“When you go out, you don’t really see anyone you haven’t met before,” says Toni Kola about Canberra nightlife. “The queer community is really close-knit and everyone knows everyone. If you’re going to an event, you’re almost guaranteed to see some familiar faces.”
Kola is a local drag queen and one half of the Canberra-based queer production company Phish and Phreak. The company hosts events all over the city, from regular, glamorous drag shows at clubs, to trivia and bingo nights, rainbow family story time at the local library and pageants such as So You Think You Can Drag.
Born and raised in Canberra, Kola says the key to getting the best out of the city is to “know where all the cool little hideaways are”. We asked her for her best nightlife advice – where she likes to go out in drag, and where Kola (aka Lachy James) heads when not wearing a wig and heels.
Bar Beirut, CBD
“This is my favourite place for a quick cocktail before a gig,” says Kola. “It’s where I like to go when I’m not wearing a wig and heels.” A late-night cocktail bar and restaurant on Garema Place in the CBD, the Middle Eastern/Mediterranean spot is Kola’s pick for drinks or a quick dinner in the city before a movie or a show.
“They’re LGBTQIA+-friendly, with amazing food and delicious cocktails,” she says. “They have the most incredible, friendliest staff that I’ve ever met. And [it has] cool performances, like belly dancers and sword-swallowing. It’s really out of left-field.”
Volstead Repeal, Braddon
Kola says Volstead Repeal is behind some of the best cocktails in Canberra. “My favourite thing about going there is asking them to make me something,” she says. “When it comes to drinks, the staff are all nerds, in the best way. I like to give them a couple of hints at what I’m after and they’ll make something on the fly.”
Around a 10-minute walk from the CBD in the suburb of Braddon, Volstead Repeal is a small venue that specialises in cocktails, whisky and pizza. “It’s got relaxed, speak-easy vibes, and really nice staff,” says Kola. “We’re lucky to have some really incredible people that work in hospitality around here.”
A Canberra institution, Cube is the city’s go-to queer nightclub. “This is the best place in Canberra to party,” says Kola. “It’s straight-up dance vibes on the weekend. They were the OG gay bar, and they’ve slowly pivoted to be more of an LGBTQIA+ friendly space.”
Head in for daily drink specials, pool tables, resident DJs pumping out mixes and glamorous drag shows. “It’s where the queer community goes out together,” she says. “It’s just fun.”
Hippo Co, CBD
Also located in the CBD’s Garema Place, Hippo Co is a prohibition era-style bar with live jazz, a specialty menu of whisky and cocktails and views of the city. Kola loves to hit it up when she’s not in drag. “I tend to go here with my friends from my day job,” she says. “It’s a cute little bar that’s nice and central in the middle of the city. It has a really nice view and a big selection of wonderful booze. Everyone seems to know a lot about what they’re doing.”
Update: a previous version of this story featured The Boardwalk Bar and Nightclub in Belconnen. It has since closed permanently and been removed from the story.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Visit Canberra.