Nobody loves getting insulted by a six-foot-two transvestite as much as a 70-year-old lady from Muskogee.
At least, that's the theory behind Lips, "the ultimate in drag dining." When we pull up for the Sunday Gospel Brunch at 11 a.m., the lot at the Oakland Park restaurant is already full of old cats in golf shirts and their pants-suited-and-pumps-to-match wives. Shouldn't these people be in church at this hour? Or at least setting out the tuna casserole and lemon Jell-O for post-Mass fellowship? But no, they're clustered around the glass doors beneath that gargantuan, candy-colored smooch, waiting to be herded into the most betinseled interior in South Florida. Lord, open my lips and my mouth will proclaim: Two mimosas and a frozen cosmo, pleez.
Entering this theater of the absurd is sort of like falling facedown into the bargain bin at Pearl Arts and Crafts: The prevailing aesthetic at Lips is that everything looks better with more glitter. Somebody has pulled out all the design stops here — if there's a hue on the color wheel that hasn't been represented in wall paint or velour, I can't name it. Mirrors are good. Oversized shoes covered in silver sequins, too adorable. Disco balls in ascending sizes, room dividers made of sheer pink tulle, curtains fashioned from strips of purple tinsel, bays painted in tangerine, acid lime, Pepto-Bismol pink — yes, yes, yes.
Lips is the invention of a lady known as Yvonne Lamé who was born as a boy named Mark Zschiesche — and who can blame her for wanting to ditch that mouthful of a surname? Ms. Lamé opened her first Lips in New York City in 1996 as a restaurant-cum drag show-cum cabaret. She's expanded the concept with partners Mitch Albert and Iano LoCurto to San Diego and Fort Lauderdale, with a plan to open a location in New Orleans. For a minimum dinner charge, a varying entertainment fee, and as many single bills as you happen to have burning a hole in your pocket to tip the performers with, you get a hot meal and an unremitting barrage of dirty double-entendres.
Why is it that elderly straight folks just eat this up? Lips is a fifth-generation descendant of "pansy shows" like Finocchio's, the San Francisco bar that made a tourist trap out of the act back in the '70s. Some of the girls at Lips can just barely keep synched to the sound system, but if you squint hard enough through the flair, you can make out the family resemblance.
Hetero birthday and bachelorette parties are the big-ticket items at Lips, but the queers are tucked into the circular velveteen banquettes too, sipping frozen cosmos and the all-you-can-drink bloody marys, roaring away at M.C. Nicolette's cock jokes. Nicolette is by far the best reason to attend Sunday Service. "We're cross-dressing for Christ," she proclaims. She's a far spicier mouthful than anything on the $16.50 prix fixe menu. When we arrive, she's acting as hostess, tricked out in a fawn-colored suit with pencil skirt and matching garden-party hat. "An ex-trophy wife," somebody in our party remarks, "only with more makeup." During an hour's show, she changes dresses four times and tosses out dozens of insults, and you can bet those skin-tight, size-four, strapless crimson gowns are no cinch to slip into. The girl has a figure South Florida women spend tens of thousands trying to approximate. Between the lip-synching gospel divas and dancing queens (Martina Skyy, Velvet LeNore, Misty Eyez), Nicolette zigzags through the crowd, dispensing zingers and nailing sweet old grandmas. "Don't worry, honey," she says. "It's almost over. And I don't mean the show.
"You can always tell the gays from the straights in this audience," she continues. "The gays are dressed in the latest fashions. And the straights are dressed in Wal-Mart... What line of business you in, sweetie? Oh, you have a hair salon? Fabulous! Do you think you can do something with this?" She yanks the wig off her head and tosses it at her bemused target. Snap goes the illusion: She's a dude in a dress.
That's part of the frisson of a drag show, the titillating, deep-seated knowledge that this particular kink might be your own. They used to do the same thing at Finocchio's during the finale, when they'd unmask themselves and freak out the couples who'd inadvertently wandered in for a drink and thought they'd been ogling showgirls. Between bites of our sandwiches and salads before the Lips show gets going, we talk about how drag queens sit right at the busy intersection of desire, directing traffic. They're ultra, vampy fem enough to win over macho straight guys and butch lesbians; they've got the equipment to intrigue hetero chicks and sapient homos. Everybody digs them, but nobody admits to dating them — in 2009, they're the last taboo.
And a taboo worth mulling over at this price: $16.50 plus a $5 entertainment charge buys you brunch, all the mimosas and bloodies you can drink, and a hilarious floor show. They keep refills on the drinks coming — if anybody knows how to lubricate an audience, it's the gays.
But our food was as up and down as a drag queen's knickers (bada bum). My Tuscan vegetable stack: disgusting. The grilled portobello mushroom cap and slices of zucchini were so tough, I literally couldn't cut them — they must have been sliced and refrigerated or frozen to achieve the texture of Western saddlery. Working hard to ingest this mess, I eventually reduced the whole plate to mush. A chicken club sandwich with bacon and basil aioli, served on a soft bun, wasn't bad at all: We finished it and the fries on the side. Chicken Parmesan, a boneless breast topped with nondescript tomato marinara, melted mozzarella, and a sprinkling of Parm, was hospital-cafeteria quality, although edible — I do believe my guest downed the whole thing and licked his plate clean of sauce. We may have had better luck with eggs and bacon, an omelet (broccoli, peppers, ham, garlic, Swiss and American cheese), or a chicken caesar salad. But based on the uneven quality of our plates, I'd say you're on your own with the seafood pasta or eggs Benedict — you couldn't pay me the $16.50 to hazard them.
And the signature frozen cosmo? "Tastes like toilet bowl cleaner," one of my guests opined. This hot-pink slurpee, purportedly composed of cranberry juice and citrus vodka, induced identical winces around the table. You might try as an alternative the "TransAmerican Ice Tea" or the "Drag-O-Rita" (all $8.50), or you could save the eight bucks to tuck into the cleavage of your favorite diva.
As we're leaving, a contingent of matrons from the Red Hat Society is arriving for the second show, sporting their signature ruby chapeaux. They'd better be carrying fat rolls of singles and their thickest skins under those purple dresses. High priestess Nicolette is going to roast and serve.