When Big Bar opened up on May 1, 2012, Kevin Bryan and Jim Lunger never imagined it would become one of the most popular watering holes in the region. Some incredibly dramatic and traumatic (in a good way) things have gone down in the little 800 square foot building over the past 10 years.
Big Bar has been a Bardstown Road staple for quite some time and has always played a huge role in supporting the LGBTQ+ community in Louisville. Although the bar has been a safe space for several people over the years, it hasn’t been a very big space to frequent. (I promise to limit the “big” puns, bare with me). With only 500 square feet of usable space, the bar has somehow managed to develop a solid, regular crowd as well as participating in and putting on several events. It may be a small space, but they’ve utilized every single inch to the fullest. With Drag Race viewing parties, go-go dancers, karaoke, and DJs, the bar has had no lack of party hype. And why go home, when you could go bigger?
Ten years ago today, on the Tuesday right before the Kentucky Derby, the tiny bar made its grand opening. Fast forward to ten years later, they’re now essentially quadrupling the space that they began with.
In the spring of 2019, Big Bar announced its plans to expand into the vacant building next to it. The Wine Market that used to operate next door closed down and left about 2,000 square feet of empty space. For those of you that have never been inside of the old Wine Market before, it has an elongated downstairs space with an elevated lounge above where the wine bar, now the all-inclusive alcohol bar, used to be. Having access to a space of this type would allow for the Big Bar to become much more involved in community events as well as creating more room for new crowds to join the Big Bar family.
One of the bar’s regulars, Ryan Blair, said that he is excited for their expansion and looking forward to seeing the new space.
“I love that it has always been a safe space for me to go to as well,” he said. “The bartenders are always friendly to me and the crowd of people who go is diverse”
Big Bar has been a safe space for many queer people over the years and the diversity within the crowd has risen tremendously over the years too. But how exactly did the bar get its start? And how has it grown to such rapidly increasing popularity?
Kevin Bryan grew up in Louisville and eventually left to go to college in Charleston, South Carolina. He then moved from there to Washington D.C. where he spent some time…being gay? But clearly Charleston nor D.C. worked for him, because after about seven years, he moved back to his hometown.
Upon his return, he took a job with his sister, Sally Clemons, who owns and runs the Highlands Tap Room. He ended up working there for about three years before stumbling upon the space where Big Bar currently resides. On January 1, 2012, FABD Smokehouse was selling their building on Bardstown Road and Kevin wanted it immediately. From his years of experience at Tap Room, he was able to identify that there was a severe desire for more bars in the Highlands, and thirst-fully so for Queer ones.
Taking it back to the basics, the older version of the bar wasn’t all that different from the new and improved. They had the same frozen slushy machines as they do now, rotating those drink flavors out on occasion. Well, sort of. They started with a machine that just had one frozen drink at a time for the first four years then they moved to a double drink machine. Hence, two flavors all the time now! Those frozen drinks may not seem like much to us nowadays but they were a huge game changer for bars back then.
On Wednesdays, they did karaoke, which tended to bring in a full crowd. On Thursdays, they would bring in local DJs for “Thirsty Thursday” to really get the party started. In the beginning, they had something called Pandora Music. Sounds pretty similar to Spotify but I’m not exactly sure…Kidding. After that tragic period, they upgraded to music videos on iPods, which eventually turned into iPads and YouTube. Yay! The avidly growing party culture this small bar ensued in its origins brought about a current crowd favorite — the go-go boys. The go-go dancers started a couple years after the bar opened and they were brought in regularly until COVID.
About three years into their success, the bar obtained one of its finest, current bartenders, Brandon Haydon.
Haydon started unintentionally bartending there around September of 2015. Before this, he was bartending at Guy Fieri’s Smokehouse. Before that, he worked at both Tryangles and Teddy Bear Bar & Grill. So, you could say he has a bit of experience and is no stranger to working with the lushes of the Queer community.
Haydon said his working experience at Big Bar is like “opening up a present at Christmas,” because he never knows what he’s going to get on any given night really. He has a very consistent amount of regulars, despite working mostly in the daytime, and he knows all of their drinks too. He has helped make lots of connections for people over the past six years but he loves to see the crowds come and go. Because we all know its all fun and games until the 2 a.m. crowd rolls in.
Although Haydon has worked several large events and themed nights for the bar, including several Pride weekends, he does not do too many events any longer. Except for his most favorite gay holidays and events like Daddy Night, Gay Derby, and Gay Halloween, of course. But Haydon loves all his crazy bar-goers equally. His best, and worst, experience at the bar happened to be the night his husband proposed to him there with several of their friends in attendance while he bartended and pondered why so many of his friends were starting to flock in all at once. They’ve now been together for four years. Awww. Thanks Big Bar.
With the expansion approaching, Haydon is hoping he is able to retain some of the old quaintness while also upgrading and bringing in new clientele. He believes that people will be shocked at how it is so new in the way that it looks and feels, yet, somehow remains within the old bar feel and aesthetics as well. People will still be able to be able to separate the night club portion of going out from the casual, sit/stand around bar portion. There are is a lot more sitting room now, too!
They’ve also added a beautiful Beam-Suntory Highball machine which, if you don’t know what that is, please look at this shit immediately.
The bartenders are excited for all the new enhancements like Jake Bray, for example, said he is stoked for all the advancements in tech and design.
Bray was born and raised in Buffalo, NY and spent some time taking bartending classes when he was 18. He poured and served a few things here and there but nothing to the extent of his current level of advancement in mixology. He then bounced from Charlotte, NC to Louisville in 2018. He never really intended on bartending but when his brother found out that he was gay, the two of them decided to check out some local gay bars together. That’s when they stumbled upon Big Bar. After talking with several regulars and learning more about the bar’s culture, Bray found his home. He woke up the next morning to a text asking “Would you want to bartend at Big Bar?”
And home it became. Everyone was really warm and inviting when he started. He was fed all the information that he was lacking and he was taught everything that he needed with no problems. Bray said his favorite thing about the bar is the community that it’s created. They all have their regular customers but are always seeing new faces. He added that people from all walks of life join in community at Big and that is what’s so unique about it. Gender identities and sexual orientation barriers don’t create social barriers within the walls of Big, really.
Bray added that the expansion will only continue to vamp the presence of the LGBTQ+ community here in Louisville and, hopefully, help integrate it with the community at large. Bray is hoping for more guest appearances from community influencers, but he is most excited for events. Big will finally be able to host more events with more space. However, Bray said there are some fears that the expansion may scare away some of the regulars, but he knows, if anything, they’ll just “stay on the OG bar side.”
Bartender Leigh Nieves also has incredibly high hopes for the bar’s success and has been loving her journey there thus far. Nieves started working at the bar about three months ago and absolutely loves it. She has about 10 years of bartending experience so far and tends to work a lot of late night shifts with Bray. She originally was a regular at Sunday brunch hours at Big Bar and has slowly become a regular Saturday night bartender there. And she is eagerly awaiting the unveiling of the expansion, just as we all are.
“I’m just happy to work at a place that has been consistently a [big] part of the queer community,” she said.
As of today, the bar stands to be a communion ground for a lot of Queer people in Lousiville. Like Gay Church. A Hole-y Grail, if you will. But Sundays have definitely been sinister with jam packed brunch events, which will continue to be a part of the future of the bar but now with more seating!
Drink menus are in the works. There will be some specials on occasion, perhaps on Gay Halloween. The new area is pretty much a nightclub — lots of neon lights, lasers, pretty colors, etc – so anything could happen. There is also a gorgeous overhead view in the upstairs lounge, for those of us who like to go to people watch or to sit on our asses and drink in public with people instead of alone with our cats. Drag performances, karaoke nights, themed parties, more Drag Race viewing nights, games, events, and sports. It’s all coming soon at the old but newly improved Big Bar. Oh, and the go-go boys will officially be returning as well. The newly added portion is connected to the original bar with a beautifully illuminated, and fun, tunnel for customers to walk through to travel from side to side.
The bar has still managed to win six awards in LEO Weekly readers choice in 2021. Reeling in the accreditations of #1 best Happy Hour, #1 best bar in the Highlands, #2 Best Gay Bar in the City, #2 Best Gay Bar in Louisville & Best Neighborhood Pub/Bar, #3 Best Bar Scene, and 3rd best bartender in the city – Brandon Hayden, of course. With the expansion currently standing at three years in the making, it just has to be good. It’s got to be huge. And it needs to be perfect.
And it will be! Today marks their 10 year anniversary! Happy birthday, Big Bar!! On May 18-22, the bar will be hosting a big blowout in celebration of them finally being all grown up. Aww. It’s been a home for many people — straights and Queers — for a very long time and we only hope to continue to revel in your successes. We love you Big Bar and we can’t wait to be inside of you.
Also, the bar is hiring! Probably always, but definitely with all these fun things coming up!
Queer? POC? That’s hot. Need apply.