While it may be true that every queen needs a palace, every palace also needs a home. In April 2017, it was announced that Palace Bar in South Beach, Miami, would be closing.
Many in the LGBT community of South Florida were saddened by this news. Not only did the closure affect locals, but it also impacted gay tourists from all over the world, who flock to Miami for its beautiful beaches and even more beautiful men. They, too, were disappointed at not kiki’ing at the corner of 12th and Ocean anymore, enjoying views of eye candy strolling by or stellar drag shows from the bar’s talented roster of queens, many of whom are transgender.
A statement read, “The Palace Bar is the foundation for what has become one of South Beach’s legendary and iconic LGBT meeting places, 1200 Ocean Drive. The pride colored crosswalks and honorary street sign are proof of the city’s support of the LGBT community.”
Long before Palace Bar was the gay nightlife hub we’ve come to know, it was a juice bar called The Fruit Palace. According to the story, its original owners were inspired to put the word fruit in the name since the beach right across the street was a popular gathering for gays. The bar instantly became popular with the gay community. The bartenders began adding booze to their fruity concoctions, and later started offering drag shows as entertainment.
Over the years, the location changed owners, crafted a full-service food menu and became world-famous for its extravagant drag brunch, at which queens would prance right on the asphalt of Ocean Drive. As rising rents priced out other LGBT-owned-and-operated businesses, Palace Bar persevered and eventually became the last gay bar on Ocean Drive.
After closing on July 4th weekend with a blowout celebration, Palace Bar owner Thomas Donall vowed to reopen the iconic LGBT hot spot in “a bigger location and make it an LGBT center.” The nightclub owner made good on his promise, opening the new Palace Bar during Thanksgiving weekend 2017, the same weekend as Miami’s White Party. The larger location, 1052 Ocean Drive, is two blocks down from its original haunt and features more indoor and outdoor space than before. This includes a front patio with more seating and room for drag queens to death drop and somersault.
After visiting Palace Bar while in town for Winter Party earlier this month, I was impressed with the updates management had made to the venue. From a Friday Happy Hour packed with Winter Party attendees to its iconic drag brunch on Sunday catering to tourists in town for a good time, Palace Bar seems to be making a much bolder statement on Ocean Drive than it did before.
Whereas the old location was a bit run-down and didn’t mirror the fabulosity of its tagline, “Every queen needs a palace,” the new location offers brighter colors and blasts louder music. And it demonstrates something even more important: that the queer community does have the power to fight gentrification, though it requires the diligence of staking a claim in the places we helped create.
While in town, I caught up with Palace Bar owner Thomas Donall.
HORNET: Tell me about Palace Bar’s role in the LGBT community of South Beach.
THOMAS DONALL: We just celebrated our 30-year anniversary. That’s three decades of serving the LGBTQ community here in Miami Beach. From the original opening in 1988, there have been people from all walks of life and from all over the world who know the Palace as the hub of Miami Beach gay culture, which offers a safe, fun place to gather and celebrate. The Palace has been an experience that our community has grown up with.
How has the gay scene in South Beach changed over the years?
I think the gay scene in South Beach mirrors the changes that have happened throughout the world. We are a city that fosters individuality and the freedom to be gay. The city has been incredibly supportive of both the Palace and the LGBT community.
We have the locals, and we have the tourists. The locals are our everyday family. They are with us all week long. When you look through the crowd you can always find friendly and familiar faces. Likewise with the tourists in town who join us repeatedly throughout their visit.
Palace made 12th Street an LGBT landmark in many respects but has now moved to 11th. Were you saddened to give up that spot, or happy because it meant a new beginning?
Leaving 1200 Ocean Drive was bittersweet. It was an iconic location! The building itself was in dire need of renovation. It was important to me to bring the Palace back to Ocean Drive. We were fortunate to find 1052 Ocean Drive. It’s bigger and better all around. We have a fresh new look at an amazing open-air venue.
What were some updates you made to the new space? And now that you’re in a much bigger venue, have you added any additional programming?
Most of the updates have been cosmetic. The sound system is one of the biggest updates. We had two local graffiti artists imprint their individual styles on two large installations on our back walls. We updated the dining area with new chairs, and just last week we introduced our new menu.
We have also added several new performers to our cast. With our large venue we are able to host much larger parties. Recently we had a corporate group of 25 straight men from Sweden join us. Additionally, in January we hosted a business college reunion of 65 people, gay and straight, at one of our brunches. At any given brunch we have at least two to three brides and their bridal parties joining in on the festivities.
What’s the secret to success for your weekly Drag Bunch?
The energy is incredible! We have the best performers in South Florida turning out an incredible show every week! We have an exceptional staff, our brunch menu offers a great selection of delicious food, and it goes without saying that our customers are a huge contribution to our success.
Clearly the Palace is known for being a gay bar, but all one has to do is look about the crowd to see the vast diversity of our patrons. Our weekend brunches are filled with people from all walks of life. It’s not just the LGBT community anymore. Gay, straight, American, European, Latin, families — you name it. Everyone is here to have fun, and that is exactly what we deliver. As the owner I’m happy that people are having fun and enjoying the great service and incredible show from our cast of talented queens.
What do you say to people who claim Miami and South Beach aren’t a gay destination anymore?
Just look at the crowds Miami and South Beach draw during the White Party, New Year’s Eve, Winter Party and Pride weekends. Those events alone continue to bring thousands of gay men to our part of the world. The Palace is fortunate to enjoy visitors throughout the year. Miami and South Beach are very relevant and still very much a gay destination for our community.
Do you think you’ll ever go back to 12th Street?
Nope. 1052 Ocean Drive is the new home of the Palace. We secured a 25-year lease. We are here to stay.
Head here for more info on Palace Bar in South Beach.
Photos by Dale Stine. Featured image: Fantasia Royale performing at Drag Brunch.