By Michele Zipkin
PHILADELPHIA — Denise Cohen has been running lesbian bars in Philly for upwards of 30 years, so losing Toasted Walnut to the pandemic was a particularly harsh blow. The bar essentially closed in November, 2020 when indoor dining was temporarily suspended. Even when the bar was able to run at 25% capacity, she was struggling.
“When your concept is a nightclub and you can no longer be that — people weren’t sitting at home going, ‘I’m going to drive into center city and have tacos at Toasted Walnut,’” Cohen said. “I think we joked around and we figured out we had to sell 3,000 tacos and a beer just to be able to make the rent.”
Although the building’s landlords were patient and open to negotiation, Cohen was unable to make the $11,000 monthly rent that they ultimately demanded.
“I don’t want to do battle with the landlords in a court of public opinion,” Cohen said. “What transpired with them was legal — it is their space to rent.”
On top of the bar closing, Cohen was diagnosed with stage three uterine cancer in November, which spread to her lymph nodes. In 2019, her diabetes caused blindness in one eye. Toasted Walnut staff put together a GoFundMe campaign to help Cohen pay her medical bills.
“With us wrapping up the bar, this has absolutely been a godsend,” she said. Cohen’s wife has been working long hours to make ends meet, and friends have been cooking meals for the couple, said Drea Young, who worked as head bartender at Toasted Walnut and played a big role in organizing the fundraiser. She met Cohen in the early 2000s when the former worked as a barback at Sisters.
“It’s just a lot at once happening,” Young said. “I just want [Denise] to get through it. She is a legend in the community, and I don’t think everybody knows that. She deserves respect all around.”
Cohen indeed has a long legacy in the Philadelphia lesbian nightclub scene. She began as a barback at the bar Hepburn’s in 1989, and quickly rose through the ranks to general manager. The place drew some 900 women on Saturday nights, she said.
“It brought something different to Philly — there was a women’s scene, but we had more variety,” Cohen added. “You could do a country night, an oldies night, you could do live entertainment that wasn’t crammed into a small corner of a bar. They had their own stage with lighting.”
Hepburn’s hosted musical acts in the 90s, when the songwriter scene was saturated with women and female-centric bands. “That was the days of Melissa and Indigo Girls,” Cohen said. “There was a great splash that happened with Hepburn’s.”
After Hepburn’s closed in 1995, Cohen spent nearly two decades managing the iconic lesbian bar Sisters, Philly’s go-to nightclub for queer women until the recession caused it to shut down in 2013.
“When we finally got onto the internet, we could see that people were logging in from foreign countries to check out the website,” Cohen said. “We got hits coming from Germany, India and Japan.”
On the heels of establishing a business plan, taking out a loan, sorting out permit issues with L&I and remodeling the building at 1316 Walnut Street, Cohen opened Toasted Walnut in late 2016.
“Denise’s whole marketing [for the bar] was, it’s lesbian-owned and operated,” Young said. “If you came to Philadelphia that was the bar you went to. It was also very diverse for the trans community.” The diversity of the bar reflected the diversity of the staff; Cohen hired a woman of color and a transgender person as managers, as well as trans bartenders.
Above all, Cohen said that she was proudest when “an employee or customer would bring a family member or old friend to [the bar] and they would be so proud to show [them], ‘hey, look we have such a cool, safe, welcoming space.’”
The closure of Toasted Walnut marks a trend in the disappearance of queer lady-centric bars in the U.S. According to the Lesbian Bar Project, there are just 15 remaining lesbian bars in the country. Cohen opines that part of the reason for that is that the gay male bar scene has much more room for niche, themed spaces, like piano or sports bars.
“From my experience, women’s bars across the country had to be everything for everybody,” she said. “We weren’t able to break the bars down, unless it was a locale — somewhere in the South might be a country bar. A lot of bars had to have specific nights, not specific [themes].”
She also cited the idea that in recent years, it has become more socially acceptable for two women to show public displays of affection than two men. Despite more and more queer folks being comfortable frequenting their local bars than traveling to the city to a place like Toasted Walnut, “it doesn’t take away from your first time walking into a gay bar, whether it’s gay men or women, where it’s a party,” Cohen said. “There is that thrill.”
The closure of Toasted Walnut will leave a gap in Philly’s queer community.
“Everybody that went there, we all got along,” Young said. “It was just really good vibes.”