The Madonna of Lesbian Bars

Henrietta Hudson, the venerable “bar and girl” on Hudson Street, reinvents itself

It all started on a rainy day in 1991, when Lisa Cannistraci, then a bartender on Wall Street, stopped into the bar at 438 Hudson Street to get out of the rain. She ordered a Remy neat and a black coffee. She drank them and left, but not before being hired for the next Monday’s shift.

While many had urged Cannistraci (or Lisa C) to open up her own bar, it was Minnie Rivera, a party promoter at the time, who convinced her to take the plunge. The two met when Rivera came in with friends during one of Cannistraci’s shifts. “She was so captivating as a bartender that we didn’t leave. We were supposed to go somewhere else and we stayed,” Rivera begins.

“Well, tell the story,” Cannistraci interjects. “You were supposed to pick somebody up at the airport and…”

But Rivera never made it to the airport. Instead, the pair decided to create a new bar at the existing space, with an “open door policy;” a “business with a conscience,” they say. Cannistraci chose the unforgettable name Henrietta Hudson, a feminized version of the English explorer who claimed the New York harbor for the Dutch. The famous “bar and girl” became an immediate success, as well as an essential part of the West Village and the lesbian community. And 20 years later, the two founders still finish each other’s sentences.

Henrietta Hudson is “the Madonna of lesbian bars,” Cannistraci tells GO. Not only because Madonna herself was once a regular of Henrietta’s, but because they are constantly reinventing themselves; determined to remain a crucial part of lesbian lives. While continuing to honor their initial vision, the longtime owners have initiated a plan to bring this reinvention into action this spring and summer. Their plan includes fresh new additions to their staff and a weekly schedule of events.

Cannistraci and Rivera have spiffed up the bar, too. They’ve invested in a pristine sound system and gorgeous new LED lights to bring a glamorous vibe to the classic space. Patrons can expect “a friendlier Henrietta,” says Cannistraci, who is still a West Village resident and often referred to as the Mayor of Hudson Street. Rivera describes Henrietta’s patrons as “women who are diverse, who want to be around other women who are diverse.”

Each night will bring that flavor to Hudson Street. On Monday nights, the bar presents Local 438, a casual and relaxed event where doorman Rico gets behind the bar and becomes the host. They say the event is “the flawless marriage of neighborhood, the bar, folks and fun.” Tuesday night’s Sing Out Sistah offers classic, old-school “karaoke for the masses,” and a brand new menu of fine wines and champagnes poured by bargirl Melina. Henrietta Hudson has a long reputation for hosting girl-powered rock bands and pop acts, so prepare to win over the audience from the stage.

Latin music has been a Henrietta’s mainstay on Wednesday for several years, but Cannistraci and Rivera have rebooted the theme with Salsa Caliente. “The ultimate after work networking party” for Latina women and the ladies who love them is hosted by Rosa Roldan, late of Heaven’s Friday night event. Expect to groove to DJ Culi and her mix of salsa, merengue, bachata and house, and then fill up on Spanish hors d’oeuvres and spicy drink specials.

Throwback Thursdays will “bring you back to a time when things were simpler and cheaper,” Cannistraci says. That’s music to our ears—and couldn’t we all use an old-fashioned dance party once a week? Resident DJ JeNRG fuses classic dance, hip hop, Latin, reggae and R&B. Happy hour extends until midnight, so you have no excuse not to show up and get down.

Or you can always stop by for Friday night’s Shakedown, where the first 100 guests nab a free shot, and stay for a cocktail handcrafted by bartender Desiree. DJ Culi returns with a new playlist of classic jams, house and crowd-revving anthems.

Saturday night represents the apex of Henrietta’s weekly schedule. The height of the weekend is the bar’s busiest night, and always seems to bring out a big crowd of scene regulars and newbies. As the evening rolls on, someone is guaranteed to show off her amateur go-go skills in the cage. Keep your eyes peeled.

Sunday night’s Flip is designed for the “sophisticated crowd of ladies who want to party after brunch and network”—combining business with pleasure, so to speak. The theme rotates between Pink Moon’s 3 at Tea, an unpretentious afternoon gathering; and Henhaus with Queen Levine, who spins a delicious mix of pop and house tunes for gay boys and girls. Cannistraci plans a few surprise themes as well.

And last but certainly not least, set sail (figuratively) with Henrietta Hudson to the South Street Seaport on June 29 for Siren. You can’t go wrong with mermaid dancers, cool breeze, cooler drinks and the open sky, right at the edge of the East River at Water Taxi beach. Rivera herself says, “even if we weren’t throwing it, I would go.” That’s a pretty strong endorsement.

While the West Village has changed dramatically in the last two decades, Henrietta Hudson retains its conscience—as do Minnie Rivera and Lisa Cannistraci. “We still get thank-you letters from couples who met here” Cannistraci says with a smile. The bar continues to host fundraisers and events benefitting LGBT nonprofit organizations to advance equality; Cannistraci, who is on the board of Marriage Equality USA, says that Henrietta has always moved with the times and supported the fight for LGBT rights. That ethic goes hand-in-hand with its open door policy for the community. “I’m a lover of all people,” Cannistraci says.

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