The Haunt: A Fine Place to Make Camp

IT’S STANDING-ROOM-ONLY around Laurel’s 15-seat bar on a Thursday night, and the impromptu standup’s just getting started. The prop: a strapping, square-jawed newcomer in snug Levis. "A Fluffer for this one!" vamps the bartender, Eryl, sizing up the eye candy with a theatrical flourish. As he conjures the lewdly named cocktail, a regular requests menu guidance. "You’re a steak man tonight," Eryl brogues in spot-on Mrs. Doubtfire, before channeling Mae West ("You were a salmon man last night…"). Then schoolmarm: "What’s…that…snickering?"

Just another round of frothy nonsense at Laurel, the Berkeley Street standby that slings nightly helpings of camp far spicier than its just-okay comfort food. It isn’t technically a gay venue—the dining room attracts a mixed crowd, more Anchovies than Fritz—but the bar staff’s antics make for a vibe that admittedly isn’t everyone’s speed. As one online reviewer wailed, "The clientele made us feel like we were on some bootleg cruise ship!" Not an unfair comparison, though given the polish of the repartee, cruise ship sitcom might be more apt.

For those (rather, those of us) who came of age in Boston’s queer scene in the early ’90s, Laurel may seem a throwback to a time when segregated bars were the lifeblood of the LGBT "community." It’s no coincidence that its patrons skew fortysomething, and that the Back Bay train schedule is a recurring talking point. Not everything’s old-school, though: There’s an air of inclusion that’s distinctly post-assimilation, and the campy quips lack a bitter edge.

Two walk-ins wearing white face paint and nuns’ habits get seated in the dining room. "The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence," affirms one, referring to the cross-dressing San Francisco activists. The vibe briefly takes a pious turn, as the PC crowd balks at taking such obvious bait. But when the same patron declines a second glass of chardonnay, ever-reliable Eryl recalibrates the mood. "Ahh…the Sister of Occasional Indulgence." The room cackles like a band of gay bootleggers.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Laurel Grill & Bar, 142 Berkeley St., Boston, 617-424-6711,

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