As gay and lesbian travel goes, New Mexico tends to be most popular among couples seeking romance, not singles on the make. Upscale, arty towns like Santa Fe and Taos have little in the way of gay nightlife, and even the largest city, Albuquerque, has only a handful of gay bars and clubs, and a couple of longtime favorites have closed in recent years. In 2010, the community celebrated the opening of a terrific new gay club, Effex (see more on that below). So if you are visiting, and you're looking for some lively places to dance, mingle, and cruise, you'll find a few very inviting hangouts in Albuquerque.
Here's a brief rundown on the bar and club scene in gay Albuquerque. Most of the city's gay or gay-friendly bars are in the Nob Hill section of town, which is also home to several restaurants and coffeehouses with a gay following. Just a few miles west in downtown, however, you'll find what's quickly become the city's most popular gay hangout, Effex Nightclub (100 5th St. N.W.). This attractive space could fairly be called the city's first genuine "big city" gay nightclub. It's a spacious, two-level venue just off downtown's main drag, Central Avenue, Schlotzsky's Deli, and it comprises a large ground-floor dance floor with bars, a big stage, and a state-of-the-art sound system. Head upstairs and you'll find a similarly huge roofdeck bar that's ideal for chatting (and gazing up at those New Mexico twinkling stars). The owners have further plans to create a VIP lounge and add plenty of other great new features, and the crowds (both men and women) have been flocking here.
Downtown is also home to the swanky and fairly new Apothecary Lounge (806 Central Ave. SE, 505-242-0040), a beautiful tapas bar and lounge with an expansive roofdeck that affords panoramic views of downtown and the Sandia Mountains. The mixed gay-straight venue at the elegant Hotel Parq Central is part of a renaissance that continues throughout downtown.
Another cool nearby option that draws a somewhat mixed bunch is Blackbird Buvette (509 Central Ave. NW, 505-243-0878), a hip, laid-back, and inviting little spot that's worth a stop for a beer (they carry some local brews) or cocktail, a light meal (salads, burgers, breakfast served all day), a chance to watch a cool band (emphasis is on indie rock, folk, funk, acoustic), or just mingle with the eclectic, young-ish crowd that frequents this place. There's patio seating out front and in back, too, making this increasingly gay-popular spot especially pleasant on a warm evening. It's just across Central Avenue from Effex, making it a nice pre-clubbing venue.
Historic Nob Hill, which is bisected by famous Route 66, lies just east of the University of New Mexico and a couple of miles east of downtown. The main hangout here is the Albuquerque Social Club (4021 Central Ave. NE, 505-262-1088), a private club for gay and lesbians, and it's become the neighborhood's - and one of the city's - most popular gay venues, especially following some ambitious renovations of late. You must be a member to enter "the SOCH," but all are welcome (as long as they have a valid photo ID). The cost is $30 for an annual membership if you live in-state, and $5 if you live out of state. This had been mostly a locals' hangout, but it's enjoyed a big resurgence of late and now draws sizable crowds, especially on weekends, and has a friendly staff. The one drawback for late-night owls is that the club is only open until midnight most evenings, although on Fridays and Saturdays the doors stay open until 2 am.
Drive a bit farther east of Nob Hill along Central Avenue, and you'll come to one of the most venerable gay nightclubs in town, Sidewinders (8900 Central Ave SE, 505-554-2078), which has country and line dancing some nights, the hottest club tunes on others, and always a great mix of people. Sidewinders had shut down at one point, but it came back in fall 2011, by popular demand, and has been going strong ever since. It no longer contains the leather and sex boutique GearWerks, although the shop is still open - it's just relocated to Nob Hill at 108 Morningside Dr. NE.
Albuquerque has the only lesbian bar between Dallas and Phoenix, and it's the one gay club in town that's not near Nob Hill or Central Avenue. Exhale (6132 4th St NW, 505-342-0049) is in the North Valley, a short drive north of downtown, and it's steadily become a fixture of gay Albuquerque nightlife. Although the crowd is primarily lesbian, plenty of gay guys come here, too, enjoying the good music and relaxed and friendly vibe. There's a spacious patio that's well-utilized in summer, an attractive cocktail lounge, a pulsing dance floor, and a chic upstairs lounge. It's one of the better lesbian bars in the country, and one of the nicest gay establishments in Albuquerque.
The city also has some less traditional gay nightlife options, including the highly inviting local coffeehouse-restaurant chain, Flying Star. These hip, smartly furnished hangouts are spacious and attractively decorated, several of them with fireplaces and most with large patios. There are six of them throughout Albuquerque. The one in Nob Hill along Central Avenue has the gayest crowd and is downright cruisy some evenings. The downtown Flying Star as well as the Corrales location also draw plenty of "family", but you'll feel quite welcome at any of them (others are found in the North Valley, Uptown, Northeast Heights, off of Paseo del Norte. The latest branches opened in Bernalillo, just north of Albuquerque en route to Santa Fe (and home of the fab Hyatt Tamaya resort), and in Santa Fe at the cool new Santa Fe Railyards District (500 Market St.. Would that every city had a hangout as festive as this one. All of the Flying Stars serve three meals a day, a wide range of coffees, wine and beer, and fresh-baked goods, and they also have free Wi-Fi.. For more on where to go in the Santa Fe, see my article on nightlife in gay Santa Fe, and also be sure to consider the fabulous and festive Mine Shaft Tavern, a lesbian-owned roadhouse just an hour north of Albuquerque in the funky town of Madrid.