The glimpses of history are subtle but vital. A handful of photos dot the cushy back room, though little photographic evidence exists of the June ’69 uprising that put this bar on the map, and jump-started the gay rights movement. But The Stonewall Inn‘s (53 Christopher Street) importance goes beyond those two days of rage; it lies in the fact that it existed so proudly in the days that preceded and followed. Conversations overheard during a recent visit confirm that individual insurrections are every bit as important as the famous one: “I lost my virginity in the back room!” “You served me my first drink!”
“It’s Stonewall! You’re talking about the most famous gay bar in the world!” Kurt Kelly, one of the three co-owners of the newly revived historic landmark of queer liberation, is incredulous when asked why they deemed it worth the risk to overhaul a piece of gay Village history that had seen better days. Kelly, a curmudgeon with a large heart and extensive ties to the neighborhood (15 years bartending at the neighboring Duplex), along with Duplex colleagues Bill Morgan and Tony DeCicco, bought the struggling bar late last year and renovated it over several months, reopening it earlier this month. A face-lift has done the storied old girl wonders: Dark varnished wood has replaced garish green and gold paint at the bar, while warm amber lighting and Tiffany-shade accents connote “comfortable conversations” rather than “tawdry tricks.”
Other changes are more subtle: An upstairs area, formerly for dancing, is not yet open to the public, though plans are underway to host drag, comedy, and variety shows there soon. The crowd now constitutes a wide range of ages and types, the owners taking pains to not privilege one niche crowd over another. And while bottled beers are the typical $5 domestics and $6 imports and there are no draft beers at all (“a pain in the ass,” Kelly says of installing the necessary equipment), the mixers truly shine, with proper brands like Skyy, Bacardi, Beam, and Cuervo populating the well. You’ll have to get your Popov on elsewhere.
The owners, along with mainstay bartender Tree (no weeping willow, he’s been a Stonewall presence since the late ’60s and has been interviewed for publications from the U.S. to Brazil about the bar’s reopening), are working on a special concoction to be dubbed “the Rebellion”—a martini mix of Godiva with Stoli vanilla, rimmed with Oreo cookie crumbs—but are still perfecting the proportions. More important to them than the particular drinks is the restoration of dignity to a club whose importance has been forgotten by younger and newer residents. “We wanted to preserve the Stonewall name,” Kelly explains. “It should be taken care of. People who appreciate that will come in.” In the meantime, Stonewall’s present “soft launch” will be followed by a formal opening party June 1 to kick off Gay Pride Month. With politicians and out celebs on the invite list, and bartenders poached from Julius and the Duplex comprising a veritable who’s who of longtime Village servers, the venue’s well placed to remind revelers of the sacrifices made by those who fought for their rights all those years ago.