Nightlife Hall of Fame 2013: Michael McGrail
Chelsea may be in a period of transition, but for the owner of G Lounge, things have never looked better.
August 22, 2013
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These days, the Chelsea Boy phenomenon that swept gay New York in the ’90s may be all but over. As the bars and clubs that helped define the gay scene of that time decamp for Hell’s Kitchen or close, and the gays that populated the neighborhood are priced out by rising rents and the gentrification that, in an ironic twist, they helped begin, many are lamenting the loss of a thriving gayborhood. But while gay nightlife fixtures like Splash and Rawhide may be nothing but memories, bars like Michael McGrail’s G Lounge are keeping the neighborhood’s gay roots alive.
Opened in 1997 during the height of the Chelsea Boy craze, G Lounge was an immediate hit. There were lines around the block for the first months after the bar’s opening. McGrail, who opened G Lounge with several business partners and has owned restaurants in the city, as well as Here Lounge in West Hollywood, notes that the bar’s design—with large windows in the front and a clean, open layout on the inside—was a departure from the dark, dingy gay bars of years past. “There are a couple of things that I think helped in creating G Lounge,” McGrail says. “It helped me having an Irish father, who loves people, and loves the ‘occasional’ drink,” he chuckles.
Another thing that helped shape the feel he wanted to achieve with G, he says, was his first experience at a gay bar in his hometown, Yonkers, just north of the city. “When I turned legal age, there was only one gay bar…that I knew of,” he recalls. “I got up the courage to go in there one night, and then I turned around and ran right out. It was dark, and it smelled like stale beer, cigarettes and god knows what else.” G Lounge, he resolved, would be different. “I wanted a bar where I could feel proud and comfortable. And I think we succeeded in [creating] that.”
McGrail was also excited to open a gay bar owned by gays. “We, as gay men, wanted to create something new, a cocktail lounge that was clean and open and comfortable,” he says. “And we felt that Chelsea was the right neighborhood because of the gay presence.”
“We, as gay men, wanted to create something new, a cocktail lounge that was clean, and open and comfortable.” —Michael McGrail
As gays flee for more affordable neighborhoods, though, McGrail says that his bar has managed to remain a fixture in the neighborhood for several reasons. “Having a good product,” he says is essential. “We still serve our cocktails in real glassware.” A personable, friendly staff is as important as ever. “Our staff loves what they do—we have very little turnover.” And of course, “Great music from DJs that feel the love from the people.”
Like any place that’s been open a long time, occasionally difficult decisions need to be made. In 2011, McGrail and his partners decided that they needed to start charging a cover—and some of their regulars weren’t happy about it. “We did charge a cover very briefly,” he recalls, “but that came with your first drink.” Why the need for a cover, when G had always been a laid-back cocktail lounge and not a large dance club? “We found that there were a lot of people who would just come and hang out but wouldn’t drink. After all, this is a bar, so charging a cover was an experiment that we thought might help remedy that.”
Most recently, G Lounge parted ways with their longtime managers and promoters Mark Lander and Franco Diluzio, two guys whom McGrail says are like family, and whom he was sad to see go. In the mean time, G has seen a couple new parties start up—Go Tuesdays, with Nathan Hale Williams, and Gruff on Wednesday nights. After Labor Day, the traditional start to the fall party season, expect the party roster to continue to fill out. “Change is good,” says McGrail. “And in this case, well, I’ll let you see for yourself!” Also, in a continued effort to highlight the diverse talents of our community, McGrail hints at a large-scale art project to keep your eye out for that is set to debut around the end of August or early September.
While many guys who partied in the pre-smartphone days of the mid ‘90s lament the current online hookup culture and the perceived ways that it has changed nightlife in New York, McGrail actually sees things as turning the corner. “For quick hook-ups they’ve had an effect,” he declares, “but I think that’s tapering off. And that’s because, while hook-up sites can satisfy an immediate need for sex, connecting with someone is mostly about chemistry—and that’s something you just can’t tell online.” Though the era of the 24/7 gay mega club may be waning—in Chelsea at least—McGrail is optimistic about the future. “I don’t think the Internet will ever replace gay bars for social interaction,” he says. “The economy is up. It’s down. But Nightlife is built on the energy of the people’s thirst for excitement.”