By Joanna O’Leary
Photos by Joanna O’Leary
The gay nightlife community in Galveston can be summarized in one famous Sister Sledge lyric: We are family.
Of course, in some ways it shouldn’t be surprising that the various players, entertainers, dancers, venue owners, and patrons should know each other (and well), as Galveston is a relatively small weekend resort town with an even smaller permanent population. Walk into a gay bar any given Sunday (as this writer did), and it becomes immediately apparent that there is a definite “regular” contingent. But that doesn’t mean out-of-town visitors will be excluded from the camaraderie. Quite the contrary, in fact—visitors (of all orientations) are welcomed with open arms and sometimes the offer of a complimentary group shot.
Begin your evening with a sunset stroll along the warm Gulf waters before savoring some of the seafood and Italian specialties, respectively, on offer at star restaurants such as Gaido’s (with their award-winning pecan pie and deep-fried shrimp balls) or Grotto Ristorante (where you should try the snapper Siciliano). If you are with a “classy” partner or pal who insists on some culture before you indulge in bacchanalian carousing, enjoy a few romantic arias at the The Grand 1894 Opera House or sing along at one of the three musicals staged each summer at the beautiful Moody Gardens.
Then it’s time for a nightlife crawl at some of Galveston’s friendliest, sassiest, and most entertaining (not mutually exclusive characteristics, by the way) gay spots. First stop is the newly opened Rumors Beach Bar, where patrons of all ages sip tropical cocktails from a shiny center drink station against a backdrop of sleek blue lighting and posters of pin-up girls. The outside deck is perfect for people-watching on Seawall Boulevard. If the weather turns nasty, there are plenty of amusing diversions inside—a pool table, weekend drag and dance shows, and on Mondays, even red beans and rice cooked by the owner himself. All by your lonesome? You won’t be after an hour at Rumors, for it’s more than likely one of the bartenders will take you under his wing and introduce you around.
Abandon the pleasantly mellow vibe permeating Rumors for the more raucous Third Coast Bar. Before and after the drag shows, DJs spin house music and pop in the cavernous space; also try hitting the club on one of their themed party nights. Third Coast has garnered special accolades for its cheap, strong drinks ($5 Martini Madness!) as well as its zealous crowd that’s eager to dance.
Next, take yourself and the gang to Robert’s LaFitte, which has been serving Galveston’s LBGTQ residents for over 50 years (and should therefore be considered hallowed ground). The interior decor is appropriately magical: Christmas lights, red-leather bar stools, American and rainbow flags hung side by side (as they should be!), and a Betty Boop theme manifested in various forms. On weekends, the stars of the nightly comedy, dance, and music performances exchange hugs and smooches (and sometimes even a fireball shot) with loyal fans before retiring to the dressing room. If you’re lucky enough to be invited backstage to observe the hair-and-makeup routines of nationally known performers such Cici Ryder and others, you will see that these lovely ladies are more serious about glamour than the Kardashians.
The welcoming, playful atmosphere of Robert’s LaFitte makes it difficult to drag (hah!) yourself out of there before midnight, but in the spirit of diversity, take a short walk to 23rd Street Station. 23rd Street Station boasts equally attentive service and a gregarious (albeit more low-key) crowd. On any given night, entertainment options include Texas hold ’em, karaoke, exotic dancers, and shows featuring show-biz legends such as Misty Valdez. Plus, locals enjoy hanging out at this welcoming space during the traditional 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. happy-hour time. In the next few months, the Station will also be showcasing a newly refurbished patio with barbeque on offer during the holidays and available to rent for private parties. Finally, those looking for love will be heartened to know that several couples about to celebrate multi-decade anniversaries claim 23rd Street Station as the site of their first meeting.
To refuel after all that revelry and soak up some of those powerful cocktails, end the night at SkyBar (open until 11 p.m. on Friday and midnight on Saturday) for killer spring rolls, shrimp tempura, and maybe just one sake bomb. Those with heartier appetites should try their seared tuna tataki or their creative Americanized sushi options such as the Galveston Sunrise or Keemah Sunrise rolls, both heavy on the avocado, mayonnaise, and fried bits.
Whew. Your whistle is whetted, your feet hurt, your belly is full, and your new friends are texting you to make sure you got home safely—and asking when you’ll be back in Galveston. Not soon enough.
Joanna O’Leary is a freelance food and travel writer based in Houston. Her exploits are chronicled on brideyoleary.com.