The Pride party continues at the River’s Brunch of Bitches | Pride 2019 | Chicago Reader

The Pride party continues at the River’s Brunch of Bitches 

Unlimited eggs, mimosas, and drag performances for the whole family

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click to enlarge Elektra Del Rio (center) and Kim Passable (right) with brunchers

Elektra Del Rio (center) and Kim Passable (right) with brunchers

courtesy Elektra Del Rio

Yesterday two kids, brothers who both look younger than ten, were at Pokémon Go Fest. Today they're at the River watching drag queen Elektra Del Rio literally swing from the rafters, totally overwhelmed by the loud music and the experience of being the only children in a screaming crowd of 150 adults. They are the toughest audience I've seen at any of my four drag brunches.

Drag has fully permeated the mainstream, and the Lakeview bar and grill formerly known as Mad River, a notorious watering hole for messy DePaul students and Cubs fans, has gained a reputation as the home of the hottest drag brunch in Chicago. Brunch of Bitches debuted on February 10 and immediately blew up thanks to the explosive show put on by cohosts Veronica Pop, Kim Passable, and Del Rio.

"The numbers on week four were the numbers they thought they would get for month four," says Passable, 27.

There are the expected groups of gay men and bachelorette parties, but straight couples and families with kids are also joining the fun. RuPaul's Drag Race turned drag into prime-time cable entertainment enjoyed by viewers across all ages, races, genders, and sexual orientations, and got them interested in watching live drag. (The River recognizes the TV show's impact, and starts every brunch with the song "Hieeee" by Drag Race champion Alaska Thunderfuck.)

Brunch of Bitches satisfies that craving with exhilarating performances and a celebratory atmosphere. The three hosts and a guest dance and lip-synch their hearts out over two hours, jumping on tables, doing death drops on the bar, and somersaulting down the aisles. The girls catch their breath with filthy banter between sets, and are always looking for ways to interact with the audience, usually to give away free stuff. At my first brunch, I won two free passes to another brunch in a fake orgasm contest because that's just how drunk they get you.

Brunch of Bitches originated at the River's sister bar, Mad River NYC, where the events and marketing manager, Rodrigo Cespedes, saw an opportunity to fill a void on the Upper East Side. He drew inspiration from the drag brunches he saw while working on Fire Island and put together a brunch that has also seen considerable success. The idea was passed along to the River's general manager, Jon Poremba, who scoped out local drag shows while employees put out feelers on social media for potential queens.

Pop, Passable, and Del Rio had worked together on multiple occasions, and when the River started looking for queens, the three pitched themselves as a group. Their chemistry is essential to Brunch of Bitches' popularity. "What you're paying for is the show, the experience," says Del Rio. "The food and alcohol are a bonus. You're paying for the entertainers."

click to enlarge The River - JON POREMBA
  • The River
  • Jon Poremba

That bonus food and alcohol present difficulties, especially when the attendance greatly outnumbers initial estimates. Poremba recalls understaffing the servers and kitchen at the first shows, and the fundamental question created by the demands of drag brunch: "How are we going to get all these people in here, sat at the same time, have everyone get food as fast as possible, get their drinks, and then get up at the end because we've got another one coming?" The operation isn't perfect, but it's impressively smooth considering the scale.

After the first week, the River found a Boystown partner in Splash Chicago, a bar and nightclub just under a year old. Brunch of Bitches directs patrons to Splash after brunch for discounted drinks. Splash's Tens drag competition on Monday nights promotes the River's events—including a Wednesday drag bingo—and provides guest talent for Brunch of Bitches, which has become a place for young queens to get large crowd experience and earn major cash if they turn it out. (The two establishments will share a float in this year's Pride Parade.)

Nearly 40 queens have come through the River, but performing for so many people in such a large space poses a challenge for queens who are used to smaller clubs where sight lines aren't an issue. "Our biggest struggle was getting so big so fast," says Del Rio, 28. "We didn't know how to give the best we could to every single person." That meant doubling the length of track mixes from the standard three to four minutes so that performers could make it through the entire bar before their music ends. DJ Spenser "Scheiny" Scheinman keeps the music going on and on for the big finale, giving the queens ample time to score their last wads of cash from the wasted masses.

"I do a zoom-in and zoom-out mode," says Passable. "Here's a table, I'm interacting with you, giving you a smile, blowing you a kiss. Then zoom out and do a dance that the whole crowd can see. If there's no floor space, get on the bar, get on the table." For Del Rio, the rafters and window frames are also fair game, and she's been known to carry a barstool into the middle of Sheffield Avenue, stand up on it, and jump into the splits on the pavement.

Some might see the River's drag events as a straight establishment cashing in on popular queer culture, but it's a project spearheaded by queer employees, financing queer artists, and increasing queer visibility in a straight pocket of Lakeview. Drag queens now regularly drop by the River, where they are showered with attention, and straight employees come out to support the queens at other venues in the city. "I always heard [the River] was such a bro place, but now I'll go on a Thursday in drag and everyone is obsessed," says Pop, 26.

That extends to the two young Pokémon fans I met earlier. Del Rio won't stop until she wins them over. She gets them screaming and laughing because she keeps fumbling one of their names. She brings them a scoop of ice cream. She doesn't censor any of her very adult content, but she finds ways to playfully engage with them so they don't feel left out. And it works. By the end of the show, one of the boys is smiling for selfies with his gay uncle while a drag queen high kicks on a table and another struts past flicking a fan with Iconic printed across it.

The sense of communion that emanates from the River at the end of brunch is downright inspiring, with hundreds of people united in their appreciation of this proudly queer art. "If you're going through something in life, please leave it at the door and have fun with us," says Pop. "There's so much shit going on in the world, we want to create a safe space where people can let go and be themselves and not get judged."   v

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Mad River in New York was located on the Lower East Side. It is actually on the Upper East Side.

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