Back From Extinction " a Women's Bar Emerges in the Laurel

by Meredith Florian

Metro writer Meredith Florian found the atmosphere of Velvet to be like a diverse version of the bar in Cheers—young, ethnically-blended lesbians chatted with middle-aged women as well as gay and straight male buddies. Photo By Nick Lostracco.

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Back in the disco days women's bars flourished in the Bay Area, but now you are as likely to encounter one as see a woolly mammoth on MacArthur. So why would a regular guy, like Maxwell Park native Bob Huff, open a women's bar in the Laurel? Huff, a former Marine and construction worker, who also has worked in bars and nightclubs, "picked up a vibe" over the past few years as he walked through his neighborhood. He noticed lots of lesbians, priced out of San Francisco, "doing the nesting thing" in the Laurel and surrounding areas.' He also recognized that "we are going more that direction just in terms of being a gay-friendly area." So last March Huff and his friends Adam Afuvai with his wife Stephanie, opened Velvet, "a safe place for women, a nice comfortable place where they can come and be themselves and not worry about who is staring at them."

Huff's Velvet adds another twist to the history of the bar—locals remember it as Merle's Hilltop Tavern, a Native American bar. The site housed a biker bar in the '70s, where the Hell's Angels hung out. "I did some renovations on the bar, and underneath we found these flyers 'Bring your instruments for musician's night at 3411 Hopkins St [the old name for MacArthur Blvd. " Ed.]'." Huff acknowledges that it has been "a little tricky" for "a couple of straight guys" to market themselves as promoters of a women's bar. But he believes that once people see Velvet and "understand that we are all about providing a safe place for women," the business will take off. Velvet is not exclusively for women, and in my two visits to the bar, I found the atmosphere to be like a diverse version of the bar in Cheers—young, ethnically-blended lesbians chatted with middle-aged women as well as gay and straight male buddies. "If you come with a man, the women here don't seem to have a problem." But Huff warns, "No men who make women uncomfortable are going to be here."

On the weekend Velvet has security. So far the extent of problems has been having to escort out the occasional man who "hits on women." As Huff notes, "The women's scene takes care of a lot of problems. You don't have a bunch of testosterone and alcohol blending together." Huff, endeavoring to be a good neighbor, has put in plexiglass windows to keep noise from pouring out into the street. "We are not going to be having all-night rave parties."

So what goes on at Velvet? The Saturday night I visited the club, with its homey display of art by local women, the bar was hosting a monthly party called "Eve." The event attracts women from all over the Bay Area who come to enjoy not only the DJ and state-of-the-art sound system, but also the cozy pool-table area. Huff did not promote the event himself because he admits "we haven't really had enough money yet to do our own advertising." Velvet has a cabaret license for seven days a week with entertainment ranging from rappers to spoken word to guest DJs.

At the time of this interview, Huff just got approved for his liquor license. He says he would love to attract more Mills students who are over 21, because the college doesn't have a local bar.

While Huff admits starting a new business is grueling, he loves his job, talking all day, meeting some really cool people. "It's just a whole different world that I'm exposed to." He dreams of renovations, such as "a mezzanine level overlooking the fully functional stage." And he'd love to buy the rest of the building. "Our goal is to be here a long time—to be a good neighbor."

So bring a friend, have a drink, dance, listen to a performance, support our local business.

Velvet is located at 3411 MacArthur.