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    The Academy in the Castro: Your Home Away from Home

    By David Landis–

    During its many incarnations, the location that houses The Academy in the Castro has been: a clock shop, a leather bar, a sex club, and a restaurant, among other businesses. But now, the edifice at 2166 Market Street is something even more: a home away from home.

    You feel it the minute you walk into the dazzling 3-story club: it’s luxurious, design-forward, comfortable, welcoming, and artsy. In short, it’s what the Castro has needed for years.

    My husband and I have long lamented that since the demise of Mecca, there hasn’t been a premiere lounge in the Castro where you can relax, have a good cocktail with a plate of first-rate appetizers—and have a real conversation, especially outdoors in a magical garden. Now there is. It’s The Academy.

    The Academy bills itself as a “social club focused on promoting genuine social interactions, while offering engaging programming in collaboration with nonprofit organizations, local businesses and leading community members.”

    It’s all that—but oh, so much more.

    The Academy: Part of The Community

    Run since 2017 by co-founders Nate Bourg and Paul Miller, The Academy seeks to take a different approach to engaging with the LGBTQ community. “One of the things that I thought was missing,” says Paul, a longtime Castro resident, “was a place to go that also had activities and things to do. As I got older, I realized there were incredible people making San Francisco cool. They needed a place to come together—not a leather bar or a twink bar or a community center. Everyone could come and unify. I ran Truck (a longtime gay bar in the Mission) and noticed how the needs of the community were changing. People went out with their friends and wanted to meet new people, not just for sexual hook-ups. I wanted to answer the question, ‘How does one engage with their community where I can walk up and talk to another person without pretense?’ I started rethinking the way we did things and reached out to Nate, because of his events experience.”

    Jokes Nate, “He roped me in and it’s now been three and a half years!”

    “We’re a membership club without being exclusive or snooty,” comments Paul. “Our business model isn’t based on consuming 9 drinks. We want you to come in, love the space, and enjoy it. You can come out, interact with people, and have a lovely time.”

    The Academy: The Experience

    The Gay Gourmet can attest to the “having a lovely time” part. My husband and I visited on two occasions—once by ourselves and once with a group of close friends (The Academy is ideal for small “pod” groups.) Reservations during COVID are a must, but you can easily do that online.

    After you arrive, you walk through the gorgeous indoor spaces to congregate outdoors in a beautifully-landscaped garden. (Indoors, currently not open, has three different spaces: a wine tasting room upstairs, a lounge on the main floor, and a speakeasy on the bottom floor.)

    Each reservation has its own outdoor space and you can reserve up to 6 guests in one space. The COVID protocols are re-assuring: from check-in to table service, the hand sanitizers, masks, and social distancing are prevalent throughout. I also appreciated that the wait staff let me take my own cocktail off the tray.

    The cocktail and wine menus are carefully curated: they’re not extensive, but they’re first-rate. I had a dry and light rosé sparkling wine on the first visit and a perfectly-balanced Tanqueray Negroni on the second; my husband deferred to the Provence-style still rosé wine on the first visit and then the house Manhattan the second time.

    To pair with the cocktails, we ordered a cheese and charcuterie plate both times. The food is supplied by Guerra Quality Meats, an Italian deli that has reigned supreme in the Sunset for more than 50 years. The aperitivo-style dishes offer up tasty mortadella with pistachios, Parmesan and Comté cheeses, and a supple and tender prosciutto, all accompanied with dried cranberries and nuts. The service is spot-on and also welcoming—including when I complimented our waiter on his “nice arms!”

    The Academy operates differently than a normal bar or restaurant. It’s a membership model, but one that welcomes everyone. Nate explains, “Our memberships start at $125/month, but we also have a $45/month option for people outside the Bay Area. We have a scholarship program for those who can’t afford the dues, including people such as schoolteachers and artists.”

    Activities Take Center Stage

    The offerings at The Academy don’t start and end with cocktails and appetizers. As Paul describes, “We have several categories of activities. Academy Live includes some sort of performance: violin, piano, singing; Academy Forum is where a member of the community presents information, such as a neurosurgeon talking about Alzheimer’s; then we have Academy Home Room, classes devoted to such topics as LGBTQ history and culture presented in a way that you can learn about all the historical icons embedded in the sidewalk on Castro Street; and we oversee member-moderated clubs, such as a book club, a game night, and a hiking group. We also offer Academy Dines Out, where we pick one restaurant each month and go visit and dine there.” The Academy is available for private rentals—and even boasts an in-house barbershop, of all things!

    Diversity Is Part of The Mission

    Besides the idyllic garden setting, one of the things I liked most—which was a surprise—was seeing not just gay, white men, but also women and people of color both times. It’s true that The Academy is a welcoming space for all.

    Says Paul, “We are open to all communities. We want to get the word out. It’s more fun when it’s more diverse. We want this to be a nexus of different communities, where a Latino trans activist can sit down with a supervisor or business owner and meet up. We have a DEI committee to figure out how to do this right. The programming should reflect the overall community. We’re especially doing a lot of programming for women and communities of color. We have been focusing on women in our ambassadors program, where we offer heavily or fully subsidized memberships to people of some renown in the community. We also have many female teachers in our Academy Home Room events and hope that will encourage women to feel like this is a space for them. Being open to diversity is not enough. What you have to be is proactive and seek out the inclusion and work at that.”

    Academy Legends Honor Community Heroes

    “Our next big event is Academy Legends on December 4,” continues Paul. “It’s an online community awards benefit. This year, we induct activist and drag queen Juanita MORE! to our Academy Legends Archive. She will contribute a personal artifact that represents the impact she has had on our community, to be enshrined in our permanent collection. We also will present Manny Yekutiel (owner of Manny’s, a civic event space in the Mission) with our Architect Award, which honors someone who has improved our community by creating a new institution or by vastly improving a community institution that already exists. The Academy also soon will announce an Exemplar Award winner, showcasing what we’d like to see in the community; as well as the Diane Jones Solidarity Award winner (named after one of the nurses in the AIDS ward at San Francisco General Hospital) given to someone who binds us together.”

    The Academy garden is currently open (reservations required) for club members and their guests Thursday–Saturday evenings from 5–7 pm or 8–10 pm and Sunday from 2–4 pm or 5–7 pm.

    The Future?

    What’s to come? According to Nate, “A daytime version of The Academy in 2021.” Stay tuned.

    Summarizes Nate, “Our members feel a sense of ownership and belonging: a place where they can be themselves. You can feel safe and very likely make a lot of new friends. It’s gratifying to see these new connections happen in real time.”

    https://academy-sf.com/

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a PR executive. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF, on Twitter @david_landis, email him at: david@landispr.com or visit him online at: www.gaygourmetsf.com

    Published on November 19, 2020