Holyoke’s Slainte sets a new standard for Irish cuisine.
How is this possible? That’s my first reaction on hearing that Slainte, the Irish bar and restaurant in suburban Holyoke, hosts a drag brunch.
Growing up outside Boston, I became accustomed to the yearly tales of gay rights groups being banned from participating in South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day parade. So the idea that an Irish bar in Holyoke—home to the Commonwealth’s other major St. Patrick’s Day parade—has a drag brunch seems very surprising, if not shocking.
Sure enough, the same familiar St. Paddy’s Day prep played out again late last month in Boston, as MassEquality’s application to participate in this year’s parade was denied by event organizers.
“In doing so,” reports a Boston Spirit Magazine blog hosted at the Boston Globe website covering LGBT events and news throughout New England, “organizers cited the 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Group of Boston, which held that parade organizers are legally able to exclude openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people from participating.”
“We don’t ban gay people,” organizers told the Boston Globe. “We ban gay demonstrations, people that are sending out the wrong messages, messages that we don’t agree with.”
On the surface, it seems that Slainte should be consistent with this traditionally closed-minded spirit. When I visited during lunchtime a month or so ago, the parking lot was packed with SUVs, some with Scott Brown bumper stickers, and the air of the businessman’s lunch was apparent—not exactly the cliched progressive cultural markers of a gay-friendly Happy Valley.
But a few weeks later, talking over warm drinks on a chilly afternoon in Paradise City, drag brunch organizer Hors D’oeuvres tells me that Slainte’s relatively new owners—Deb Flynn and Jake Perkins bought the Irish restaurant about one year ago—approached him in an effort to attract a more diverse crowd.
Hors has hosted the popular burlesque shows at Northampton’s World War II Club for the past four years.
Head chef Perkins “wanted me to do bingo,” says the drag host, “but I said, No, I want to do a drag brunch.”
Drag shows in Springfield and at Diva’s may be more popular—“People are scared of Holyoke,” continues Hors—but the other shows go off late at night. Slainte’s show is unique for its brunch component.
And Hors is happy to help the Irish restaurant attract a broader clientele.
“Drag shows shouldn’t be mainstream,” states Hors. “I fight against that actively.”
Featured performers include Mia E. Z’Lay, Hella Swag, Ruby Monroe, Shameless DeVille and Dixie Normous, who regularly incorporates a “drilldo” (combination drill and dildo) into her act.
“It’s supposed to be uncomfortable,” Hors continues. “Out of the ordinary.”
A typical brunch at Slainte features five or six performers, not including Hors as host. The crowd is made up mostly of straight women and older couples, he tells me. There are fewer gay men and women and almost no straight men. While he says the age range is impressive, most of the attendees are about 25 to 35 years old, and it’s an 18-plus event.
This brings a lot of good energy, Hors notes, because the show’s younger attendees look at a drag show experience “in a new way.”
The buffet brunch begins at noon. Each performer usually does two numbers. In between performances, games like drag tag (where members of the audience get to be drag performers) or butch/fem walk-off (where contestants strut their best in either butch or fem style) are incorporated into the show.
Slainte now offers a new buffet with plenty of veggie and gluten-free options. “They’re really stepping up the food game,” Hors says. “It’s delicious.”
Hors adds that they also have good mimosas, and “the Bloody Mary of my dreams.” But if you’re feeling slightly more daring, you might set out to enjoy your drag brunch with a pint of Guinness from the bar. Double pour, of course.
(Originally appeared in the Valley Advocate.)