On an unassuming corner in Costa Mesa, beside a market and a couple of Mexican restaurants, a new hub for Orange County’s queer community is set to open its neon-emblazoned doors.
Strut Bar & Club, the brainchild of nightlife connoisseur Luke Nero, will welcome the first guests into its disco-lit, pop art-decorated space next week.
“I understood that there was a huge void in the queer market down here,” Nero said. “There’s no lack of gay people that live down here, but [a] lack of places to socialize? Absolutely.”
At the height of gay nightlife, Orange County was booming with venues. But one by one, LGBTQ nightclubs around the county closed. Laguna Beach’s famous Boom Boom Room shuttered in 2007. Soon after, Woody’s at the Beach closed its doors.
In Garden Grove, clubs blinked out of existence like a series of light bulbs at the end of a long night, leaving only the Frat House standing.
The few historic gay nightclubs that are left are scattered around the county.
“We still are lacking that centralized hub,” said Tony Viramontes, director of health services at the LGBT Center OC.
LGBTQ nightclubs served a different purpose in the past, Nero said — to connect people who often couldn’t find other places to meet partners. Today, in addition to dating and networking apps like Grindr that facilitate meetings within the LGBTQ community, there are more options to meet people outside of the traditional gay bar scene.
“These [historic] kinds of venues would be sexualized, as in go-go dances,” Nero said. “Now, people just want to have fun at the club. It’s a very different experience.”
Nero said he wants Strut to reinvigorate the queer nightlife scene in Orange County.
“You just gotta change the party atmosphere that they’re playing in,” he said.
Guests entering the venue at 719 W. 19th St. will be greeted by a collection of mannequins displayed below a glowing sign with the message, “You have been warned.” To the side, a backlit room will feature shadowy dancing figures, Nero said. A tunnel wrapped in neon lighting will channel guests from the entrance and open into the club, which will be alight with more neon and glittering disco balls.
“This will be your, ‘Wow!’” Nero said.
While there are no rainbow flags adorning the interior — “our queerness comes through our design integrity,” Nero said — color runs throughout the club and pops in certain areas.
The goal, Nero said, is to make every surface Instagram-worthy so that, soon enough, the club will market itself.
“You can’t take the queer dollar and not give a little something back in regards to production,” he said.
The bar will serve guests seven days a week, and the club will open its doors on Friday and Saturday nights. Soon after the grand opening — which is expected Friday — Nero is planning to host a drag brunch on Sundays. Throughout the week, he said, the club will be rented out for private parties.
Nero, who has produced events from New York to Los Angeles for the likes of Katy Perry and Angelina Jolie, sees Strut as a way to modernize queer nightlife in Orange County. After living in Los Angeles for 10 years, the native Australian moved to Newport Beach in December to be closer to the new venue — “I’m married to the job,” he said.
“I felt like Orange County has a bad rap, and I think it’s more sophisticated than people give it credit for,” he said. “I recognized that right away.”
About a year ago, Nero began hunting for space to open his club. Los Angeles was too expensive, but Orange County held a certain allure. He found the perfect marriage of “concept and value for money and location” in Costa Mesa by January.
The chosen location has a history in the community — it was previously home to another gay club called Lion’s Den. Most recently, a speakeasy-style bar called Holiday occupied the space.
Craig Cooley, president of Laguna Beach Pride 365, agreed that there is no shortage of LGBTQ folks in Orange County, just a dearth of spaces to meet. He pointed to the strip of nightclubs in West Hollywood, which are often booming with parties and packed with people.
A typical night in Long Beach could include using a rainbow-patterned crosswalk to get from one LGBTQ nightclub to the next. Compared to its northern counterparts, Orange County is starving for more community spaces, Cooley said.
“There is a tide coming back with more people, particularly the straight clientele becoming a part and supporting the gay scene,” he said.
He added that there is a strong LGBTQ community in the county that is excited to support the new venue.
With the rise in dating apps and a greater acceptance of LGBTQ people in general, though, one might ask, “Who needs queer nightclubs anymore?”
Nero rolled his eyes at that question.
“Meh,” he said. “I don’t believe it.”
IF YOU GO
What: Strut Bar & Club
Where: 719 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa