cafe has since closed. Now, at Guyer’s, Eide’s back on-stage doing shows, organized by the restaurant’s bartender Ivaldo Da Silva.
“I was working here as a bartender once a week,” said Da Silva. “Cindy introduced me to these drag queens she met and said, ‘Do you want to organize these shows?’ And I said, ‘Sure, why not, we need entertainment.’ The pandemic has been so hard on every industry. People are intense these days. They need a safe distraction from that,” he said.
A survey from the New York City Hospitality Alliance, a non-profit that represents restaurant and nightlife businesses throughout the five boroughs, found that nearly 50% of restaurants were unable to pay their rent in July. In May, city council passed legislation to offer restaurant owners temporary relief, including restrictions on third party food delivery services, updated tenant protections and suspension of rent renewal requirements.
In addition, the New York State Restaurant Association, an advocacy organization for restaurant owners, in a September survey, found that 64% of restaurant owners are likely to close by December without direct government relief, and that 55% of Manhattan restaurateurs say they expect to have no choice but to close before November.
Many gay bars and clubs in Manhattan, which once hosted weekly and even nightly drag shows and have since closed, do not anticipate reopening after the pandemic, according to a June New York Times article. The impending closures would put drag queens out of gigs they would have otherwise returned to once indoor dining resumed. Therapy, a beloved Hell’s Kitchen drag bar posted on its Facebook page on August 19, “It’s with tears in our eyes that we have to admit it is highly unlikely that Therapy will ever reopen…We love you.”
Eide said it is becoming more common to see non-LGBTQ specific bars and restaurants hosting drag performances.
“The whole goal, as far as the restaurant is concerned, is to increase their volume of guests and the check average,” said Eide. Although Guyer’s didn’t previously offer entertainment, Eide said drag queens are a “hot commodity, especially in New York, people love drag.”
The drag performances at Guyer’s have been met with a lot of positive feedback, according to Da Silva, who hopes they can continue despite a current hiatus due to internal shifts within the restaurant.
Actor Tony Collins has benefited from the drag queen restaurant partnership since the city shutdown. After his plans to play an ensemble role in a cruise line production of Kinky Boots fell through in early March, Collins relied on his drag persona Sasha VanGuard—a character he’d been performing at LGBTQ bars semi-regularly before the pandemic— for employment.
“I 100% had more opportunities to do drag than musical theater,” said Collins, who explained that performing in drag makes it easier to adhere to safety measures, because the shows are outdoors and drag queens can wear face shields. “You can tell everyone in the audience they have to wear a mask while queens are performing,” he said.
Since March, Collins has performed outdoors as Sasha VanGuard at Guyer’s, Now and Then NYC bar in Brooklyn, along with a drive in drag show at Bel-Aire diner in Queens.
“Some of these bars, which would have never had drag performances, are now going down the avenues of having them, and it’s been pulling the queer community to a different part of the city,” said Collins.
Fresco’s Cantina, a gay-owned Mexican restaurant in Astoria, offered weekly drag brunches prior to the pandemic. Since May, the restaurant has transitioned from in person drag shows to offering drag queen delivery service or “drag-livery,” where drag queens perform one number ($15 per song) on the sidewalk as they deliver the items.
With indoor dining resuming at 25% capacity, beginning on September 30, the future of outdoor drag shows is uncertain.
Brian Martinez, owner of Fresco’s Cantina, is hoping to continue working with the drag queens as the city eases back into indoor dining, but is unsure if it will be possible financially.
“It needs to make sense for me. It needs to make sense for the girls. And they obviously live off tips also, so if it’s only 25% capacity that might not be very feasible,” said Martinez. “There’s still logistics things we need to think about. We might do indoor performances and offer drag-livery simultaneously, so if people don’t feel comfortable coming to the restaurant, they can do it delivery.”
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the future of New York City hospitality, drag performers like Lola and Sasha VanGuard hope that the relationship between New York City restaurants and drag queens continues to prosper.
“Performing was like coming back. Like a return,” said Eide. “The first show we opened with was so powerful, because it was a celebration of, look, here we are. We’re still here. We’re making through this together.”
(Featured image from Instagram @frescoscantina)