The vibe at Lil’ Deb’s Oasis may best be summed up by this line from a short-and-sweet Yelp review: “If u gay, perfect.”
Inside the tropical dining room of the freewheeling Hudson, New York, restaurant—bathed in pink light and bedecked with bright floral tablecloths, streamers, and prayer candles—guests can enjoy a whole fried fish with citrus-ginger vinaigrette and a sparkling Italian wine described on the menu as “velvet art, Meghan Markle, dolphin leap, salt and pepper chips.” Helmed by chefs Carla Perez-Gallardo and Hannah Black, named James Beard Award semifinalists this year for Best Chefs in the Northeast, the vibrant restaurant is at the forefront of the queer dining scene flourishing in the Hudson Valley.
“We wanted to create a community space and an accessible space,” says Perez-Gallardo, a Bard-educated artist-turned-chef. Working in Catskill, New York, at a Vietnamese-inspired food truck (owned by Etsy founder Rob Kalin), she met Black, a Rhode Island School of Design alum who had cooked at Mission Chinese in New York and Tulum, Mexico’s famed Hartwood restaurant. Together they created a cultural mash-up of a menu, with dishes like spicy chorizo larb, ceviche, and llapachingos paying homage to Perez-Gallardo’s Ecuadorian and Argentine heritage and plates of fish and rice that nod to Black’s Alabama roots. “We wanted an alternative,” says Perez-Gallardo, “to what we felt was a trend that didn’t appeal to either of us—this really white-walled, whitewashed, farm-to-table New American cuisine that didn’t offer much personality or sense of place and comfort.”
Lil’ Deb’s opened in 2016 when Perez-Gallardo and Black, both 31, took over the lease on Debbie’s Lil’ Restaurant, a greasy spoon where they had hosted pop-up dinners as the experimental catering company Table|Table. Their goal was to rewrite the many exclusionary aspects of the restaurant business, including gendered uniforms, a hierarchical—and often male-dominated—kitchen culture, and steep menu markups. At Lil’ Deb’s, staffers are allowed to dress however they feel most comfortable, waiters and dishwashers earn the same wage, the food is accessibly priced (you can get an entrée for $10), and the bathrooms aren’t gendered. They resolved not to take any outside investment, giving them the freedom to develop a concept that feels more like an art installation than a restaurant, thanks to the poetic verse on the menu board, the leafy mural covering the floor, and the queer performance nights held each month. (An annual “commitment ceremony” party raises money for operations and equipment.)
The hospitality world has played a central role in LGBTQ activism, from the seminal riots at Manhattan’s Stonewall Inn to Twin Peaks Tavern in San Francisco, one of the first gay bars in America to operate openly. And in the Hudson Valley, a longtime weekend escape for New York City’s LGBTQ creatives, Lil’ Deb’s is far from the first or only dining establishment to build a safe space for queer folks. The Beverly Lounge, in nearby Kingston, and Hudson’s Tiger House frequently host events like “Queer the Vote” political forums and Pride parties. But as Lil’ Deb’s has gained culinary acclaim, it’s become one of the region’s most prominent restaurants blurring the boundaries of art, activism, and hospitality.
As a restaurateur in today’s divisive political climate, Perez-Gallardo is adamant about Lil Deb’s mission. “I’m not here to provide silent hospitality,” she says. “We provide hospitality from a place of passion and visibility about who we are.” Adds Black: “I feel like we are in the right time in history to be doing that.”