Tonight, one of Silver Lake’s mall gems will pour its last glass of wine and serve its last order of salsa macha wings. Eszett, a natural wine bar with an inventive menu and some of the the best — and most subversive — hot sauce in town, firm, but the spirit of the space will endure. The Ruby Fruit, a lesbian wine bar run by some Eszett staff, is set to open there in mid-February.
“There’s no denying that it’s a tough job — a really tough act to follow,” said Mara Herbkersman, Eszett’s former chief executive and one-half ownership of Ruby Fruit. “It was very emotional.”
Herbkersman once asked if his colleague, waitress Emily Bielagus, would ever like to open a lesbian bar together. Bielagus didn’t skip a beat. Lesbian-owned bar spaces have shrunk to a few dozen across the country, and next month the duo hope to reopen the space as the first permanent lesbian bar in Los Angeles since the Oxwood Inn closed in 2017 – building on the foundation built by Sabrina and Spencer Bezaire, the husband and wife team behind Eszett.
“We know what we’re getting into,” Bielagus said. “We are taking over a very popular space [and] we are very grateful to them and we know that these are big shoes to fill. We are also very aware of the history of the lesbian bar, as a concept, honoring the lineage of those who came before us.
As the general manager of Eszett and a longtime friend of the Bezaires, Herbkersman knows the space and operations intimately, especially how to use the cramped but capable charcoal-burning kitchen. She hopes to use that knowledge at the Ruby Fruit, opting for a slightly more laid-back setting and a no-books policy, to help her succeed where Eszett couldn’t — but never for lack of trying.
The Bezaires had dreamed of opening their own restaurant for years. After industry careers like L&E Oyster Bar and Highland Park Brewery, they finally opened Eszett as a sort of stylish yet accessible neighborhood wine bar in December 2019. With just three months of normal operation before the first closures and pivots of the pandemic, they felt they never had a chance to get their business off the ground. During the pandemic, they’ve added take-out menu items, built a small parking lot patio, expanded their homemade hot sauce retail operation, cut staff — eventually to the point that only Bezaires are keeping service afloat. for months — and they’ve launched daytime specials, like a nifty, rotating “brunch box.” The pivots helped them hang on, but barely, and each time Spencer Bezaire felt they lost a bit more of what their original identity was. At the end of 2022, they decided to stop.
“We had some slow weeks and months, and with just the cost of everything going up, and the whole restaurant and food landscape changing, we just couldn’t make the numbers work at the end of the day,” said he declared. . “We’re so happy that Mara and Emily can do their own thing that I honestly think if this was all going to get them to this point, it makes me feel like it was worth it.”
In November, they approached Herbkersman with the prospect of taking over the restaurant’s lease and buying out the equipment: if the Bezaires were to sell, they wanted it to stay in the family and help a lot of the staff keep their jobs. The news was disappointing; Herbkersman regards Sabrina Bezaire as something of a mentor and the guiding voice that introduced her to the world of natural wine. It was an opportunity, but one she preferred not to take, given the cost.
“My first reaction was I was just devastated,” Herbkersman said. “I offered every solution I could think of: I offered to resign. I said take my salary out of the equation, get back in every hour. I just wanted to do anything to keep them, and they said, “Thank you.” But no.'”
The Bezaires announced the closure on Instagram a week before their last night of service; their reservations were booked instantly. Once the dust settles, they hope to focus more on their hot sauce retail line, which is still available through sbezhotsauce.comand perhaps consult or appear elsewhere.
And, of course, they can’t wait to support LA’s first new lesbian bar in years, which is set to open next month.
Bielagus moved to Los Angeles shortly before the pandemic hit after 15 years in New York City, where she held various jobs and aspirations, one of which was a dream of opening a lesbian bar. As soon as she landed in Los Angeles and started focusing on her job in the restaurant industry, she realized she loved it and the possibility of opening a bar could be more than a pipe dream. . In New York, she frequented Southpaw as well as beloved spaces Ginger’s, Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson. Before moving to Los Angeles, she was already aware of the lack of lesbian-owned spaces in the city; a fan and follower of docuseries and The Lesbian Bar Project website, she was aware of the dwindling venues across the country.
Los Angeles, for what it’s worth, has a thriving lesbian party scene: Lez Croix, Divorce, and Bar Subaru pop up regularly. The owners of the Ruby Fruit themselves had organized occasional lesbian parties in Eszett – called Leszette. Their pop-up evolved into a series of traveling pop-ups called Big Al’s: a concept that looked more like a dive bar than a wine bar, hence the brick-and-mortar pivot, which pulls its name from Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 novel “Rubyfruit Jungle”.
The Ruby Fruit is meant to be a neighborhood bar and home base, “like a Cheers, but for lesbians,” says Bielagus.
The kitchen will be made up entirely of women. The wine program, while it will remain natural, will most likely focus on Austrian and Eastern European wines, and they hope to lean into the lineup with film screenings, tasting nights, DJ appearances and book clubs, building community through these events.
Herbkersman will help manage general back-of-house operations, while Bielagus will manage the front of house (like hosts and servers), but they envision a space where there isn’t so much division between all the roles. , with cross-training and well-rounded experience that teaches employees how the business works and what it takes to operate, should they ever choose to start their own business.
Staff education is one of Herbkersman’s primary goals at Ruby Fruit. “Having a space for women to work and feel comfortable in is one of my biggest goals,” she said. “I really want women to feel good at work. I want them to feel confident, to ask questions, to voice their opinions, to share when they’re not feeling well because they’re on their period and they haven’t fear of being looked down upon. That’s not to say it happened in Eszett, but it’s something that’s ubiquitous around the world.
Education isn’t just for staff: Bielagus and Herbkersman hope to create a space for all members of the community, not just lesbians, providing a gathering place to feel safe on a date, find and foster conversation, get together, hold hands in public without fear, and meet lovers and friends.
“We want to honor that history and also recognize how women and non-binary people and gender non-conforming and trans people fit into the lesbian umbrella,” Bielagus said. “We’re very conscious of wanting to honor the past, and also very conscious of what’s happening now and our part in that journey.”