Cubbyhole (or “Cubby”), located at the corner of West 12th Street and West 4th Street in Greenwich Village, is a narrow 824-square foot bar characterized by its packed crowds, green walls, flagstone floor, a jukebox, and decorative ceiling. While known primarily as a lesbian bar and for its importance to the lesbian community, it has welcomed a mixed crowd of LGBT and straight people since its inception. Its inclusiveness was a quality that Cubbyhole’s original and longtime owner, Tanya Saunders, envisioned for the space — what she called a “neighborhood fusion bar” — after experiencing “a lot of attitude” at bars and clubs when she used to go out. She recalled:
“I always wanted to open a bar and I thought when I did, I’d make sure it was a friendly, casual place where people would feel comfortable. I wanted a real mix of people. I live my life that way, and I wanted it in my bar. We’ve got men and women, gay and straight here.”
Having no blood relatives during this time in her life, Saunders described Cubbyhole as her home and its staff and patrons as her family. Born in Germany in 1935, she and her widowed mother fled the Nazis four years later on the last ship, according to her, of Jewish refugees allowed into the United States before others were turned away. They first settled on Manhattan’s Upper East Side before moving close to her two uncles in Forest Hills, Queens. In 1963, she met her first girlfriend, Geri. They lived together on East 9th Street, in Manhattan, before moving to Brooklyn, where they married gay men who lived upstairs to help conceal their homosexuality. Saunders later met Nancy, a bartender at the lesbian bar Paula’s, at 64 Greenwich Avenue, in 1974, and they remained together until Nancy’s death in 1996.
Saunders, who previously worked in advertising and, later, real estate, decided to open a piano bar. In 1987, she took over the lease of the future Cubbyhole space, which was then a bar called 12th Night and located close to her Horatio Street apartment (where she lived until her death). The bar was renamed DT’s Fat Cat and the original live entertainment concept gave way to a jukebox. (Debbie Fierro, her business partner until 1993, ultimately left to open Rubyfruit, a lesbian bar and restaurant at 531 Hudson Street named after the book Rubyfruit Jungle (1973) by Rita Mae Brown.) In September 1994, Saunders changed her bar’s name to Cubbyhole with the permission of her friend Elaine Romagnoli, who had operated a bar under the two-worded name Cubby Hole, at 438 Hudson Street, until 1990 (that space is now Henrietta Hudson).
The eclectic ceiling at Saunders’ establishment is perhaps its defining feature: begun with souvenirs that regulars brought from their vacations, its decor morphed into what New York Magazine described as looking like Saunders had “raided a thrift shop the day after Mardi Gras.” In a 2004 profile on the bar, The Villager wrote that “combined with the soothing wall colors and dark wood of the bar, the thatch of Japanese lanterns, model airplanes, oversize goldfish (which match the covers on the bar stools), and at least one lobster suspended from the ceiling [make] the place look more like some sort of fantastic forest.” It also noted that Cubbyhole had remained viable and popular despite the Village’s gentrification and a 1990s/early 2000s trend in lesbian nightlife towards clubs rather than bars.
Cubbyhole has hosted benefits and fundraisers for the AIDS Walk, lesbian community organizations, theater groups, and other causes. Lisa Menichino, who has worked there since 2000 and to whom Saunders bequeathed the bar after her death in 2018, spoke of Cubbyhole’s importance:
“[Patrons] have written to me about first coming out, first kisses and dates, meeting their partners, marriage proposals, birthdays, engagement parties, anniversaries, and feeling better after break ups, or the loss of loved ones, after their visit.”
Cubbyhole, which is also known for its longtime bartender, Debbie Greenberg, is one of three remaining lesbian bars in New York City, along with Henrietta Hudson, also in the Village, and Ginger’s, in Park Slope, Brooklyn.