Gay prom, shows, and inclusive hospitality: How 3 queer-owned Chicago restaurants demonstrate their Pride

Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club is a historic, must-visit LGBTQ spot in Chicago. Photo credit: Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club

Along with special events that attract millions of participants around the world every June, Pride Month in Chicago gets capped off by a two-day festival in Northalsted, an outdoor music festival in Grant Park, and a parade that remains one of the longest-running and largest in the country. 

Historic LGBTQ restaurants and bars, including Jeffrey Pub (the longest running Black-owned bar in Chicago), Sidetrack in Boystown, and Big Chicks, have long been central to these celebrations. 

Several places have since built on that legacy. There’s a MICHELIN-starred restaurant housed in an old print shop, a fried chicken joint with a basement lesbian bar, and a supper club where an all-transgender cast steals the show. Read on for three must-visit LGBTQ destinations in Chicago.

Split-Rail and Dorothy (West Town)

Chicago chef Zoe Schor in a sparkly purple jacket standing next to her fiancée Whitney LaMora in a black tank top.

Chef Zoe Schor (right) with her fiancée Whitney LaMora. Schor recently debuted a lesbian bar below her acclaimed Chicago restaurant. Photo credit: Split-Rail

Split-Rail chef and owner Zoe Schor hasn’t been afraid to shake things up over the years at her beloved, six-year-old West Town restaurant, but there’s one recent change diners won’t see on the menu.

“Pre-pandemic, while I wasn’t hiding who I was, Split-Rail was never promoted as gay-owned or woman-owned. It was just a restaurant,” Schor says. “These days people ideally want to be more thoughtful about how and who they are spending their money with.”

Schor has translated that two-fold: Split-Rail is more intentional with messaging on Instagram and its website. Plus, the restaurant recently opened Dorothy, a lesbian cocktail lounge below Split-Rail, where the monthly queer open mic night is a highlight. “Everybody is welcome, but the goal is to create a space that prioritizes people who haven’t been historically prioritized,” Schor says.

Creating an inclusive environment for staff is equally important. “We hire with an eye towards it,” Schor says. “During the interview process, we talk about inclusivity and we talk about being queer-owned.” Health insurance, vacation time, and a bonus for those without unexcused absences are ways Split-Rail prioritizes taking care of its employees.

Dorothy will celebrate Pride Month with a gay prom on June 1. “Plenty of older queer people never got to have a good prom experience and probably went closeted with a member of the opposite sex,” Schor says. “A do-over prom is such a fun concept.”

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Sepia and Proxi (West Loop)

Chicago restaurateur Emmanuel Nony in a dark blue shirt and a light blue jacket sitting on a marble table at one of his restaurants.

Inclusivity has long been the core focus of Emmanuel Nony’s hospitality ethos. Photo credit: Sepia

Emmanuel Nony knows a thing or two about creating great experiences. He’s a managing partner at West Loop MICHELIN-starred restaurant Sepia and its small-plates neighbor Proxi, he has 45 years of hospitality industry experience and is a nominee for outstanding hospitality at this year’s James Beard Awards.

Inclusivity is at the core of his hospitality philosophy—an idea that took root after a negative experience decades ago. While working at a high-end hotel in Asia, Nony was told not to talk about his personal life. “I was not able to be myself,” says Nony, who is gay. “The environment back then was very conservative.”

Nony was certain he would do the opposite when he finally got a chance to open his first restaurant, Sepia, 16 years ago. Nony is upfront with employees and frequently mentions his husband, Kirk. “I’m very comfortable in my skin and interacting with guests and employees, and I encourage them to be comfortable with themselves too,” Nony says. “We like to offer an environment where there is mutual respect.” 

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Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club (Wrigleyville)

Owners of Chicago restaurant Kit Kat Lounge and Supper Club, both wearing white t-shirts.

Edward Gisiger and Ramesh Ariyanayakam were among the first Chicago restaurateurs to offer dinner with drag performances. Photo credit: Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club

When Wrigleyville’s Kit Kat Lounge & Supper Club opened 23 years ago people weren’t sure what to think. “Everyone thought we were a gay restaurant because we were gay owners and the first in Chicago to offer drag performances while you had dinner,” says Edward Gisiger, who owns the venue along with Ramesh Ariyanayakam. 

Kit Kat was inspired by the club in the movie Cabaret and the owners’ desire to offer something beyond dinner. “We wanted to have a place that offered great food and drinks and be a place where you could go and let your hair down, no matter if you’re gay, straight, or bi,” says Gisiger.

Drag performances were originally only on weekends, but demand soon upped that to every night except Monday, when Kit Kat is closed. Drag brunch followed a few years later, as did Kit Kat’s signature 100-martini list and an expansive sidewalk patio for performances.

The Wrigleyville spot now has an all-transgender cast for its shows and Kit Kat aptly refers to the performers as “celebrity icon divas.” The entertainers explain the difference between trans and drag at the end of each show to help educate guests. “If someone is at Kit Kat and hears their story and sees that they’re just a regular person, they’ll have a more open mind to what trans is,” Gisiger says.

Kit Kat is celebrating Pride Month month with outdoor performances on June 17 and 18, and the bar is a prime spot to catch the Chicago Pride Parade on June 25.

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Lisa Shames is a writer focused on travel and food culture in Chicago, IL, and is the US contributor for Sogoodmag. Find her on Instagram.