Michael Bruno is straight, married, and the father of a three-month-old girl, but most nights he can be found in a Hell’s Kitchen gay bar.
As the general manager of Flavor Lounge, a recent entry into an increasingly crowded bar scene in a neighborhood sometimes colloquially referred to as “Hellsea” — as in, just as gay as Chelsea — Mr. Bruno, 39, has quite a challenge before him. “We’re really struggling,” he said on a recent Tuesday night in his nearly empty bar. “They’re established and they have a higher budget than we do.” He was referring to Industry, Therapy, and Posh, a trio of gay bars all within a stone’s throw of Flavor. Among those, Industry is the newest, but has already become hot enough in the community to attract a good crowd most nights (including that recent Tuesday).
But Mr. Bruno is optimistic. After just a few months, weekends at Flavor have started to get busier (the drag queen Destiny Divine performs every Saturday night) and when the weather warms up, a sidewalk permit will allow for outdoor seating. The location (at 772 Ninth Avenue) offers a distinct advantage, too. “We’re right on the avenue, we’re not hidden. A lot of the gay venues are on side streets,” Mr. Bruno said (and this is true of Industry, Therapy, and Posh, in fact). “By nature the human being is curious. When they walk by, they’ll pop their head in.”
Being general manager of a gay bar is not a gig that Mr. Bruno took just because he needed a job, either; there’s something more akin to a mission in this work. He grew up on West 17th Street in Chelsea, he said, where his parents still live. As a teenager, he saw his neighborhood change. “It went from horrible to bad to extremely good and the one thing that made the neighborhood change was the gay community,” he said. “I saw that day after day, and day after day. “
He also has three gay uncles on his father’s side so he learned at a very young age, from an open-minded father, to be accepting of different kinds of people. Perhaps for this reason, he talks about taking care of his customers in a way that sounds as paternal as it does savvy. Flavor serves food, for example, and not just pretzels and popcorn but empanadas, ceviche, and burgers, among other things. This means more potential income of course, but also means more customer care. “We didn’t want to be just a lounge with booze,” Mr. Bruno said. “I just don’t want to feed these guys chips and keep them drinking, I want them to have something decent in their stomachs so they’re not bouncing around, walking around drunk.”
For Mr. Bruno, running Flavor is also a way of giving back to a community that transformed his neighborhood and thus his life when he was young. “It’s a culture that has brought prosperity not only to my family but to the neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. Then, pointing to a large flag in the window facing onto Ninth Avenue, he added, “That rainbow flag should be for everybody.”
UPDATE: The bar appears to currently be closed for renovations.