Gay bars play a specific role in local and cultural ecosystems. As community hubs, safe spaces, and centers of political organizing, these important venues have provided a shelter for communities that are constantly under threat. Among New York City’s many LGBTQ+ watering holes, few are as universally beloved as Metropolitan Bar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. As the longest-surviving gay bar in Williamsburg, Metropolitan — often affectionately referred to as “Metro” — has showcased nearly every drag performer and nightlife creature in the borough and beyond, from baby queens to the world’s most esteemed talent. The bar and nightclub is both a tight-knit family of gender rebels and queer punks and a living, breathing symbol of queer resilience.
Steven McEnrue has been Metro’s general manager for over a decade. His guidance has shaped the more boundary-pushing style of performing now known, for better or worse, as “Brooklyn drag.” More than an event curator, McEnrue is helping steer Metro into the future, as he makes sure this mainstay survives yet another political storm.
VinePair caught up with McEnrue for a chat about the history of his establishment, the most blissful moments of the bar’s existence, the socio-political function of the gay bar, and the future of nightlife.
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1. Can you tell us a little bit about the history of Metro and how you got involved?
Metro has been here since 2002 — we’re definitely Williamsburg’s oldest gay bar. No one is exactly 100 percent clear on the date we opened but it was sometime around Halloween or early November. It was opened by a gentleman named Troy Carson, who currently manages The Rosemont.
I started working here in January 2007. I started as a bartender, and then I ended up getting more shifts — because, well, the stars aligned! No one ever really seems to leave here. I just busted my ass working for Troy and he offered me a management position after a while. I was his right-hand man. He left town for a few years, and when he left I took over as GM and I’ve been here for 15 years now. I have complete creative control of what happens here. I’m rarely ever told what I need to do. I just bring in parties, bring in the money, and they leave me alone.
2. What’s been the curatorial philosophy that has guided your choice of promoters and parties? Is there a guiding philosophy or aesthetic in mind?
I’ve learned from a lot of drag queens. They hustle! They’ll be here at 7, somewhere else at 9, and another place at 11. As long as it’s not a party that competes with mine, theme-wise — or as long as they’re not the headliner here — then I’m totally OK with them going somewhere else after. I’ve been in the scene for a long time. 15 years!
When I first got here I was very starry-eyed. I ended up in circles with Ladyfag and Amanda Lepore and Rainblow and Little Josh and all them. When [the now-shuttered gay bar] Sugarland opened, that’s where I met people like Miz Jade, Thorgy, Misty Meaner and Mocha Lite — all these people who have been in the scene for a very long time had all gotten their start there. I tend to gravitate towards them, but I try as best as I can to reach out to new people and to give opportunities to people I haven’t worked with before. The problem is that I tend to be pretty loyal to people, so they tend to stick around for a while.
We’ve had live music, too. We had [rapper] Will Sheridan throwing events for a while. I was doing Richard Cortez and his quartet, too — it was live jazz, once a week. I’m trying to bring that back. There’s been other nights with live bands, but not as often as I’d like. I’ve had a year off, so there’s a lot of ideas I have. The wheels have been spinning!
3. Pretty much every major drag performer that is internationally known has passed through this bar. What’s been your favorite performance or memory?
I had [nightlife promoter] Frankie Sharp in here doing Saturday nights for about six or seven years. He brought a whole different element here. There was one summer where we were bursting at the seams because every week we’d have a current-season “RuPaul’s Drag Race” girl come through here. It taught me a lot — it taught the business a lot — about what we can handle, what we can do. But a lot of these girls are booked by these super-big venues. For them, it’s like, “OK, the meet and greet is at this time, performance at this time, show up at this time.” As opposed to here, where I’m like, “There’s no meet and greet, just show up, say hi, have some drinks.” Sometimes, they don’t want to do that, but the ones that do… [ RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 11 winner] Yvie Oddly was just hanging out ‘til close. Valentina’s been here, too. She did three numbers. This place was packed to the brim. The AC wasn’t working. It was hot as hell. The floors were wet ‘cause drinks were flying everywhere. And she comes out in this long, beautiful white gown. And the look on her face — she was mortified. She was inching along. We were trying to move everyone out of the way. We had to mop the stage.
4. What roles do you feel that bars play in LGBTQ+ culture?
History-wise, they’ve been a safe place for people to come to. I know that for a while there was this whole buzz — people were saying that with dating apps, gay people weren’t going to want to go out. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think everything has its ups and downs, and ebb and flow. I think gay bars will always be around. People have learned that they want to be social. Even if some people would prefer to stay home, other people are still going to want to go out, rub elbows, get face time. And gay bars have always provided a safe place for people. I know that here, we have a community.
5. Within NYC, Metro has become known as a home for what’s sometimes pejoratively discussed as Brooklyn drag. What do you think about this debate? Is there a difference between Brooklyn drag and other types of drag?
Well, I think it’s rather silly, because if we’ve seen one thing it’s that Manhattan queens have really started paying attention to Brooklyn queens. Brooklyn queens are really starting to get booked out there, too. Brooklyn drag started off very, very raw. Very… I don’t even know the word for it. It wasn’t polished, I guess you could say. But these girls have been at it for years. You have these girls now — the looks are phenomenal, the makeup skills, the outfits, the performances. But there are other girls that are OK with being more raw. That’s the act. In Brooklyn, you really get a buffet. I don’t think there’s a community or venues even open to more avant-garde performances in Manhattan. They’re not as interested in things that are more out of the box.
6. A debate in the drinks world has developed around whether gay bars will embrace upscale-cocktail and higer-end mixology culture or not. It’s obvious Metro has stuck with the dive bar vibe, but had you ever considered going another route?
I’ve worked in places in the past where you get those fancy cocktails. The Exley is a gay bar in the neighborhood that serves fancy cocktails, and they’re wonderful! They’re a much smaller venue, so it works well for them. For us to do a fancy cocktail here — I mean, if someone asked us for a Mojito — we wouldn’t be able to serve as fast, and we’re a really busy bar. I love fancy cocktails, I enjoy them. But if someone orders a Manhattan here, we’re all like, “Ugh! Now I have to spend an extra minute on this.” But I want people to get what they want to drink. If someone wants a Long Island Iced Tea, fine. If you want to order a Manhattan when there’s a line 10 people deep, you do it. But we mostly just don’t have the time for that here.
I think in the past there was a cultural tendency towards not being interested in those kinds of drinks. But I’ve noticed that now that we have table service due to Covid regulations, people are not just ordering vodka sodas — they’re ordering lots of Martinis, lots of Manhattans, lots of Cosmos. They’re asking for Mojitos, Daiquiris, frozen drinks. And that was not the case before. I don’t know what it will be like when everyone’s walking in again. The table service is changing things. [The customers] have a second to think about what they want instead of just ordering the first thing that comes to mind.
7. What do you think the future of nightlife or gay bars looks like?
I’m never going to be someone that says New York is dead. Even when everyone was saying New York was dead — like in the early aughts — it wasn’t dead. New York nightlife is never dead, it’s just evolving, and it’s going to go through this multiple times. It’s true, a lot of people left and peoples’ priorities are different coming out of Covid. But I think moving forward, it’s hard to predict what the beast is going to be. The thing that everyone I hear talking about is that they can’t imagine partying until 4 a.m. again. Getting home at midnight, having some cocktails at the house and then going to bed? It’s not too bad of a life. I think people are going to take care of themselves in different ways. But I think the scene’s going to do just fine.
8. What do you love most about working at Metro?
I put a lot of time and energy into this place, and what I love is the results I’ve gotten. I love the people that come in. I love the people that work here. The performers that have come through here and the way they have treated me — they’ve all been so wonderful to me. Maybe I see it through rose-colored glasses. I feel the burden of responsibility because this place has a history. People call it the mothership of Brooklyn nightlife. I feel like I’m part of something bigger. And that makes me love this place. I love the fact that people enjoy it so much, and the outpouring of love and support we’ve gotten since reopening has reaffirmed how important a place like this is — how important every gay bar is to the community, and to each clientele it serves.