Thinking pink

01 January 2000
Thinking pink

With anti-gay prejudices dying out, restaurateurs are actively wooing the pink pound. Susan Clark reports

Restaurateurs may not like the idea of same-sex couples cuddling in the corner, but few would object to the money their custom brings in. After all, the value of the pink pound is legendary. Many gay people are either single with few financial encumbrances or in double-income relationships with more disposable cash.

Take, for example, gay holidaymakers. The London Tourist Board (LTB) estimates that visitors to the English capital will spend £8b this year, with gay men and women contributing 10% of that total.

"It's an important market," says an LTB spokesman. "Gays from America alone represent a huge spend in the UK."

British society has become so tolerant that even the Establishment is going out of its way to attract the pink pound.

Earlier this year, the LTB launched a campaign aimed directly at gay men and lesbians in America. A mailshot was sent out in January to more than 50,000 individuals in Washington, San Francisco and New York.

Gay Travellers

"The gay market in the USA has a greater preponderance to travel. Only 10% of Americans have passports, but 40% of gay Americans have them," says the LTB.

An element of the campaign is a "pink" telephone line containing recorded details of clubs, theatres, tourist attractions, events and restaurants that are "gay-friendly". Already there are nine restaurants listed on the service, all welcoming same-sex couples.

"Eight of the nine are specifically gay," adds the LTB. "The ninth is a gay-friendly restaurant."

The LTB is not stopping at the telephone line. By midsummer it will have relaunched its Web site, including pages targeting gay visitors. Restaurants can be listed free of charge on this site.

But as society becomes more tolerant, especially in cities, restaurateurs are finding fewer guests objecting to gay diners. Same-sex couples are now more able to use mainstream restaurants without feeling uncomfortable, which, in turn, is reducing the need for exclusively gay restaurants.

Stonewall, the gay and lesbian rights group, has had few complaints about restaurants refusing same sex couples.

"It's not like hotels, where there is still open discrimination," says Anya Palmer, director of external affairs at the campaign group. "Incidents where gay couples have been thrown out of restaurants are fairly isolated, although there is a tendency to hide them away behind pillars and in the corner."

The gradual shift of gay men and lesbians away from exclusive restaurants provides an opportunity for open-minded businesses, as long as they can work out how to attract this potentially high-spending market. One way is to be listed in gay directories and the gay press. Another, which is more difficult, is recommendation by word of mouth among the gay community.

The idea of "straight" restaurants going out of their way to attract gay clients shows how far away society has moved from the days when gay people were forced into frequenting clandestine clubs and exclusive restaurants. Once these places provided a haven for homosexuals. But in recent years, a number of established gay restaurants have closed down. Two of the most renowned, Roy's and Le Gourmet in Earls Court, have succumbed to the competitive market.

Wilde About Oscar, based in the exclusively gay Philbeach Hotel in Earls Court, has survived the change. But while the hotel is restrictive in its clientele, the restaurant makes a point of being mixed.

Meanwhile, cafés and bars catering for this specific market are booming, especially in London's Soho.

"The centre of the gay society has shifted from Earls Court to Soho," explains Steve Coute, publisher of the Gay to Z directories, which lists gay-friendly businesses. "There are a lot of gay-orientated and gay-friendly businesses there. Why go all the way to Earls Court when everything is available in the centre of London?"

The move has also been encouraged by the more liberal licensing of Soho, with the cafés, restaurants and pubs open much longer than those in Earls Court.

"There are clusters of gay pubs, clubs and cafés in Soho, making it more convenient than Earls Court," says Charles Cotton, director of Balans and the Old Compton Café, two mainly gay eateries in Soho. "It's also more mixed. Balans and the Old Compton Café are gay-orientated but they are in no way exclusively gay. We welcome gay men and women, and tourists, and everyone feels comfortable here."

The breweries haven't been slow to react to the shift. Bass owns one of the most successful gay bars in London, Compton's on Old Compton Street. It has 30 gay bars dotted around the UK, some of which provide food.

"We have a number in London which are overseen by a district manager, while the rest are part of each district manager's estate," explains a Bass spokesman. "They are different to other pubs. The atmosphere is quite distinct and they stock a higher-quality product."

Outside London, in the major cities, a similar picture exist. Exclusive bars and clubs provide the social night-life, while restaurants are used for relaxing evening meals. "You go to restaurants with friends, not to meet new people," says Coute. "Gay people want to go to good restaurants as much as anyone."

His directory lists just a handful of gay restaurants in each of the major cities.

"Most of them are gay-friendly or gay-owned rather than exclusive gay restaurants," he adds. "There just isn't enough business to be exclusively gay."

First Out, a vegetarian café-restaurant close to London's infamous landmark, Centrepoint, is a gay-run collective catering for gay people "and their admirers" says manager Malcolm Comley. It has kept its gay identity, first acquired when it opened more than 11 years ago.

"It was pretty pioneering in those days. We got the idea from Amsterdam," Comley continues. "In those days gay places were still low-profile with blacked-out windows."

The restaurant has proved a massive success, serving 200 customers on a weekday and about 300 at weekends. On Fridays, there is a women-only night, which provides a comfortable environment for lesbians and their friends who relish an atmosphere not so much away from straight people but more away from men, straight or gay. However the café is not exclusively gay, and even its staff are not necessarily gay, just sympathetic. The same goes for Balans and the Old Compton Café, which employ about 120 people.

With competition growing from mainstream restaurants, few gay restaurants would consider turning heterosexuals away. They may be secreted away in a corner or behind a pillar but often it is a case of whoever spends cash at the bar and picks up the bill is welcome.

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