When chef Zoe Schor first opened Dorothy — a funky, ’70s-inspired cocktail den in the basement of her West Town restaurant Split-Rail — on Valentine’s Day 2020, it felt like a huge win. She and Michelle Szot, Split-Rail’s general manager and beverage director, had worked toward the opening for three years, and at last the pair could unveil the queer-friendly bar of their dreams.
Twenty-nine days later, on March 15, 2020, as the COVID-19 virus arrived in Chicago, Governor J.B. Pritzker ordered all Illinois restaurant and bar owners to close for two weeks. Dorothy has remained dark ever since. That is, until this week, when Schor and Szot threw the doors open at last to welcome patrons back.
With wood paneling lining the walls, disco balls hanging from the ceiling, and several enormous plush brown couches (including a real Togo sofa), Dorothy unabashedly embraces its retro vibe. Patrons can also perch on stools around a squat, square wooden bar beneath a fringe of hanging chains. There’s even an all-vinyl soundtrack. The menu, meanwhile, features a range of spirits, along with draft beers, draft margaritas, and wine.
As one might infer from its name, Dorothy — a nod to “friends of Dorothy,” a 20th century euphemism for gay people — aims to carve out a niche for itself among LGBTQ Chicagoans. “It’s not a queer bar exclusively, but really queer friendly,” Schor says. “You’re likely to walk into Dorothy as a queer person and feel right at home with people who are like you.”
The approach bears a strong resemblance to that of Nobody’s Darling, the newish cocktail bar that last summer replaced longtime lesbian wine bar Joie de Vine in Andersonville. The bar touts itself as queer women-centric but not exclusively for lesbians. “We wanted to make sure that our community felt welcome,” co-owners Angela Barnes and Renauda Riddle told Eater at the time. “We didn’t want to exclude our trans siblings or gay men.”
Fondly recalling her own formative experiences in lesbian bars as a 20-something, Schor knows that inclusive spaces are important for younger LGBTQ patrons and wants Dorothy to serve their needs — including the use of open-ended, flexible terminology. “If I were only catering to my generation, I would probably call it a lesbian bar,” she laughs.
Even in the midst of a long-awaited reopening, Schor is already at work on other projects both in and outside the kitchen. She and her partner Whitney LaMora, who runs the artist space the Martin, are launching a new group of classes for their virtual cooking series Off the Table, and in late January, Schor will host a poker clinic for women and nonbinary people, populations rarely seen at the casino tables she’s frequented for two decades.
When considered as a whole, Schor’s projects speak to the ethos she and Szot want to foster at Dorothy: a casual, a come-as-you-are spot with joyfully queer overtones. “It’s just about a comfortable environment where you can settle in, have a wonderful time, and hopefully feel like you’re surrounded by people who aren’t strangers — even if they are.”