A lesbian bar where everybody knows your name


By Erica Stein

One of its bartenders called the Cubby Hole a “neighborhood fusion” bar. That’s probably the only way to describe the unassuming, incredibly popular nightspot on the corner of W. 12th and W. Fourth Sts.

Ten years ago, when it first opened, the Cubby Hole was known as a lesbian bar, which is still how it’s grouped in Zagat’s guide — which calls it a “lesboteria” and describes the 200,000-song jukebox as “Stevie Nicks heavy” — and how it was classified in a 2003 New York Magazine article. But owner Tanya Saunders says that the Cubby Hole, more than anything else, is an integral part of its West Village neighborhood.

“When I used to go out I’d always catch a lot of attitude at bars and clubs,” Saunders said speaking at the bar this Monday. “I always wanted to open a bar and I thought when I did, I’d make sure it was a friendly, casual place where people would feel comfortable. I wanted a real mix of people. I live my life that way, and I wanted it in my bar. We’ve got men and women, gay and straight here,” she said.

The bar itself is a crazy-quilt mix of hangout and hotspot. In the front vestibule, event cards from neighborhood organizations are stacked next to the Cubby Hole’s list of Pride specials (today’s are Pearl Vodka cosmos and any ’tinis for $5 with Lisa). On the door is the laminated letter from Zagat’s announcing that Cubby Hole received a coveted 20-or-above rating and on the wall is the “secret” phone that Villager columnist Jenny Klion discovered during the August 2003 blackout.

Inside, the walls are a moss green and the floor is made of smooth flagstones that, with the air conditioning, help keep things cool in the summer. But it’s the ceiling that people wander in off the street to admire up close. New York magazine said it looks like Saunders “raided a thrift shop the day after Mardi Gras.” But, combined with the soothing wall colors and dark wood of the bar, the thatch of Japanese lanterns, model airplanes, oversize goldfish (which match the covers on the bar stools) and at least one lobster suspended from the ceiling, the place looks more like some sort of fantastic forest.

“I had been someplace and seen that they had things hanging from the ceiling,” Saunders said. “So I put a few up. Then we decided we liked it and started adding. Sometimes customers will come in and give us something to put up. We change it with the seasons and for holidays.”

Since the Cubby Hole opened in September 1994, the neighborhood has become, according to Saunders, more gentrified. But the bar remains relatively unaffected by that transformation, as well as the trend of lesbian nightlife to forsake the bars for the clubs — which has led at least one former Village lesbian bar, Crazy Nanny’s on Seventh Ave. S., to recently go hetero. Saunders said that she has always had the same kind of customers and that people find the Cubby Hole the same way — through word of mouth, on the Internet and by passing by. The customers are almost all from the neighborhood, with some students, a few out of towners and the rare celebrity thrown in.

The mix of clientele, says Saunders, is reflected in the eight bartenders, most of whom live within a few blocks of the bar. Geeta Purohit, however, resides in Jersey City, and longtime customer Kay Gunn blames Purohit for her own move there. Purohit, who describes the Cubby Hole as “a mixed bar, there’s not one scene and everyone gets along,” has been working for Saunders for three years, roughly the same amount of time Gunn has lived in the New York area.

“I’m originally from Kansas. I really didn’t want to move to the city and my company begged me to go for three months, just to try it,” Gunn said. “I came here and I loved it. I met my closest friends in the Cubby Hole. I became really good friends with Geeta, so when she and my best friend both moved to Jersey City they convinced me to go with them. It’s O.K., but I’m going to move back to the city. Hopefully near here,” Gunn said.

Another longtime customer, Paul Steffens retreats to the Cubby Hole every Monday after he finishes working at a local restaurant. “I’m really not a bar person,” he said, “but I like to come here. It’s very relaxed and everyone’s friendly. The only problem is that I can’t smoke.”

Michael Gibson, who lives around the corner, thinks the bar is a great place to network for his real estate career. “You meet everyone here,” he said. Gibson works at the Cubby Hole once a week on Tuesdays, not so coincidently the same night the Philip Marie Restaurant donates its free chicken wings, but can be found there even when he’s not working. “If I’m not on one side of the bar,” he said, “I’m on the other.”

The Cubby Hole is having specials every night this week for Pride. Saturday and Sunday they will open at 2 p.m. and offer Jello shooters and an outdoor frozen cocktail bar in addition to their usual menu.