This article originally appeared in Virginia Pride Guide 2023. This is a version formatted for RVA Mag. You can read the whole original issue here.
Just over the bridge, past the river, and tucked away amongst the beautiful foliage, down the hill, and beside the wafting smell of coffee next door at Crossroads, is a little bar with a huge alligator on the side of the building. Smiling with his Raybans, he welcomes you into a home away from home for the queer community of Richmond – Welcome to Thirsty’s Bar and Grill.
Originally opened in 2018, and then officially taken over by Keyan Herron and his husband, Cameron, in 2019, Thirsty’s was never originally intended to be specifically a gay bar, but as things sometimes happen – it just kind of formed organically as one due to the clientele who gathered.
“It was effectively a gay bar already; we just admitted it,” joked Cameron. “When I was managing the place, that was my clientele I developed,” said Keyan. “It just kind of went from there, and we embraced what the place was. There’s only so much control you have over that. You can foster the environment you want, but eventually, people are going to come and be what they are.”
Originally serving up various Louisiana-inspired dishes (hence the gator friend in the logo), such as fried shrimp po’ boy and gator bites (naturally), there is also a pretty good drink menu. Between various things on tap and a healthy variety of cocktails to choose from, Thirsty’s knows how to bring a smile to your palette while crafting a very quiet, relaxed environment option as opposed to the club atmosphere.
I went so far as to joke about how I felt like I was in Forest Hill’s very own Cheers, between the regulars, nerdy posters, and the cozy atmosphere. Funnily enough, Herron laughed when I said this as Cameron noted that their very own Norm happened to walk in moments later.
“To me, gay bars are one-third community center, one-third place to meet other people like you, and one-third a place to get drunk,” said Cameron. “I think being where we are, we are not seen as a let’s go out place as opposed to a let’s chill place. Honestly, the south side is quickly becoming the gayest of Richmond. And that whole idea of sin and iniquity needing to be focused on the city and kept out of the suburbs is, no. Gay people are everywhere, and the whole queer community can come anywhere.”
Prior to the pandemic, you could always count on Thirsty’s to host events during the week, such as karaoke, drag, and even an open mic if you wanted to test your best material on someone other than Sandra in accounting. As everything continues to try to return to normal, Thirsty’s has returned to their events during the week, including karaoke (Herron notes one of his go-to songs is “Closing Time” by Semisonic, naturally), and even a vinyl night where folks can bring in their go-to records to spin.
“We do ‘bring your own vinyl night’ every Tuesday,” said Herron. “We set up a couple of old school turntables, and people can bring in their record collections. People who run it, who are relatively experienced DJs, will teach you how to spin and mix music. What I love about it is it brings in completely diverse collections. We’ll hear all kinds of music in one night: 50s to Motown to House to records that came out this year that I’ll hear.”
He also noted that someone will sometimes bring Rasputin, which is one of his favorite songs.
As much as we point out the fun parts of gay bars, such as cheekily titled cocktails and drag shows by your favorite local queens, there is always the underlying message of safety and support. As another day goes by where the morning news discusses more laws either being proposed or passed that threaten members of our community, especially our trans siblings, some days are more difficult than others to go out.
Gay bars and establishments have always been symbols of defiance and safety for our community, and that hasn’t changed even in 2023.
“There’s definitely space in the community for both places,” added Cameron. “We had a long discussion about putting a trans flag up front, and unanimously agreed that if that makes us a target, then so be it. We changed all of our branding to be more inclusive.”
“One of the most upsetting and uplifting times we’ve had recently was when we had a group of trans customers who said we were the only place that they felt safe in Richmond,” added Herron. “And the fact that that would occur to somebody makes me proud of what we’re doing, but also worried about what’s on average available in Richmond. I can only hope there are more places.”
As 2023 marks five years with Thirsty’s, and four for Keyan and Cameron at the helm – what does the next five hopefully look like for our own local Norm and the gang?
“For us, we’re always trying to improve the place,” said Cameron. “We know it’s kind of a dive bar and run down, but when I put everything into repairing the place and being more inclusive and being a place for the community to express themselves. And we want more subcultures in the LGBTQ community to have a place. We’re trying to put together an alcohol-free night so that way folks who are not drinking do not have that as a temptation. We’re trying to give more opportunities for people to connect.”
Thirsty’s Bar and Grill is open Tuesday through Thursday, 3-11p, Friday, 3p-1a, Saturday, 3p-12a, and Sunday, 3-6:30p, and located at 3516 Forest Hill Ave, Richmond, VA 23225.
For more information, visit https://www.thirstysrva.com.
Photos by Ash Griffith