Phoenix Bar in the East Village has survived 9/11, the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and Superstorm Sandy. Now, because of the novel coronavirus, the bar has had to shut its doors for the first time.
“With blackouts and hurricanes and everything, we’ve been there,” Phoenix manager Garrett Ford tells GO. “We’ve brought in battery-powered speakers to play music and marauding candles to have lights, but this is the first time we’ve been completely closed.”
Phoenix Bar has been a mainstay of the East Village LGBTQ+ community since opening in the late 1990s. Originally known as The Bar, the venue reopened as Phoenix Bar after a fire in the original establishment. In 2011, the bar was purchased by its current owner, Brenda Breathnach, making it the first lesbian-owned gay bar in the East Village since Meow Mix, as reported by GO in 2011. The women’s bathroom, wallpapered with old covers of GO, is a popular spot for selfies. It was also featured in an episode of “Wynonna Earp!”
Phoenix Bar and its sister venue in Brooklyn, 3 Dollar Bill — also owned by Breathnach — have both been closed since the government-mandated shutdown in March.
Ford tells GO that Phoenix Bar has been success in its application for a PPP loan. Management has also set up a GoFundMe page to collect donations for the bar’s employees.
“We have a few really nice regulars that contributed multiple times and have kind of been like, ‘Oh, I probably would spend $100 there in a week,” so they’ve been putting in $100 every week, which has been great,” Ford says but also notes that donations have plateaued recently (they are currently about halfway to their goal of $10,000).
Prior to the shutdown, Ford tells GO that the staff had worked hard to pack the weekly schedule with nightly entertainment; there was just “one night where we didn’t have anything planned,” he says. Pre-shutdown, Phoenix Bar also became the first gay bar to field a team in the New York Dart League. But, Ford says, as the larger venues in the city began closing down, and the usually busy weekend crowds slowed as people self-quarantined, “The writing was on the wall.”
Ford, who started as a bartender at Phoenix Bar back in 2008, recalls how past troubled times, where remaining open required creative ingenuity, came with a bit of a thrill. “There was kind of an excitement about opening the bar in the dark and not having music. There was a sort of — an energy to it,” he says. By contrast, the final few nights before the current closure were “eerie.”
As for now, Phoenix Bar remains viable, although Ford isn’t sure for how long they can remain so should the crisis continue. “If you’re not anxious about it, then I don’t think your head is in the right space to do business,” he says. But he does remain hopeful for the future of Phoenix Bar, given its longevity and dedicated team. “Brenda, myself, and the staff — we’re not afraid of hard work, and I think we’re definitely going to come back into it with 110 percent and our full hearts.”
During the shutdown, Phoenix Bar has hosted long-distance trivia nights to keep spirits going. Ford is also in touch with colleagues and regulars in the Phoenix community who keep up by text or, on nice days, may meet for a socially-distanced hello.
“We really do care about the community,” he says. “We really do miss them, and we want everyone to stay safe and we — the very first minute that we can open our doors and let people in — we’re going to be there and we’re going to come back.”