Babe’s of Carytown has occupied a sprawling corner lot in Richmond’s Carytown neighborhood for 35 years. You can’t miss it. The banana-yellow awning beckons passersby, while a conga line of neon stick figures peers out from the front window and casts a rainbow glow onto the sidewalk.
Inside, a broad bar crowned with roofing shingles distributes cold beer, cocktails, Jell-o shots and belly-warming pub grub to crowds lounging in tall wooden booths and on shiny vinyl stools.
Then there’s the dance floor, its annexed quarters strung with disco lights and streamers, the floor bouncy and pleasantly worn from years of DJ nights and raucous drag shows.
But the real draw, the thing that elevates Babe’s from a friendly, everyday dive to the stuff of late-night legend, is the massive beach volleyball court stationed off the back patio.
“There’s no way you could ever walk in Babe’s 20 years ago, or 20 years from now, and not feel community and family and love.”—Michelle Livigne, entertainment director, Babe’s of Carytown
“One of the first times I went, it was for a Virginia Pride benefit called Drag Dodgeball,” says Michelle Livigne, the bar’s entertainment director. The Richmond native performs weekly at Babe’s as a part of the drag troupe Triple X Divas. “This was 2008 or 2007. I got a wristband. I walked in. I didn’t know where the heck I was, but this bar had a volleyball court. I was like, ‘How cool is that?’ ”
The backyard volleyball court embodies the bar’s spirit. It’s an undeniably campy escape from the everyday, a refuge as whimsical as it is inviting. It sets the stage for a certain type of unbridled glee, the kind that most adults rarely experience anymore. Perhaps most important, the sandy, sundrenched space provides plenty of room for folks of all orientations, genders, abilities, ages and identities to let loose.
“There’s something about getting friends together, grabbing a beer, and playing volleyball that draws [in] any and everyone,” says Livigne. “It’s the best melting pot. During the day, you have more of the punk scene. They’ve got cut-off jean jackets and Converse, maybe a bandana in their pocket, a cool leopard-print hat, patches all over.
“Come back later, and all of a sudden you’re seeing an older crowd, people who probably started the gay rights movement, out here having dinner. Then a couple hours after that, the 20-, 30-, 40-year-olds come for a drag show and dancing.”
The generational diversity has become a hallmark of the bar.
“We talk about how Virginia weather is so crazy, how you can go through all the seasons in one day,” says Livigne. “Well, you can go through all the ages at Babes in one day.”
The bar’s longstanding and popular drag program cements its come-as-you-are, fun-loving ethos. Shows transform diverse audiences into energized collectives, brought together by thumping dance music, exhilarating performances and a pitcher of suds.
“Drag has always been a part of Babe’s,” says Livigne. Triple X Divas performs every Thursday, and the bar hosts different entertainers every fourth Friday. “You could have kings, queens, bios—anything could pop up there. And the audience really matches the energy of the entertainers. There’s no way you could ever walk in Babe’s 20 years ago, or 20 years from now, and not feel community and family and love.”
Even the global pandemic and statewide stay-at-home-order hasn’t managed to put Babe’s magic on ice. Several weeks into the shutdown, Livigne and her team of queens hit the road with Driveway Drag, a bookable service that brings a socially-distanced version of their party directly to quarantiners’ front lawns.
“People wig out, they smile, they dance, they cheer,” she says. “Even though they’re at home escaping the world, they get to escape on another level and picture themselves back at Babe’s. They start thinking they’re on the dance floor. They have their cocktail and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, let’s go do shots after this number.’ They’re ready to just have a ball. I know they are.”