LGBTQ Commnity's Escafe Artwork Celebrated as Restaurant Closes

Escafe - Scheduled to close in two weeks, Escafe owner Todd Howard held an open house to celebrate the restaurant and the artwork on its walls, which depicts former employees and longtime patrons

From The Daily Progress: Escafe, a longtime staple of Charlottesville’s nightlife and the LGBTQ community will close later this month to make way for the development of a new multiuse office building that will replace it and another cultural landmark along the western end of the Downtown Mall.

Todd Howard, who has owned the 25-year-old establishment since 2008, said the restaurant is scheduled to close on Feb. 17 and that there is no plan in place yet for opening in a new location.

“I have not identified an appropriate property” that could live up to what people have come to expect of the Escafe, he said in a recent interview.

Local artist Bob Anderson, whose wife, Dominique, has painted more than a dozen canvases featuring various community members who have ties to the restaurant, said at an open house for First Fridays that he thinks of it as more than just an LGBTQ venue.

Bob Anderson said the mural-like paintings began in 1995, per the suggestion of his daughter, who once worked at the restaurant. They have been a part of the restaurant's character through its move in 2012 to Water Street.

“It became a bohemian bistro,” he said of the original location, which now houses The Whiskey Jar. “It was the only place in town that had that kind of feeling.”

Since the relocation, Anderson said, the character of the restaurant changed slightly while expanding on the dance club atmosphere that was also a feature of the old location.

The layout of the restaurant, with its terraced dance floor and large outdoor patio, and private events and programming, such as drag shows, karaoke and dance parties, has made it a popular venue for various groups of people seeking a good time.

“If you get right down to it, gay people, straight people, black or white, don’t make a single establishment. They certainly don’t make Escafe what it is — all of them together make Escafe what it is,” Howard said. “Escafe is nothing without its people and patronage, but every single person who comes in here is diverse in some way.”

The original series of paintings in the restaurant depict the old location, featuring employees, patrons and other friends who were photographed there at the time.

In 2013, Anderson’s wife was asked to make another series of paintings, which he said was intended to focus more on people, rather than the location.

Fred Landess and Ginger Greene, an elderly couple who live at Westminster Canterbury of the Blue Ridge, are depicted in one of the restaurant’s newer paintings.

Greene said the pair has been getting together at Escafe since the early ’90s, but made a weekly habit of having dinner at Escafe every Sunday several years ago.

“I’m distraught that it’s going to close,” Greene said.

Gordon Matthew, who previously worked as a chef at the restaurant from 2000 to 2005 and can be found on one of the paintings, said Escafe had become a “neighborhood bar” for he and his wife after buying a home in North Downtown in 1996.

He said the former owners, Doug Smith and Sean Concannon, who sold the restaurant in 2005, were a “big influence” on his life.

Matthew said he and his wife befriended the Andersons and would regularly get together with them and other friends at the old location, which he said featured the same open-door configuration and patio that exists at The Whiskey Jar today.

“Escafe was a big part of our life together,” Matthew said about his marriage. “When we first got together, this was a great gathering place. Those were the best years for me on the Downtown Mall, and I loved working there.”

As attitudes toward gay marriage and the LGBTQ community have softened in the last decade, Escafe, which has been known as a social oasis for the historically sequestered community, has attracted an even more diverse swath of people while remaining an “LGBTQ social hall,” Howard said.

Howard said the element of “closetedness” for many of those who identify as gay or lesbian has dissolved in recent years and that the city’s inclusive nature has helped create what Escafe has become in recent years.

“People are more public with their sexuality, at least in regard to coupling,” Howard said.

“I think it’s more widely supported in this town. As such, the whole premise of having a gay bar is no different, in my mind, than having a sports bar or a coffeehouse,” he said. “People can go to dozens of places to drink beer and watch sports, but the difference lies in being comfortable with your partner or your group in a place you know is LGBTQ-supportive.”

Amy-Sarah Marshall, president of the Charlottesville Pride Community Network and organizer for the annual Cville Pride festival, said Escafe’s location downtown has made it more accessible than the typical LGBTQ club or bar.

“It’s definitely something of a haven,” she said. “It’s always been there on the mall and open. It’s not a safe space that’s hidden. It’s not, like, in the shadows or some closet, and I think that’s a mark on how our society has changed.”

Jason Elliott, a sexual health activist and entertainer, referred to Escafe as a “home.”

“The very first time I came, I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.

“I had in my mind what a gay bar was, but when I showed up it was not what I expected,” he said. “It was a great time, but what I remember more than anything is just how many people were laughing, smiling and enjoying themselves in the company of a community.”

Elliott, whose activism work and professional career has included community outreach, said he’s worked with the business to hold events and raise sexual health awareness.

“There are things this place does other than serve cocktails,” he said. “It’s helped the political community, university groups and healthcare awareness.”

“You wouldn’t think a small corner of the mall could make such an impact, but it has,” he said.

Marhshall said she’s particularly concerned about the city losing Escafe and other businesses over the redevelopment project that’s slated for that area of downtown.

“I wish there were more places to go dancing that are explicitly inclusive, and not just of the LGBTQ community, but also for our diverse racial population,” she said. “When we think about revitalizing the downtown mall, we need to think about how people enjoy themselves and encourage more growth in that area.”

“Losing the Main Street Arena, that’s also a big loss,” she said. “It’s a challenge and I hope our elected leaders and the business community can think about that.”

Escafe will host another open house at 4 p.m. Friday to celebrate the restaurant and Dominique Anderson’s artwork.

Reported by Chris Suarez for The Daily Progress.