You’ve seen the Phoenix. Its full-frontal art—by that we mean the large, fiery mural covering the entire building front—has replaced the Statue of Liberty replica as West Sahara Avenue’s dominant conversation-starter. It’s the worksmanship of local artist Gear Duran, whom Phoenix co-owner Gabriel Cressy met at a Burning Man-themed event. He complimented Duran on his art, started talking about his new bar and soon Duran was helping transform what was once the Escape Lounge into the Phoenix.
Burning Man is a huge inspiration to Cressy and his two partners in business and life, Landon Heins and Shawn Hunt—and, by extension, their bar, which they bought from its longtime owner in 2013 and officially took over early last year. “We’ve had the bar for two years, but this will be my fifth year at Burning Man,” Cressy says. “[Landon] has also been to Burning Man. It’s affected me, [with] its art and next-level partying and self-expression.”
That influence is evident in the aesthetic of the interior metal lightbox sign bearing the venue’s iconography (made and designed by burners), the left-of-center events and dance music on certain weekend nights, the colorful creations the triad/co-proprietors allow artists to hang and sell (especially during events like Blazing Art, which packed the bar two weeks ago), and the weekly Burning Mondays confab that draws enthusiasts of the world-famous festival up at Black Rock Desert.
It’s all nontraditional for an LGBT-oriented lounge. But the Phoenix seems to stray from tradition whenever possible, from the Sunday night live band—hardly a gay-bar staple—and the random hula-hoop sessions on the dance floor to the video games projected onto the wall for anyone to play and the curated selection of craft beers expanding upon the usual draft suspects limiting brew drinkers at other gay bars.
There’s even a monthly lesbian night (Lady Nation), and Cressy and Heins say it’s their most popular promotion—also unconventional, given that most lesbians tend to avoid local LGBT bars and clubs, which typically cater to gay men. But the three owners made a conscious decision not to focus solely on the gay-male demographic. They saw their ideal business appealing to all kinds of alternative-minded people, like the ones at the parties they preferred to attend—and like themselves.
“Originally, we were saying [the bar was] gay/gay-friendly, and we figured out that wasn’t the right thing, so we went with gay/alt. Gay meaning that was our niche market, and we’re gay, and the bar is absolutely a gay bar, through and through,” Cressy says. “But this is also an alternative bar, which means we’re radically inclusive and accepting of the alternative scene, which includes everything: bi, ‘try,’ transgender … maybe polyamorous people, maybe people that don’t choose to identify with anything at all.”
The transition has been noticeable. When I would visit the Escape Lounge, it was almost exclusively the domain of gay men in their 20s and 30s, almost always sitting around the bar and gambling, and it was hard to distinguish one night from any other. On a recent Tuesday, I spotted gay men of every age group—most of them co-mingling in their skivvies for the bar’s Underwear Night, where handing your jeans over means a discount on drinks—a handful of trans patrons, a few lesbians, a male and female making out near the bar, and a middle-aged woman who regularly visits the bar just to play video blackjack. And despite the video-poker machines, the Phoenix always seems to possess a social environment and participatory energy, mostly due to its dance-music DJs, stage performers and themed events.
Perhaps the bar seems so suited to its various patrons because its new owners have a connection to them that the previous one didn’t. Heins—who worked as a bartender at the Escape Lounge long before successfully buying and rebranding it with his boyfriends—didn’t fret losing his loyal customers. It was attracting new ones that would determine the bar’s future.
“We made [our purchase of the bar] known, and they were really excited—especially of the changes, and us getting new people in the bar,” Heins says. “I think they mostly liked that we cared.”
The Phoenix 24/7. 4213 W. Sahara Ave., 702-826-2422, facebook.com/thephoenixlv.