El Confuso

El Convento Rico: it’s Latin. It’s gay. But it’s also straight. So basically it’s College Street’s Ricky Martin.
If you’ve not heard of Rico bar, it’s a dingy basement Latin drag bar in Little Italy. The translation of the name is open to interpretation: “Convento” definitely means ‘convent’; however “Rico” could mean a number of things, like ‘rich’, ‘delicious’ or ‘tasty’ (which is probably the preference).

Open on Friday and Saturday nights (plus Sunday nights on long weekends), Ricos is decidedly a gay and lesbian bar. When it opened 17 years ago, it was a little thorn in the little boot of Little Italy. The area was densely populated by recent European immigrants who didn’t really take to the idea of a gay and lesbian bar right in their ‘hood. El Convento stuck it out, however, to become a staple of College Street, nestled right next to Blockbuster and a thousand Italian restaurants.

While not being in the confines of the gayborhood (read: Church Street) has been tough, they see their location as an advantage. “That’s what makes us different,” general manager Fab tells me. “And that’s what helps. It gives our gay clientele the feeling that they are accepted.”

Although they opened as an outwardly gay and lesbian bar, they’ve now “evolved” and pride themselves on their mix of gay and straight clientele. As Fab explains, “Originally we opened to the gay, lesbian and bisexual community, and now we have evolved to cater to… everybody. No matter what your sexual orientation is – gay, straight, confused – we’re just here to satisfy everybody.” He mentioned that there is a misconception in the gay community that the bar is turning straight. “Over the years, it has progressed – but I think it’s hit its plateau. I can honestly say we have a 50/50 mix.”

Fab doesn’t agree that the onslaught of straight punters cheapens the experience for the gay crowd. “A lot of our gay customers enjoy interacting with the straight community,” he countered when asked. “I think they feel that they’re not sequestered to being open about their sexuality just in a gay club. Or, be going to a straight club and not being able to be open. Here, you get a bit of everything which makes them feel, ‘I’m just like everyone else’ and it doesn’t limit them to what they can or cannot do.”

They’re doing what they can to ensure that they don’t lose the gays. “A majority of our performers are female impersonators,” Feb tells me. “We make sure that we do hold our special Mr and Miss El Convento Ricos; our anniversary parties, which are gay-orientated; our New Year’s party, which is gay-orientated. Our music in general – yes, we play Latin and top 40 – but you can’t get through a weekend without hearing that disco tune.”

Ask for any stories which illustrate the club, though, and you’ll hit a wall. “Stories do no justice,” says Alisha, the reigning Miss El Convento Rico. “You have to experience it for yourself.”

“I think it is a magical place,” Fab piped in. ”As soon as you walk in here, come down these stairs – it’s like a different place. Whatever problems you’re having in the world, or whatever problems you’re having in your day-to-day life, it goes all out the door. You come down here and forget about everything.”

I came down the stairs, and wondered if there was separate entrance that I missed because my perception of the world hadn’t changed in any seismic fashion. It was just a smallish room that was playing host to what appeared to be a stagette night. At least, that’s what the sea of feather boas suggested. During the course of the night, the TVs displayed “Congratulations to our new brides!” while the stagettes’ names rotated on a marquee and gaggles of hens squealed at the digital recognition.

Fab had already told me that the bar is a popular destination for bachelorette parties. “They like to come and enjoy the show, watch everybody and party with everyone in here,” he said. “It’s one last hurrah. It’s a new alternative to going to a strip joint I guess.”

The music dimmed, and an announcement warned that a drag show was coming. The announcer also promoted the forthcoming long weekend Sunday night at Rico because Chippendales were appearing. “And guys,” he cooed to the men, “if you’re thinking, ‘why would I want to go to that?’ – last year, all the women came and got all fired up over the men… but had no one to go home with.” I couldn’t see the announcer, but the tone of his voice in the conclusion suggested major sad face. So not only am I at the first gay bar in the world that has to so desperately encourage their male patrons to come and see the Chippendales – the CHIPPENDALES – but they do so by promising a bounty of dripping wet snatch.

So, is it a gay bar, or is it a straight bar that features gay people? “We’re still a gay bar,” Fab reassured me. “We characterize ourselves as a gay bar and make sure everybody knows that we are. We’re proud to fly the gay flag outside.”

Drag shows are interesting at El Convento Rico, as there’s no stage – so the shows are perfomed ‘in the round’, with the audience making an accommodating wide circle on the dance floor so the queens can mime and gesture from the centre. The positioning means that really only one side of the audience at a time is getting to see the show proper; while the other half the club is literally getting a bum deal.

Similarly, whether the gay crowd or the straight crowd is getting the best proverbial “view” at any time at ‘The tasty / delicious / rich convent’ is also open to interpretation.

El Convento Rico, 750 College Street Toronto.