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Hamburger Mary's: Sliders with a Side of Drag

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Photos by Michelle Min

Restaurants come and go — and sometimes they come back again. Recently, Las Vegas welcomed back Hamburger Mary’s, a casual eatery that serves up burger joint classics with drag queen performances in a diner-meets-beauty-pageant venue. A small but growing franchise, it’s the kind of place where the food is eat-what-you-feel-like (hello, fried Twinkies), and the dress code is come-as-you-are. But while it delights in sparkle and kitsch, Hamburger Mary’s is so much more: a restaurant that functions as an important third space for the LGBTQ community, the kind of home away from home where community members can gather in safety and joie de vivre

“It's a safe haven for a lot of people,” says Ernie Yuen, manager at both the old and the new locations. “Same-sex couples with families … can bring their children here, relax, have fun and not worry about dad and dad holding hands.”

The first Hamburger Mary’s opened in San Francisco in 1972, a freewheeling countercultural space where all were welcome. It billed itself as “an open-air bar and grill for open-minded people,” adopting a layout that incorporated al fresco dining — defying norms of secrecy and shame (the open-air concept is still embraced by most of the franchise today).

A second location opened in Honolulu, then others soon followed. The Gospel of Mary, glitter, heels, and all, was traveling the country. But by the mid-aughts, the franchise was in decline — and the Vegas venue, which had opened in 2002 near the Hard Rock, was no exception, shuttering in 2006. Then-owner James Healey, president of Las Vegas Pride and former state assemblyman, says it just didn’t make financial sense to stay open.

“For a lot of youth trying to come out, it's tough,” says Healey, pointing out that Hamburger Mary’s was one of the few under-21 LGBTQ venues in town. “And I have many, unfortunately many, people who've come up to me and shared that they didn't kill themselves because Hamburger Mary's existed. So when we had to close it, it was tough.”

By 2007, when the franchise came under the ownership of twins Ashley and Brandon Wright, there were just four Hamburger Mary’s venues left. The twins got to work turning the franchise around (they even appeared on an episode of Undercover Boss, donning drag and aprons to see their business through fresh eyes). Today, the reincarnation of Las Vegas’s Hamburger Mary’s is the franchise’s 20th venue.

On a recent evening, guests packed the two dining rooms: teens with green hair, gay dads with a toddler in tow, a table of silver-maned friends laughing. The mood: buoyant and hungry. The food: exactly what you want a burger joint to be. Enormous, juicy burgers, cooked to order, are sandwiched between plush buns; crunchy chicken tenders come out in generous portions; the fries are thick-cut and piping hot. And don’t forget the onion rings.

“The onion stays inside when you bite it. Very important for onion rings!” says Danielle Garrett, who came with her mother, Colleen, to support a cousin who’d just started working there.

Diner Christopher Kenney was taken with the décor: “It is so bright and colorful and campy and sparkly, and I just absolutely love it so far.”

With two stages, says Healey, who also co-owns the new venue, there’s space for karaoke nights, drag brunches, charity bingo, a dinner club event called Dining with the Divas, and tea dances, a dancefloor tradition that hearkens back to an era when gay and lesbian gatherings had to be held in secret under the auspices of “afternoon tea.”

Today, not only are these events out and proud, they’re open to all. “We're no longer trying to just be an LGBT haven or safe spot, we're trying to be a home that's welcoming to everybody,” Healey says.

It’s a different era for Mary: In the decade since the old Las Vegas Hamburger Mary’s closed, drag has gone mainstream. Emmy Award-winning show RuPaul’s Drag Race launched to wild success in 2009 (and has just been renewed for its 11th season). Bianca, Raja, and Alaska aren’t just drag stars, they’re American sweethearts. Even Healey’s parents, conservative Republicans, are fans. “[T]hey'll be like, ‘Oh my god, did you see last week's Rupaul?’ I'm like, ‘What are you doing? You're like 80 years old and you're watching Rupaul's Drag Race and loving it!’ It blows me away.”

Kenney, who performs on the Strip as Edie the Entertainer, points out that Hamburger Mary’s still plays an important role for the LGBTQ community here. Las Vegas doesn’t really have a gayborhood, he says. “We don't have a place except for bars, that's all we have. So when some place like this opens up, it's really going to bring the community together.”

Under the beaming gaze of a dozen busty blond Mary posters, the check arrives tucked inside a spiky black stiletto. “This one is my favorite,” our server says shyly, before gesturing towards the shelf of glittering heels (all brand new and never worn, don’t worry). The shoe is a Cinderella slipper for a queen restored, a final touch of cheeky, glamorous fun — before your next visit, of course.

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