As a queer American travelling to the UK for the first time, one of the things I was most excited about (besides finally trying a full English breakfast) was discovering London's LGBTQ+ scene.
Growing up by San Francisco, California was quite the blessing for me. SF is known for having, in my completely biased opinion, the best and most vibrant queer scene in the States. I was curious to see how London's scene compared — and I immediately noticed something I found distinctive: drag brunches.
A quick search of "London drag brunch" reveals a veritable rainbow of venues offering drag brunches — wooing everyone from hen parties to ABBA aficionados with the promise of endless fizz, good time music and queens and divas galore.
A brief history of drag brunch in London
Except I then realised drag brunches actually began in my home country. Namely, with the "drag-and-dine" experiences that emerged between the 1950s and 1990s at NYC joints like Lucky Cheng's, Lips NYC, and Club 82.
So where did London's obsession with the drag brunch stem from?
Drag itself has been a part of London for centuries — from the original Shakespearian actors who dressed up as Desdemona, to the 'molly houses' of the 18th century, where you could find men as milkmaids and shepherdesses.
As for brunch itself, that's a) an older concept than you might think, and b) surprisingly British in origin.
Still, the two concepts didn't really come together in London until the mid-to-late 2010s. And that was in no small part due to a little show called RuPaul’s Drag Race, which premiered in 2009 — and helped propel drag into mainstream culture. (The show has since, of course, had British spin-offs, while RuPaul himself even released a single called 'London'.)
Suddenly, many venues across the UK capital started offering drag brunches to customers eager to partake in the glam and glitter of a live drag performance. They've quickly become accessible to both LGBTQ+ audiences as well as straight and cisgender allies, with dozens of brunches having it large with the likes of waffles, show tunes and bottomless bubbles — every weekend.
London's drag brunch scene
To dive deeper into what present-day drag brunches offer, I spoke to two venues well-known for their offerings — Dalston Superstore and Soho Zebrano.
Drag brunch at Dalston Superstore started in 2016 with pop-up shows from cabaret legends such as camp clowns Bourgeoise & Maurice and "prosecco-swigging age-defying Wham-playing tachey-tranny" John Sizzle. The brunches have since evolved into a 'cult hangover cure,' now offering events like Ian Street's Showtunes Brunch and Royal Flush with Vanilla Parker Balls (way to put the British stamp on an American invention).
Emma Kroeger, Marketing & Bookings Coordinator at Dalston Superstore tells me: "Our weekend drag brunch has gained cult status, with many a bleary-eyed queer rolling through the doors for a hangover cure, having left Club Tantrum or Femmme Fraiche mere hours before.
"Our drag brunches are always pure chaos — each host brings their own particular flavour of mayhem."
Vanilla Parker Balls, a drag queen at Dalston Superstore, hosts brunch on the last Saturday of every month. They perform five numbers for each showing. Performances get "very disgusting and very silly, very quickly."
"I love it because it's one of the few spaces you can do drag with almost no rules," Vanilla Parker Balls tells me, "I've soaked myself with water balloon titties as Winnie the Pooh before — it's truly a place for artistic craft.
"Every brunch is a hoot. Last time I tried to do a jump off the bar which I can’t do anyway and fell down the stairs, but the show must go on, eh?"
Drag brunches began at Soho Zebrano in 2018 with The Drag Brunchette, a singalong spectacular with bottomless bellinis, that's still going strong, with Vanity von Glow walloping Tina Turner covers down the mic.
The drag format is so popular, Zerbrano offers multiple events, including its latest creation, The Great British Shake-Off — featuring a drag show with cocktail making (and dare I say, one or two 'soggy bottom' gags).
"A major part of the enjoyment is what you bring to it as a guest," says Patrick McLean, Head of Sales & Business Development at Zebrano. "Be ready to ramp up your party energy to maximum and bring your best voice for all the singalong classics!"
Behind the scenes, plenty of planning goes into making sure the 'chaos' of each and every drag brunch is as organised as it can be. Says McLean: "As there are so many elements to our brunches, it can often be a few months of planning before I'm ready to schedule the first event.
"The food choices, type of drinks and style of entertainment all seem like simple things but are actually far more involved that at first glance."
Drag brunch: Catering to the straights?
Beyond the fabulous costumes and vibrant performances of drag brunch lies a hidden controversy: are drag brunches developing a 'straight problem'?
Some academics claim that scene is designed to cater specifically to heterosexual audiences rather than the LGBTQ+ community. And they might have a point: after all, Joe E Jeffreys, a drag historian at New York University and the New School, told the Guardian that in the first instance, "drag brunch was largely about making queer performance accessible to straight audiences."
There are also concerns about corporations without ties to the LGBTQ+ community capitalising on the trend — particularly because LGBTQ+ venues get pushed out of the business due to growing competition. Back in the States, even Taco Bell has started doing a drag brunch tour.
Many of London's drag brunch joints, though are keen to point out they exist as a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.
Emma Kroeger from Dalston Superstore insists the venue has proudly catered to London's diverse LGBTQ+ community since its founding in 2009. "We continue to change and develop as a queer space," says Kroeger, "It's been amazing to watch [drag brunch] grow, and we have many customers who come down almost weekly to enjoy the show."
Speaking as a queer American, when I return to the States, I'll certainly be seeking out drag brunches in the future!