Eszett is closing, but in its place opens Silver Lake’s new lesbian wine bar
Tonight one of Silver Lake’s strip-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 food menu and some of the city’s best — and most subversive — hot sauce, is closing, but the spirit of the space will live on. The Ruby Fruit, a lesbian wine bar from some of Eszett’s staff, is set to open there in mid-February.
“There is no denying that this is a hard task — a really tough act to follow,” said Mara Herbkersman, the former general manager of Eszett and one half of the Ruby Fruit’s ownership. “It’s been highly emotional.”
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One day, Herbkersman asked if her co-worker, server Emily Bielagus, would ever want to open a lesbian bar together. Bielagus didn’t skip a beat. Lesbian bar spaces have dwindled into the mere dozens across the country, and next month the duo hopes to reopen the space as L.A.’s first permanent lesbian bar since the Oxwood Inn’s closure in 2017 — building off the foundation constructed by Sabrina and Spencer Bezaire, the husband-and-wife team behind Eszett.
“We know what we’re stepping into,” said Bielagus. “We are taking over a very beloved space [and] we’re very grateful to them, and we know that they’re big shoes to fill. We’re also very aware of the history of the lesbian bar, as a concept, honoring the lineage of the people who’ve come before us.”
As general manager of Eszett and a longtime friend of the Bezaires, Herbkersman knows the space and the operations intimately, especially how to make use of the cramped but capable charcoal-oven kitchen. She’s hoping to employ this knowledge at the Ruby Fruit, opting for a slightly more casual setting and a no-reservations policy, to help it succeed where Eszett wasn’t able — though never for lack of trying.
The Pico location of Roscoe’s Chicken ‘n Waffles has closed. Though the closure was planned for years due to the opening of a nearby location along La Brea, the Pico restaurant was a special place for many Angelenos.
The Bezaires had dreamed for years of opening their own restaurant. After careers in the industry at the likes of L&E Oyster Bar and Highland Park Brewery, they finally opened Eszett as a kind of elegant but approachable neighborhood wine bar in December 2019. With only three months of normal operations before the pandemic’s first closures and pivots, they felt they never had a chance to get their business off the ground. Through the pandemic they added menu items for takeout, constructed a small parking-lot patio, expanded their house-made hot sauce retail operation, trimmed staff — eventually to the point of solely the Bezaires keeping service afloat for months — and they launched daytime specials, such as an artful, 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 had been. In late 2022, they decided to call it quits.
“We’ve had some slow weeks and slow 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 when it came down to it,” he said. “We’re so happy for Mara and Emily to be able to do their own thing that I honestly feel that if all this was to get them to this point, it makes me feel like it was all 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 going to sell, they wanted to keep it in the family and help much of the staff maintain their jobs. The news was gutting; Herbkersman views Sabrina Bezaire as a kind of mentor and the guiding voice who introduced her to the world of natural wine. It presented an opportunity, but one she would rather not take, given the cost.
“My first reaction was I was just devastated,” Herbkersman said. “I offered any solution I could possibly think of: I offered to quit. I said take my salary out of the equation, put me back hourly. I just wanted to do anything to keep them in it, and they said, ‘Thank you. But no.’”
The Bezaires announced the closure on Instagram one week before their last night of service; their reservations booked up instantly. When the dust settles they hope to focus more on their hot sauce retail line, which is still available via sbezhotsauce.com, and maybe consult or pop up elsewhere.
And, of course, they’re looking forward to supporting L.A.’s first new lesbian bar in years, which is expected to open next month.
Bielagus moved to L.A. shortly before the pandemic after 15 years in New York City, where she held a range of jobs and aspirations — one of which was the dream of opening a lesbian bar. As soon as she landed in L.A. and began focusing on her work in the restaurant industry, she realized she loved it and that the possibility of opening a bar could be more than a pipe dream. In New York she frequented Southpaw along with beloved spaces Ginger’s, Cubbyhole and Henrietta Hudson. Before she’d moved to L.A. she was already aware of the city’s dearth of lesbian-owned spaces; a fan and follower of docuseries and website the Lesbian Bar Project, she’d been aware of the dwindling locations 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 Ruby Fruit’s owners themselves had thrown occasional lesbian nights at Eszett — called Leszette. Their pop-up evolved into a roving pop-up series called Big Al’s: a concept that felt at its heart like more of a dive bar than a wine bar, hence the pivot for the bricks-and-mortar, which takes its name from Rita Mae Brown’s 1973 novel “Rubyfruit Jungle.”
The Ruby Fruit is meant to be a neighborhood bar and a home base, “like a Cheers, but for lesbians,” Bielagus says.
The kitchen will be composed entirely of women. The wine program, while it will remain natural, most likely will see a focus on Austrian and Eastern European wines, and they’re hoping to lean into programming with movie screenings, tasting nights, DJ appearances and book clubs, building community further through these events.
Herbkersman will help run the general back-of-house operations, while Bielagus will manage the front of house (such as hosts and servers), but they envision a space where there’s not so much division between all roles, with cross-training and well-rounded experience that teaches employees how the business runs and what it takes to operate, should they ever choose to start their own business.
The nurturing of staff is one of Herbkersman’s main objectives at the Ruby Fruit. “Having a space for women to work and to feel comfortable 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 opinions, to share when they don’t feel well because they have their period and not be afraid of being looked down upon. That’s not to say that that occurred at Eszett, but it’s something that is pervasive in the world.”
The nurturing isn’t reserved for staff: Both Bielagus and Herbkersman hope to build a space for all members of the community, not just lesbians, offering a gathering place to feel safe on a date, to find and foster conversation, to gather, to hold hands in public without fear and to meet lovers and friends.
“We want to honor that history and also recognize the ways in which women and nonbinary people and gender-nonconforming and trans people fit into the lesbian umbrella,” Bielagus said. “We’re very conscious of wanting to honor the past, and also be very aware of what’s happening now and our role in that journey.”
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