South Beach’s Palace Bar keeps community support alive
The Miami Beach landmark proves that moving to a new location on Ocean Drive wasn’t a drag on business.
The famed drag queens at the Palace Bar have many trademarks: Over-the-top personalities. Contoured cheekbones. Unexpected splits.
But one split that upset patrons of the South Beach institution was when owner Thomas Donall closed the bar’s doors on July 4, 2017.
The small seaside cafe opened three decades ago on 12th Street and Ocean Drive, and over the years it evolved into a drag entertainment Mecca. The closure, due to high rent and a building renovation, left many questioning whether the bar would ever be back.
“I told everyone I would do everything I can to find a new place,” Donall said.
The closure brought together the LGBTQ community, which rallied to keep the Palace name alive.
To their surprise, Donall reopened the Palace just four months later, bigger and better than before — and just two blocks from the original bar.
The new location, at 1052 Ocean Drive, turned out to be an upgrade. It’s larger and has outdoor cover over the sidewalk to shield customers from rain. The old location was sectioned off and segmented, Donall said, but the new digs allow the entire crowd to be in the same space to watch the shows.
LEARN MORE: Go to the Palace Bar's website at palacesouthbeach.com.
Noel Leon, one of the Palace Bar’s drag entertainers, said the new space is a definite positive for the business.
“It’s different, but it’s open and were really liking it and making it our own,” Leon said.
How the performers feel about their new home matters, because the Palace Bar’s legacy lies in its performers.
The queens do much more than just the usual song and dance, Donall said. Whether it’s climbing a palm tree or hanging off a tour bus, they are known for their spontaneity. The food and drinks have become secondary to the performers’ witty personalities.
The Palace has also been a home for the LGBTQ community. From hosting a ceremony honoring the Pulse nightclub shooting victims to letting the queens encourage equality during every show, the Palace Bar has worked to demonstrate how it supports its people. Its fans have supported the Palace right back.
Karen Willoughby began following the queens four years ago.
“I would ride my bike down South Beach and I saw them performing one day and I had to see more,” she said. “I got closer and closer and eventually I went over and I became friends with Noel.”
Today, she regards Leon as one of her best friends and visits the new Palace every week.
“I’m so relieved that he opened up the new place,” Willoughby said. “I was worried there wouldn't be a new place.”
Donall is ready to implement more exciting changes for the bar, such as bringing in more DJs and comedians and making Thursdays a designated Latin Night.
Donall already began a new “Fresh Face Fridays” afternoon show, adding to the regular weeknight shows and weekend brunch shows.
“When people are watching and everyone is screaming and having a good time that makes me feel good,” Donall said. “I’m happy that it has been working out, because it was a big undertaking.”