New Bloomsbury Set – or NBS, as it prefers to be known – is an intimate gay bar inconspicuously tucked away off Marchmont Street for the past six years. Relaxed and welcoming, it’s looking better than ever since its refurbishment last year. We caught up with bartender Matt Lawrence, a recent graduate and soon-to-be flight attendant, to discuss the importance of LGBT spaces, drag shows and keeping up with the competition as an independent bar in London. Here he is – in his own words. Working in a gay bar was ideal while studying. I went to UCL and supported myself by working here three nights a week. This was the perfect place to escape from the stress and pressure of my degree, and meant that I could enter a completely different head space. This place is so fun – the atmosphere, the people and the music all helped me to find my balance.
As an independent bar you must adapt to survive. It is no new news that London is expensive and running a business in this city is becoming increasingly difficult. If you want to stay afloat, you have to be practical and pragmatic. If we consider the closure of LGBT spaces like The Black Cap and Shadow Lounge, and the swarm of attention this got, one would assume that we would also feel at risk from closing down. However, NBS did what these bars did not do – we changed with the times. Last year we redesigned the interiors, we tailored the drinks list and introduced offers and happy hours. We have lots of regulars who have become even more regular since these changes. In fact, we’re doing better than ever.
This is a lovely little community to be part of. There is such a welcoming, healthy and friendly atmosphere – it grabs you within moments of being here. There is not an ounce of pretension, people are chilled, and the music is quiet enough for you to hold a good conversation. We have subtitled movies playing in the background (notably Pretty Woman and Airplane) and we have little bunkers that are really cute date places.This is an important space for many people (myself included). People come in groups, on dates and a lot come on their own after work – safe in the knowledge that there will be a friendly face to talk to or a group of people to integrate them into the conversation. There is a very good support network here.
Aside from our regulars, we get a steady flow of walk-ins. My favourite is when straight couples roam in, not realising it is a gay bar. As they start to notice their surroundings, it is hilarious to watch the woman continue nursing her drink while the man’s sips quickly escalate into gulps as he prepares to make his premature exit.
I tend to go out in Soho, usually to gay bars. I feel more welcome and comfortable in them, more willing and able to talk to people. It is where my crowd hang out I guess. Also, I definitely prefer the music in gay bars – yes, I like crappy music.
Soho is the drag hub. You can go drag-hopping around Old Compton Street, seeing what takes your fancy. Of course we have had drag nights here before, and will continue to do them, but punters are less likely to come over this way to see a single act. Considering that we are in an area that isn’t known for its gay nightlife, our nights tend to be more palatable and universal. There is some incredible experimental drag out there, but realistically you couldn’t have a wild show in here – this is a small place and, simply put, there’s nowhere to hide.