On the outside, Rebel Rebel — a compact Old Town bar boxed between Tube and Dixie’s Tavern — could be just a hole in the wall, a doorway one might miss if not for the drag artists in fetish gear outside. Within the bar, men sport ornate Easter-inspired floral headdresses, club kids arrive dripping in luxury fashion accessories, tech gays chat with stylish lesbians. The interior amounts to a sometimes claustrophobic hall bathed in neon hues and shadow, with a corner stage and booths further inside for watching drag shows or setting up base camp before dancing to local queer DJs.
Rebel Rebel has only been open for a few months, but owner J Buck says his David Bowie-inspired bar has hit full capacity constantly since its opening. This neighborhood was once home to queer holdouts, places like Embers and Fox & Hounds; even nearby LGBTQ club CC Slaughters almost closed for good over the course of the pandemic. Still, Rebel Rebel has rapidly become a thriving third space for Portland’s LGBTQ nightlife community, in a neighborhood — and city — that has lost so many of its inherently queer spaces.
“I want Rebel Rebel to be a space where every single person who identifies with any single thing they identify as, even allyship, to come in and have a good time, as long as we’re all really showing the amount of love we all deserve for each other,” Buck says. “It’s a celebration of the hodgepodge mix of what being queer actually is, and seeing it and accepting it and living it and loving it and celebrating each other.”
Before opening Rebel Rebel, Buck handled the marketing and events for the Lightning Bar Collective. Inspired by Bowie’s artistic legacy, Buck wanted to disrupt Old Town’s reputation as the capitol of Portland’s club scene. “Old Town has this reputation for specifically nightlife and club scenes and hardcore bass and all the things, but I wanted to shake it up a little bit,” Buck says. “People still live down here, and there’s no need to go across the river when you can go to the friendly neighborhood queer bar.”
When the DJ-centered club Maxwell closed, Buck nabbed the space, planting LED gay and trans pride flags in the windows. He kept Maxwell’s gold-trimmed art deco wall carvings and painted black wooden panels and long murals of jewel-tone vines. His goal is to create a true third space for Portland’s queer community, within the heart of Old Town.
“You’re not at home, you’re not at work, but you’re also existing somewhere so different where none of that matters,” Buck says. “You’re just here, and it’s an environment on the inside that takes you outside of being in Old Town.”
Rebel Rebel’s patrons can order cocktails Buck and the bar staff designed to be upscale while accessible in terms of price and turnaround on a busy night. Rebel Rebel’s cocktail menu trends sweet and herbal: fig, cinnamon, and tequila mingle within the New Age Sage Rage; the soft pink house namesake mixes watermelon liqueur with grapefruit bitters and triple sec; the ginger beer and lemon-tinged WAP (Whiskey and Peach) shares bar menu real estate with its Hennessey-based cousin, Oh Hey Henny. When it comes to food, Portland pre-made label Snackrilege provides vegan paninis to hungry patrons.
Staying flexible to the LGBTQ+ community’s desires for drag and dance nights, Buck’s ultimate goal with Rebel Rebel is to imbibe downtown with the eclectic-but-laidback energy of East Portland’s storied bar scenes, especially during a time he sees as a crucial moment in Portland’s comeback story. The loss of the Roxy was a significant blow to Portland’s queer community, and owner Suzanne Hale partially attributed the closure to the state of downtown Portland and its nightlife scene: “Graveyard is not coming back,” she told Eater in March. “Downtown is broken.” But Buck sees things improving: The Queen’s Head, a new drag bar on SW 2nd, opened at the end of 2021, and crowds seem to be returning to places like Silverado and Santé. Plus, more queer spaces, like lesbian bar Doc Marie’s and Sissy Bar on SE Morrison, are in the works, to open this year.
“I see Old Town changing,” Buck says. “I see the level of foot traffic coming back, I see people walking from Queens Head to here to CC’s or Scandals or Stag. You see drag queens walking up and down the street, and it feels like it’s part of this major queer renaissance I’m very much enjoying.”
Rebel Rebel is now open at 20 NW 3rd Avenue.