On the evening of Friday, February 5, artist Bob Anderson stands in the middle of Escafé, identifying the many people in the Escafé Opera murals that his wife, Dominique, painted for the restaurant in 1997 and added to in 2015.
There’s the Andersons’ daughter, Adriana, a former server at the restaurant, and the Andersons’ two sons. Also included are artist and socialite Beatrix Ost, pianist Bob Bennetta, photographer Brian Schornberg, the forearm of Doug Smith, or maybe Sean Concannon, the restaurant owners who’d commissioned the paintings but were hesitant to be represented themselves. Playing the lute in one scene is a man named Ned, whose granddaughter had come into the restaurant a few years after his death wanting to see her grandfather immortalized in paint.
Warm, dim light bounces off the restaurant’s orange walls, and Bob turns around and gestures to a man behind him. “Do you recognize him?” he asks, pointing to Stuart “Stu” Zellmer, who’s sitting near the back of the restaurant, sipping a drink with friends. Zellmer is in the mural panel over the kitchen, painted next to his partner of 36 years, Gary Sibbald, who died from emphysema a few years ago, Anderson explains.
People push tables together to talk closely about their memories of Escafé and its predecessor, Eastern Standard. Spirits are high, but there’s a trace of melancholy in the air. Escafé, a longtime hub of Charlottesville’s LGBTQ community and a popular nightlife spot, will close its doors after service on Saturday, February 17.
The building, along with the Main Street Arena that houses the ice rink and The Ante Room music venue, will be demolished later this year; an office building/tech incubator from Taliaferro Junction will be built in its place.
The Eastern Standard/Escafé story begins on the Downtown Mall, at 227 W. Main St., where The Whiskey Jar is today. Concannon and Smith took over Eastern Standard in June 1992, and after renovations, reopened it in December 1992. The restaurant had the reputation of switching from bistro to gay bar at 10pm, Concannon says, and it suited his and Smith’s vision for the place—they wanted to welcome all people.
Talking by phone from Maine, Concannon says that although they opened Eastern Standard to everyone, not everyone was open to Eastern Standard. Getting a liquor license for what had become known as a gay bar was a challenge in the 1990s, particularly because then-governor George Allen was a vocal opponent of gay rights (a Washington Post article from 2015 says that Allen’s views have since evolved).
Eastern Standard was all about “the philosophy of the people involved. It wasn’t a scene thing, it was just how we felt; we parlayed ourselves into good service and other people embraced it,” Concannon says.
Zellmer, who moved to Charlottesville from Rochester, New York, in the mid-1980s, says he and Sibbald went to dinner often at the gay-friendly Eastern Standard, where they met other regulars who quickly became friends. Remembering those Friday nights brings a smile to Zellmer’s face. “It was something we looked forward to every week,” he says.
It seems to Zellmer that the necessity for a gay bar in Charlottesville has faded over time, as prejudice against LGBTQ folks “has lessened.” But it’s still an important spot for people in that community, he says.
Sonja Weber Gilkey, an artist and white tantric kundalini yoga counselor who met Zellmer and Sibbald at the restaurant “at least 15 years ago,” says Escafé has long been a place where a “very bohemian” crowd gathered to discuss everything from politics to moonstones to tarot cards. “I’ve loved it. And I’m really sad that it’s over. On Friday, you could really look forward to being there,” she says.
Concannon and Smith left Charlottesville for Portland, Oregon (where they owned a spot called West Café for 11 years), in 2005 and sold the Eastern Standard space to Mark Brown and Todd Howard. Howard took over as sole owner of Escafé (i.e., Eastern Standard Café) in October 2008, intending to keep the inclusive environment, but on a slightly different tangent.
One of Howard’s more controversial choices was to open the place to the under-21 crowd, with the intention to “mother hen” them and ensure they had a safe place to discover themselves, Howard says. Escafé moved from the Downtown Mall to 215 Water St. in January 2012, and the demographic has changed a bit over time. Visit on a weekend and you’d be hard-pressed not to find a bachelorette party or a group of sorority girls on the dance floor.
Howard is particularly proud of how the place has served not just the LGBTQ community, but the Charlottesville nonprofit community and, most recently, the clergy, who used Escafé as a safe space during the Unite the Right white supremacist rally on August 12.
“It’s not just a rainbow flag in front,” says Charles Casavant, a longtime patron and investor who first visited Escafé in the 1990s after reading about it in the Damron (a gay- and lesbian-friendly travel resource) when he moved to town. He once asked Howard: “Are you running a business or a mission?” Howard replied, “both.”
Howard invited songwriter Brady Earnhart to host Uncovered, a monthly songwriters showcase and open mic, at Escafé starting in 2015. Earnhart says that Howard “has always looked for ways to bring top-notch Charlottesville music and audiences together,” and when the series relocates to Tin Whistle Irish Pub come April, it won’t be the same.
“The obvious thing Escafé added to Charlottesville was an openly gay bar, though that liberality spread to include a range of people who felt more at home there than anywhere else,” Earnhart says. “It was striking to sit on the patio on a Friday night and hear one group of people speaking Arabic, another Spanish, another talking about what it was like to come out of the closet, another about politics, another just about who’s wearing what…it was a broadly and effortlessly diverse crowd.
“I can’t imagine downtown without Escafé,” he says. “Unfortunately, I won’t have to for long.”
Nobody in the room on this Friday night can give a single favorite memory of Escafé; ask them for one, and three or four stories tumble out.
Schornberg, the young photographer in the Escafé Opera 2015 mural, has many fond memories, from visiting the bar with four of his five sisters (the youngest isn’t yet 21 and will miss out on what’s become a Schornberg sibling 21st birthday tradition) to buying rounds of drinks for friends, having “some of the strangest nights of [his] life” and running, along with his fiancée, from their Belmont home to Escafé on New Year’s Eve because it’s where Schornberg “has always been” at the stroke of midnight on a new year.
“This place is so much more than a bar,” says Schornberg. “It’s friendship. I’m just one of hundreds of people” that Escafé has been a home for, he says.
Casavant agrees. “Home is the best word [for the place],” he says, his voice catching before he adds, “I will miss it a great deal.”
Howard says when he first heard of the impending demolition, he hoped to move Escafé to a new location, root it, then pass it on to someone who could nurture it for another 10 years. But he couldn’t find the right spot; he believes it’s “the universe’s way of telling me to move on.”
As the evening winds down, Casavant, sitting at a two-top table, twists the stem of his martini glass between his thumb and forefinger. “There’s something about a bar that’s awfully close to an altar,” he says. “It may be blessed or not, but it still has that feeling of, ‘I met you here, and I appreciate that. You blessed my life because you were here, if only for a moment.’”