Renda Abdo knew that she’d have some explaining to do about calling her boutique nightclub, located in the north end of the Village, “Straight.” The name was ambiguous. Was Straight exclusive to straights? (Imagine if “Gay” opened in the middle of club district.) Or did it mock them? Straight was a response, Abdo explains, to the attitude that the Village had become irrelevant, a view laid out in a front page Star article with a bold headline: “Goodbye Gaytown?”
In the article, the author attributed the passing of Church and Wellesley to two factors: increased gentrification of the region by straight people and a broader acceptance that drew gays to other parts of the city. (A semi-permeable barrier appears to surround the Gaybourhood; gays freely flow out to trendy areas like West Queen West and Little Italy, while straights are less likely to venture in.) The article interviewed business owners who said that gays no longer identified with Church Street and that the street was dying.
Although she felt the report of the Village’s demise was premature, Abdo wondered if Church Street had become complacent compared to the edginess of West Queen West and the slickness of College Street. When she heard complaints that something new and different was needed, she saw it as a sort of challenge. She decided, “If we’re not gay on Church Street, then I’ll open Straight.”
Aside from serving the community with a new playground, Abdo had a second motive: to reintegrate the Church Street crowd. “I remember places—Katrina, Colby’s—going back sixteen, seventeen years ago when all the bars and clubs were mixed. It didn’t really matter. It was about the music. It was about the service. We’ve lost that. Now boys don’t want to play with girls and girls don’t want to play with boys.” She hopes Straight will change that. “Anyone who’s open-minded is welcome, anyone who’s respectful.” Straight, she says, will try to mix it up.
The entrepreneur has the experience to make the change happen. Abdo has found success nearby on Charles Street with café 7 West and eatery Wish. 7 West opened seventeen years ago in 1991, near the original Village that had centered on Yonge Street, and quickly became a hit with the student and nightlife crowd as an after-hours venue. Wish followed in 2001 and rebounded from a poor review in NOW to become a hotspot at lunch for Yonge and Bloor businessmen, and at dinner for the upwardly mobile. Both restaurants have a healthy mix of crowds, and Abdo envisions something similar for Straight. “Gays, straights, boys, girls, who cares?” she asks. However, Straight is located deeper in the Village, which makes drawing a mixed crowd more difficult. Abdo plans to resolve this by creating a stylish and inviting environment, providing great music, and offering friendly service.
Like 7 West, Straight is in a three floor townhouse, something Abdo admits she’s drawn to. In the former location of martini joint Babylon, the décor is trendy, inspired by the owner’s visits to New York. (Similarly, Wish was inspired by travel to Miami.) The first floor has as its focus a large mirror that spans an entire wall with rows of hanging light bulbs to illuminate a mirrored table and pink translucent stools. An antique neon blue “prescriptions” sign hangs above the bar. Although half of the sign doesn’t light up, Abdo decided not to fix it, as she loved it the way it was. The second floor has a ski cabin feel, with exposed wooden beams overhead and a fireplace at the end of the room. Phrases (including a vision test) have been scribbled on the walls with chalk. Also on the second floor is Straight’s unisex washroom, with four stalls and a basin for handwashing that has two small pedals on the ground to supply hot and cold water. The third floor is bathed in black paint meant to look like it’s dripping. Above the stairwell is a chandelier concealed by a black lampshade, and the ceiling is lined with black glass chandeliers—a contrast to the white exposed bulbs on the first floor. Bark benches covered in cowhide provide limited seating, but this floor is mainly for dancing.
Abdo is determined to make the music a focal point, and she’s enlisted some top talent to help her. For example, local favourites Deko-ze and Denise Benson regularly perform at Straight. Abdo is also importing talent she likes. To celebrate Nina Arsenault’s tenth year since she began transitioning, Abdo flew in guest DJ Hector Fonseca from New York. (Fonseca has spun at Roxy, is on Peter Rauhofer’s Star69 label, and was crowned Out Magazine’s “Hottest DJ.”) She charged a $10 cover to break even, but it wasn’t about the money. “Why not fly him in? He’s an amazing artist,” she says, adding that she hopes bringing the best to Toronto will spread word-of-mouth and help draw a bigger, broader crowd.
In addition to the music, Abdo aims to provide top service. She stresses that friendliness was the main criterion for hiring her staff. “Gay, straight, it didn’t matter to me. Service mattered,” she says. Abdo has also put thought into other ways to make her patrons feel comfortable. For example, in lieu of a coat check, there are coat racks throughout to provide a cozy feel. As well, the capacity of Straight is relatively small; a little over 150. It’s meaningful, Abdo explains, because she had read that 150 was the perfect number to allow for social interaction. (The theory, called Dunbar’s number, posits that the brain, on average, handles best up to 150 social contacts.) Abdo wants to have a similar feel for Straight, one that encourages mingling and meeting of new people.
Abdo explains that although she is happy that the gay-friendly areas have expanded in Toronto, her passion is still with the Village. She has felt a kinship with the area ever since she moved to Toronto from Kingston when she was seventeen. “Other cities have much larger gay areas. We had for so long just this tiny street. I love that there’s new places to go, but we can’t forget Church.” When she saw the Babylon property on sale, she had wondered if she was too old to start a third business. (Abdo turned a youthful forty in mid-January.) However, her love of the space overruled her doubt. She wants Straight to be embraced by the neighbourhood, and she wants to be able to give back. For example, she hopes to soon use the space on nights when it’s not a club as a showcase for local artists.
Framed in the back of the first floor is the Star article as a constant reminder that there are many out there that she wants to prove wrong. “7 West opened on Pride Weekend. We drew an almost exclusively gay clientele at first, but people from Richmond Street started coming up, people from King Street started coming up.” But she admits it won’t be as easy this time around. “With Straight, it’s going to take some time, but I’m ready to step it up.”
Photos of Straight first floor and Renda Abdo by Jaime Woo. Photos of Straight bathroom and third floor courtesy of Straight.