BAR EXAM: Where the Leather Chaps Are

What happens when a gay bar and a theme bar meet?

Lissa Townsend Rodgers

I love me a gay bar. Not only can you have a cocktail without guys trying to pick you up like a $20 bill on the sidewalk, but the drinks are stiffer, the music louder and there's never a line for the ladies' room. And, Lord knows, it's a nicer crowd—though I sometimes suspect they're wondering if t'were biology or surgery that made me into a 6-foot Barbie doll. (It's all natural, thanks. Well, that and a few pointers picked up from a drag queen I once lived across the hall from.)

Themed bars, though, are usually hateful. The surroundings feel—hell, are—fake rather than the organic atmosphere of bartenders' tacked-up in-jokes, regulars' gift tchotchkes and the patina of spilt scotch and exhaled Camels. The cocktails are weaker yet more expensive, the employees are cranky, and the clientele seems uncomfortable with any experience that can't be summed up in two or three marketable words. A themed gay bar is no exception: A lot can go wrong (the precious and the snippy). But a cowboy-themed gay bar—now that's cool! Hence, Badlands.

It's in Commercial Center, a strange little corner of Vegas, almost a tiny town of its own, whose denizens seem to require nothing more than wigs, jewelry, Asian food and gay bars. With Badlands filling in the cowboy slot and the Rack outfitting the leathermen, all we need now is a sailor bar, a motorcycle cop bar, a construction worker bar and maybe some kind of Native American café to make a complete village for the people.

Badlands' western motif starts as soon as you pull into the parking lot, with a faux log-cabin front and lasso-wrapped sign. Inside, the wood paneling is punctuated with mounted stag heads, crossed six-shooters and tooled leather holsters. There's shit-kicker country on the jukebox and a neon sign promoting Bud Light and Tim McGraw over rows of bottles, but the abundance of rainbows and the occasional burst of Bette Midler remind you it ain't all redneck.

The other recurring motif is bovine. I haven't seen so many cows since the last time I visited my mother's bathroom. (Actually, they've got a set of ceramic heifer wind chimes behind the bar that I swear Mom used to have on the back porch.) Even the sides of the pool table have been touched up with black-and-white spots—and did I mention that pool is only a quarter? Twenty-five cents a game, my friends. And the drinks are cheap too!

More than a theme bar or even a gay bar, Badlands feels like a neighborhood bar. Where else do regulars have their own personalized beer mugs in name-taped cubbyholes? Or clear their own empties so the bartender can get to that after-shift date he's been crowing about? The crowd is, as expected, predominantly male, tending to the over-30, and many are dressed for their surroundings, even if cowboy hats make hello kisses a bit tricky. Of course, there's a few ladies in the house: a tipsy girl dancing alone on the tiny, tinsel-bedecked stage in back; a middle-aged woman in a holiday sweater slouched over the video poker. You can also find the odd pair of heterosexuals enjoying the inexpensive billiards—but bear in mind the Green Door swingers' club is only a few storefronts over and that awfully friendly couple from Arizona might be trying to get to know you a little better than you think. Still, as long as you don't kick up any dust, the Badlands has a welcoming smile and a strong pouring hand for all.

Lissa Townsend Rodgers learned to make a martini at age 6. E-mail her at
[email protected].

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