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Preeti Mistry. Photos by the author.

This Indian Restaurant Is Secretly a Gay Bar

Elazar Sontag

Chef Preeti Mistry's Juhu Beach Club swaps out dive bar dinginess for community, comfort, and delicious food.

Preeti Mistry. Photos by the author.

Juhu Beach Club is not a normal restaurant, and chef Preeti Mistry is just fine with that.

Situated in an Oakland strip mall near a cell phone store and a check-cashing spot with a seemingly permanent "Now Hiring" sign in its window, Juhu Beach Club—which bills itself as an "Indian Street Food" eatery—doesn't look like much from the outside.

But on any given night, the restaurant becomes a melting pot of genders, ethnicities, sexualities, and attitudes in both the kitchen and the dining room. It's not your run-of-the-mill Indian joint, nor is it your typical gay bar. Instead, it transcends both, blending the two into something new.

Mistry, who runs the restaurant with her wife Ann, refers to Juhu Beach Club as a "mom and mom shop."

"I don't want to go to a dive bar where the bartender looks at me with an eye roll when I order a negroni. I'm fucking 40 years old."

"A lot of people who feel sort of outside of the mainstream, whether as customers, employees, or both, feel really comfortable and at home and supported here," Mistry says.

One night during service, Mistry found out that San Francisco's iconic dyke bar The Lexington was closing. She was upset but unsurprised; in the past several years, the country has seen a spate of gay and lesbian bars shutter. Some of Mistry's friends suggested that the bars have closed due to lack of business, that the queer community just wasn't going out like it used to.

"I'm sorry, maybe some of you don't drink that much, but I don't have any kids!" Mistry tells me, recalling the conversation. "I go out all the time."

Like many in her generation, however, Mistry's tastes have changed. At 22, she had no problem pounding tequila until 3 AM at a shitty dive bar—but now? "I don't want to go to a dive bar where the bartender looks at me with an eye roll when I order a negroni. I'm fucking 40 years old."

Sweet and tangy fried cauliflower at Juhu Beach Club. Photo by the author.

Mistry is still game to throw back drinks into the early hours, but in a different environment—one that she believes represents where the queer community really is. As landmark spots like the Lexington close, Mistry thinks that restaurants can take on the task of creating a new wave of queer meeting spaces infused with an air of social justice.

That's where Juhu Beach Club comes in. Even its menu engages diners on a political level.

Mom's Guju Chili—a mung bean dal served with pickled onions and yogurt—is dubbed "solidarity soup," from which a portion of each sale is donated to an outreach organization or charitable foundation. The idea to bring social justice to her kitchen came to Mistry after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin; in response, she made a black lentil dal dish and donated a portion of her profits to Black Lives Matter. "Since then, our dal in the soup section of the menu always has some nonprofit or fundraising organization that the money goes to," Mistry says.

Her kitchen is just as carefully constructed as her menu.

Being a queer woman of color, Mistry tells me, affects every aspect of her life. When she worked for other people, she was often reminded that her identity and the color of her skin made her an outsider in the hierarchy of a traditional white-male-dominated kitchen. She wanted her own restaurant to be different.

Shrimp cooked with tomatoes and curry leaves. Photo by the author.

"The only thing you need to prove [at Juhu Beach Club] is that you're a nice person and you're working hard. You don't have to show anybody how fast you can do this or how perfect you can do that," Mistry says. "When we opened, I put 'women and people of color encouraged to apply' on every Craigslist ad."

Her kitchen staff is now a reflection of one of Oakland's greatest assets—its diversity.

While it can't replicate the freewheeling, alcohol-lubricated feeling of a good old-fashioned gay bar, Juhu Beach Club isn't exactly trying to. Instead, it aims for a paradigm shift in how queer people come together over food and drink, replacing the well vodka shots and the cloying appletinis with sweet and tangy fried cauliflower, and shrimp cooked with tomato and curry leaves.

Looking at the crowd of queer families, Oakland old-timers, and some young gay kids, it seems that Mistry has successfully created a queer restaurant for the modern era—a warm embrace of community, comfort, and delicious food.