244 Spot aims to fill Central Jersey’s gay bar desert

Drink being poured at 244 Spot in South Amboy, NJ
Drink being poured at 244 Spot in South Amboy, NJ

If a queer cartographer mapped out LGBTQ bars, New Jersey would look like a triangular border surrounding a hollow center. Jersey City forms the northernmost point with Pint and Six26, backing into the densely packed offerings of New York City across the river. Philadelphia occupies the southwestern outpost, while Asbury Park completes the perpendicular angle in the southeast with Paradise and Georgie’s.

What’s in the space formed by these three vertices? Nothing — a gay Bermuda triangle where the bars that dare enter soon disappear.

That’s the void that the staff of The 244 Spot hopes to fill. The new LGBTQ bar opened at 244 Cedar St. in South Amboy on Oct. 11 a fitting observance of National Coming Out Day.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A few readers have pointed out that in a summary of New Jersey’s gay nightlife, this article in our print edition did not mention Feathers Night Club in River Edge. Club Feathers has been around since 1978. We regret the omission.

The 244 Spot occupies an unassuming house in a residential neighborhood. It opens into an intimate bar space that has the usual mirrors and high tops of any standard drinking establishment, but the real charm sits in the belly of the building. Keep going, around the pool table that testifies to the venue’s previous existence as Danny Boy’s Irish Pub, and you’ll find yourself on a dance floor of cozy proportions that’s framed by neon lights, a touch of rainbow, and an Instagram-worthy garden wall draped with faux ivy.
With a max capacity of about 100, the new bar invites visions of comfy conversations with friends, not so much well shots and ragers. “It’s where we’re going to know your names,” said bar manager Chip Luck. ”It’s going to be your hometown bar feel, like ‘you’re going into your friend’s house to have a cocktail’ type thing. A big house party.”

The bar’s transformation has been rapid. On its soft opening night, the bar still had the old pub’s tap handles standing upright and connected to nothing while patrons were limited to cash for their payment options. Yet, even though it was a Wednesday night, a sizable crowd came out to toast the only gay bar for 30 miles.

The local community has greeted 244’s opening with cheerful enthusiasm. The response has been a steady stream of support as staff make final tweaks to the decor, setup, and event calendar. In all the festivities, the same feeling of grateful surprise bubbles up again and again.

Kaylee Acciardi, 244’s general manager, remembers one of her favorite customer reactions so far. It came from a woman in her 50s who had entered 244 alone. When Acciardi greeted her, the woman said that she planned to come back on another night with friends, but she simply had to check the place out as soon as she could.

“She didn’t so much say anything,” Acciardi recalls, “but just the look on her face she was like, I just can’t believe that in South Amboy, there’s a gay bar. She’s like, I really just didn’t think that this would ever happen.”

Meet Mike at 244 Spot in South Amboy, NJ
Meet Mike at 244 Spot in South Amboy, NJ

The 244 Spot isn’t South Amboy’s first gay bar. In fact, Luck remembers at least four nightlife spots that once slung drinks here: Deko Lounge which ran LGBTQ Deco Fridays, another club that ran the L Word for ladies once a week, a dedicated lesbian bar called the L-Bar, and a huge nightclub called the Colosseum. The Colosseum closed in 2007. It was the most famous of the four.

After 16 years without a permanent LGBTQ presence, South Amboy looks like a town that never had any at all.

Luck is more than familiar with the now-barren landscape of gay Central Jersey. He started working in LGBTQ nightlife in the 1990s. His first gig was working coat check at The Den in Somerset, just down the street from Rutgers University in New Brunswick.

The Den is something of a legend in New Jersey’s LGBTQ lore. On Facebook, about 1.4k people still regularly celebrate its memory in a group called I Partied At The Den (Bar & Nightclub), with some group members clamoring for a Den reunion.

The Den earned its claim to fame. For one thing, it was New Jersey’s longest-running gay nightclub. The Facebook tribute page lists its lifespan as 1944 – 2016, “a legacy of 72 years.” Within that long lifespan, it was also the site of a legal battle and eventually a victory for gay rights, two years before the famous Stonewall uprising.

It happened in 1967 when police regularly raided and shut down gay bars on charges of lewd public behavior. New Jersey’s Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control shut down The Den’s 1960s iteration, but the Den’s parent company, One Eleven Wines & Liquors, fought back in court. The case was merged with similar cases brought by two other New Jersey gay bars, Val’s in Atlantic City and Murphy’s Tavern in Newark, eventually reaching the New Jersey Supreme Court.

First Drag competition winners at 244 Spot
First Drag competition winners at 244 Spot in South Amboy, NJ

The three gay bars won what sounds to modern ears like a dubious victory: the judges determined that “well-behaved homosexuals cannot be forbidden to patronize taverns.” But at the time, that simple right was revolutionary. In fact, during the Stonewall uprising, Luck says, New York activists came to New Jersey to consult with the owners and lawyers from the One Eleven Wines & Liquors case, hoping to learn how to achieve the same victories in their state.

Since those early days, gay bars have provided sanctuaries, battlegrounds, supports, and escapes for a community that has had few spaces to feel safe and celebrated. The fight for equality has brought a bittersweet change to that landscape. Marriage equality is now a legal reality across the country. In New Jersey, sexual orientation and gender identity are both protected categories; and more businesses openly cater to the LGBTQ crowd, including apps like Scruff and the ever-popular Grindr.

In this brave new post-Obergefell world, the need for venues specifically set aside for LGBTQ people isn’t as obvious. “For Gen Z, I think that they don’t know any different,” Acciardi asserts. “They’ve grown up in this society where everyone is accepting and willing to understand that being a part of LGBTQ is normal.”

It sounds like the utopia that many early activists fought for, but it comes with a tragic side effect. Not only have all three bars in the One Eleven Wines & Liquors case closed, but all three of their host cities — New Brunswick, Atlantic City, and Newark — have no permanent gay bars left.

Instead, mixed spaces have risen to take their place — bars, and venues that welcome LGBTQ clientele without the expectation that the majority of patrons will be queer. For many, especially in areas like Central Jersey, it’s easier to drive ten minutes to any bar that’s welcoming enough than to take a 45-minute trek to a specifically gay bar.

So naturally, a question comes to mind that would have sounded insane 15 years ago: is there even a point to gay bars anymore?

Luck’s answer is decisive. Yes, times a hundred! “Honestly, we’re still not accepted everywhere,” he said. “ There are too many haters out there still. There are more people on our side than a lot of people think, but there are so many haters out there who have a better platform to speak on than those who are on our side. And unfortunately, they’re getting their way instead of us getting ours.”

The colorful entrance to 244 Spot
The colorful entrance to 244 Spot

It seems all too true. A strand of puritanical conservatism has reemerged like an angry cicada, inflicting Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” policy and public drag bans. Even in New Jersey, school boards are flooded with candidates for office who compete to ban the most books featuring black or LGBTQ characters. The pendulum of social attitudes is swinging backward. These are difficult times — but historically, those are the times when the LGBTQ community comes together best.

The staff of The 244 Spot hopes to be part of that reconvening. A key part of South Amboy’s revival as a gay gathering space lies with the community itself. “Most of the people who claim they were so sorry to see the Den close weren’t even in the bar in five or ten years,” Luck said. “So if people don’t go out and support their local gay bars, they’re going to shut the doors eventually because they can’t survive. We have to support each other.”

Luck is doing his part by designing a full events calendar for 244. Sunday will have martini specials, while Monday will have a rotating schedule of special events: the first Monday will be industry night, the second Monday trans night, the third Monday leather night, and the fourth Monday to be determined. Tuesday will feature a drag competition for up to six girls, hosted by Chantel Curtis. Wednesday will be Game Night, boasting bingo and trivia hosted by Meta. Patrons can come on Thursdays for karaoke, on Fridays for Latin Night, and on Saturdays for dance night. The aim is to have something for everyone who wants to be part of the 244 community.

After seeing the early response, Acciardi wants to think of more ways that 244 can continue taking care of its community. She hopes to host fundraisers for LGBTQ organizations in the near future.

For Luck, too, the 244 is more than just a place to have fun. “My heart and soul are in this place,” he said. “And I will do what I can to make it survive and thrive.”

After all, he said, for LGBTQ people, “There’s always going to be a need for a bar somewhere.”