Manhattan Club


By: Railey Tassin and Amber Leigh Hullum

Type: General Entry

Published: December 16, 2021

Updated: December 16, 2021


The Manhattan Club was Austin, Texas’s, earliest documented gay bar. Operated by Jewish couple David and Florence “Flo” Robbins, the Manhattan Restaurant at 911 Congress Avenue opened in 1957 and closed in 1969. Although no official sources document the advertisement of the space for this purpose, several witnesses have verified the Manhattan Club as a gay-friendly establishment in Austin throughout these years. The club operated out of a small backroom of the Manhattan Restaurant and fit approximately eighteen people, according to a patron. The small storefront of the Manhattan Restaurant blended into the scene of commercial storefronts, passing vehicles, and wandering pedestrians on the ever-bustling Congress Avenue.

Throughout the late 1950s through early 1970s, Austin was home to only a handful of gay bars, including the Cabaret (3010 Guadalupe), the Red River Lounge (900 Red River), Pearl Street Warehouse (17th and Lavaca), and The Apartment (29th and Rio Grande), all of which were long closed by the end of the twentieth century. Of these, the Manhattan Club at 911 Congress Avenue is the earliest documented gay-friendly social outlet open to the public.

David and Flo Robbins moved to Austin from New York City after World War II and opened Dinty Moore’s Café and Bar at 123 West 6th Street in 1947. The establishment was known as “one of the most fun spots Austin ever had” by patrons and was packed to capacity on any average night. A favorite joint for local students at the University of Texas, Dinty’s was also known for being a remarkably safe location, and the Robbins gained a reputation as welcoming, fun-loving business owners. After the building’s demolition in 1950, Dave and Flo Robbins moved to a new location at 905 Congress Avenue and became owners of The Manhattan, which held its grand opening on August 22, 1952. From 1952 to 1957 The Manhattan operated in this building and served up an array of kosher foods to its loyal customers. The Robbins were natives of the East Coast and patterned their new restaurant after the delicatessens common back home. The grand opening advertisement proclaimed luxurious lounge booths, delicatessen and kosher-style food, the best American and imported table wines, and nightly music and entertainment.

For unknown reasons, the Robbins then moved several doors down to 911 Congress Avenue and on June 23, 1957, opened their new updated establishment—what they deemed “Austin’s only modern delicatessen restaurant.” The Manhattan Restaurant expanded in this new location and offered three separate menus of kosher dishes, charbroiled steaks, and Mexican food in the restaurant; soft drinks and beer at the bar area; and a wide array of take-away foods at the “Kosher delicatessen.” A small bar located in the backroom of the restaurant was known to the LGBTQ+ community of Austin as the Manhattan Club, one of the only public places where queer individuals could gather and socialize outside of their homes.

On February 15, 1969, David Robbins, at the age of sixty-one, suffered a fatal heart attack. After his passing, Flo Robbins was negotiating for a new lease at 911 Congress Avenue when she discovered the space had been sold for next-door business Photo Processing Inc. to expand. The Manhattan closed its doors in 1969, and the building, located at 911 Congress, stood vacant in 2021. Nevertheless, the Manhattan Restaurant, with the small Manhattan Club located in back, maintains its legacy as one of the few gay-friendly spaces for the Austin queer community during the late 1950s through the 1960s. As such, the Manhattan Club encouraged queer people to network with fellow queer Austinites, freely express their sexuality without immediate repercussions, and forge social and political alliances.

Austin American-Statesman, June 23, 1957; February 23, 1969; June 27, 2019. Austin Statesman, August 22, 1952; June 4, 1969. Eric Jason Ganther, From Closet to Crusade: The Struggle for Lesbian-Gay Civil Rights in Austin, Texas, 1970–1982 (M.A. thesis, University of Texas at Austin, 1990).

Categories:
  • LGBT
  • Business
Time Periods:
  • Texas Post World War II
Places:
  • Central Texas
  • Austin

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Railey Tassin and Amber Leigh Hullum, “Manhattan Club,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 09, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/manhattan-club.

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December 16, 2021
December 16, 2021