The pandemic has hit the hospitality and nightlife industry hard. Cooks, servers, and bartenders have all faced a grizzly 2020, but so have the people who get up on stages large and small. The effects of ongoing lockdowns and restrictions are rippling throughout the drag community as in-person shows, many of which are held in small, densely-packed bars, are all but canceled for the foreseeable future.
Drag performers are legendarily multi-talented: experts in makeup, costuming, dance, lipsynching, and a healthy handful are equally talented behind the bar as they are on the stage. Gorgeous comedy queen Ruby Roo is one of New York City’s elite drag bartenders, known for smart conceptual shows and a big, mouthy attitude. I caught up with her to chat about the current plight of the industry, how to recommend drinks to customers, and a Fireball-based cocktail that’s a dead ringer for a peach cobbler.What’s life like for a drag queen bartender right now? Ruby Roo: I work at Pieces, Hardware, and Playhouse in Manhattan and I am back working part time, for now. I used to do three shows a week in drag and then I would supplement by bartending one or two days in or out of drag.
Right now, because bartenders are also having to do a lot of cocktail serving-running around, I’m not actually in any sort of drag whatsoever. However, because I am pretty well known in the scene: I’ve won bartender of the year two years in a row and am the current reigning bartender for the Glam Awards, “Ruby Roo” is a pretty well-known name, so while I’m not in drag, people are very familiar with what I look like.
In general, I find that the customers are much nicer now than they have been in the past because I think they all see that what we’re doing means something a little more important now than it did before when we could just leave our houses whenever and didn’t have to worry.
It’s great that people are nicer. Bartending in drag sounds like a total logistical nightmare to me. When I used to work on Wednesdays I would normally do it in almost full drag. I would have makeup and hair and some sort of female outfit, but generally for full drag I would be wearing a corset with a bra, pads, four pairs of tights and heels, so instead I would wear, say, an oversized t-shirt with a girl’s body and a bikini on it.
Wait, I have that shirt too! Yeah, I have five of them. That’s what I would wear behind the bar because I could wear pants and it would still give you that funny illusion. But I’m not wearing my big hair that I would have to glue down to my face.
I competed in a Stoli competition where the winners got to go to Miami and of course for that I was in high whore drag. But when it comes to the day to day, being the only person there, it would be a logistical nightmare. I have worn the wrong hair and ten minutes into the shift I’m like ‘this is going to be the longest shift of my life because this is so uncomfortable.’
Before, I would do a show Friday night, bartend Saturday morning, take a nap in the basement of our bar and then get into drag again and do a whole show. Sunday I would get into drag, bartend a full brunch service, and then a show, and then do another show after that. So many times I’ve looked in the mirror after a shift and been like, I only have one eyebrow on, but I’m a whole hell of a lot richer, so it’s fine.
Are you doing any in-person shows right now at all? I haven’t been in drag in public since the city got shut down. I did an event for the census where five queens from across the city would try to get people to self-report. Everything has been online. I’ve done some live private shows, filmed a virtual series for NBC, filmed a makeup tutorial for Cosmopolitan, but it’s all at home.
Do you feel that people treat you differently behind the bar in and out of drag? Oh, definitely. We have such a dedicated group of regulars so they sort of inform how I’m treated, but at the same time Pieces is a destination. All the top drag queens work shows and celebrities go to see them.
Also, I’m a pretty drag queen…a pretty clown version of a drag queen, so people are pretty intimidated when I’m behind the bar. When people ask what I recommend, instead of saying, ‘oh we make a great Negroni,’ I can say ‘I don’t care bitch, you have to drink it, not me’ and then after that the rest of the interaction is a delight. Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer, which I love.
That’s such a contrast to my bar and restaurant background and what you can and can’t say to people. It brings me so much joy. I’m an insult comic, that’s my line of drag. It’s very fun.
All the things you wish you could say to your bar guests that you could never get away with. How liberating. It is exactly that.
You mentioned Negronis and people asking for drink recommendations. Beyond the gay bar staple vodka soda what’s your style…your approach to bartending? Oh, so you want to know if I’m a real bartender or if I just make vodka sodas?
I know you’re a real bartender! It’s a very valid question. Some people, they’re behind the bar pouring alcohol into cups, but they’re not bartenders. Most of the staff knows what they’re doing but Pieces is a dive. We’re not making that many martinis, I don’t have a decanter of fresh lime juice or a wine list. I don’t have Lillet for a Vesper. I’m not going to give you tasting notes on this Fox Ridge Merlot. It’s red wine. That’s what you get.
Being in that Stoli competition was a very cool moment for me in my drag bartending career. I got second place because…. well, I was robbed. But I made a three-layered cocktail with grenadine and egg white foam. I’m a little bougie bitch in general so when I go out to relatively nice places I’m ordering a fancy drink and that’s just how we are.
It’s fun when I get to flex a creativity moment. In drag shows, there’s the middle of the show where you play a game with the audience and then you give out free booze. I’m inventing my own recipes. I make something different than just like, here’s your margarita or kamikaze shot. I have one that tastes like peach cobbler. If I could work at a place that was a little more “mixologist,” I would love that.
I kind of never want to bartend again, but I find a lot of places are still a bit bro-y even though it’s a lot more inclusive than when I started. It would be really cool to open an all-gay fancy cocktail bar. Yeah, let me know.
Ruby Roo’s Peach Cobbler
2 oz. Fireball
1 oz. Peach Schnapps
1 oz. Fresh Orange Juice
.25 oz. Fresh Lemon Juice
Directions: Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Shake with ice for 15 seconds. Strain into an ice-filled highball glass. Garnish with a sprig of rosemary.Sign up here for our daily Thrillist email and subscribe here for our YouTube channel to get your fix of the best in food/drink/fun.
John deBary is a cocktail and bar expert with over a decade of experience working in award-winning New York City bars and restaurants. He is also the co-founder and president of the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grantmaking, and impact investing. John is also the creator of Proteau, a line of non-alcoholic drinks.
The cold weather in most parts of Australia coinciding with EOFY celebrations is the closest thing that we’ll get to snowy Christmas vibes. And if you’re in dire need of some festive cheer after the first six months of 2023, grab your ugly sweater and head to your nearest Red Rooster for Xmas in July deals.
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