From your very first step through the doors on Detroit Avenue, it’s obvious that The Side Quest is not your average Ohio bar.
Nary a Cavs jersey or Ohio State helmet in sight, the walls are instead adorned with toys, pop culture references, board games, action figures, vibrant artwork, and flags covering the vast spectrum of identity. Thanks to the pandemic, walls resembling Star Wars ship interiors have been put up between high top tables, and the giant Demogorgon from Stranger Things next to the pinball machine is wearing a mask. Depending on the vibe of the day, and whichever bartender got a hold of the iPod first, the music pumping through the speakers is unpredictable. Is today a day filled with electro swing? 90s hip-hop? Japanese chiptune? Ska?
The bathroom doors are labeled as gender neutral as state law would allow, and the graffiti on the inside opted for radical political statements or nerdy memes in lieu of your typical “for a good time call.” Next to the sink reads “STOP CALLING THE POLICE ON BLACK PEOPLE” and the hand towel graffiti called for trans rights.
For a lot of people in Northeast Ohio, The Side Quest was more than just a bar, it was home.
Owned and operated by national treasures Sam Bridgeman and Kelly Quest, The Side Quest was created as a table-top board game bar, a safe haven for geeks and weirdos who never felt like they quite fit in with the more stereotypical Cleveland scene. No, the Browns game is not going to be on the big TV in the middle of the bar. Doctor Who is on tonight and we have priorities.
I say “we” because I was fortunate enough to work at The Side Quest as a barback. It’s where I fell in love with the love of my life, it’s where I found my Cleveland family as a Chicago import, and during the pre-vaccine era of the pandemic, it’s where my wife and I made our marriage legal.
Because The Side Quest was open to outsiders, it quickly became a place where LGBTQIA+ people felt safe to exist, which also meant it was a place where people felt safe to apply for work. At one point, before the world became what it is, 100% of the hired staff at The Side Quest fell under the queer umbrella, with a majority falling under the trans umbrella or as a parent of a trans child. The Side Quest wasn’t just a safe space for marginalized folks, it was a hostile environment for bigots who were quickly made aware that their presence was not appreciated. Thanks to the queer visibility of the staff and the variety of queer friendly events, The Side Quest was frequently nominated for “Best Gay Bar” despite not actually advertising itself as a gay bar.
Sure, I could talk about the delicious drinks and food (slather me in Bikini Bottom pineapple bbq sauce when I die, please) or the existence of a respectable mocktail list for sober pals, but relegating The Side Quest’s legacy to menu items (and they were BANGING menu items) feels too minimizing. To outsiders, it sounds like a bunch of people are mourning a building, but losing Side Quest isn’t just losing a bar, it’s losing a family.
Where are we going to be able to go to hear a spontaneous articulation of why professional wrestling is queer entertainment on the same night as an impassioned defense of why Captain Janeway on Star Trek Voyager is the most important character in the canon of captains? Where else can you debate the ethics of pursuing Harry Potter fandom post-2020 with a mouth full of french fries named after Futurama with someone you’ve just met who is crocheting a winter hat in between bites of a double cheeseburger named after the queer classic, But I’m a Cheerleader?
Where are people going to go on their first night dressing as their authentic gender identity and know that they’ll be safe, because every bartender and patron in the building will happily chase someone out who dared make them feel anything other than affirmed and loved? Where are we going to go to just hang out and play “Pretty Pretty Princess” while trying to decipher whatever anime got put on the screen? Where are we going to go to spontaneously bust out matched arm choreography to warn newbies not to park in the parking lot toward the bookcases? Where are we going to go where knowing the “Baby Shark” dance or impersonating Chewbacca’s roar makes you the coolest person in the room? Where are we going to play Yu-Gi-Oh! until 2am on a weeknight without getting weird looks from the bartender? For the love of all things holy, where are we going to go to boo “The Shit Creek Boys” when they absolutely annihilate all of us in trivia?!
I say this with no hyperbole: The Side Quest was a safe haven and a life-saving place for a lot of people. I know this, because had it not been for The Side Quest, I genuinely believe I would not be alive today. I’ve cried on those barstools when life felt too difficult to manage more times than I can count, and the hours I’ve spent listening to stories from patrons just needing to talk to someone is immeasurable. As much as SQ was a place for joyous celebration, it was also a comforting place to go when times were tough. Chances are, the person next to you was also going through it, and if not them, someone behind the bar probably was too. You were never, ever alone at Side Quest, even if you were the only patron in the whole place.
The blessing and curse of The Side Quest is that it’s a bar that attracted all of the best kinds of people. Side Quest regulars are the welcoming, empathetic, understanding, affirming, loving, and respectful kind of people who understand the importance of social distancing, mask-wearing, and keeping the community safe. With COVID responsible for shutting down The Side Quest, it feels like the ultimate cruelty that the bar’s closing is due to the conscientious decision making of its regulars, while places packed with people who deny science and think wearing masks is an affront to their FrEeDoM have no problem staying afloat. No, I’m not bitter. Why do you ask?
When the news broke that The Side Quest was shutting its doors, it felt like finding out someone I loved had died. If you read the comments on the bar’s announcement on Facebook, I know that I wasn’t alone in that feeling. It feels like nothing I write could ever encompass the true impact of the bar, and that’s because it’s impossible to do. It’s not something that can be described, only experienced.
So I propose a toast. Raise a glass (or a lightsaber) to Sam, Kelly, and everyone who helped make The Side Quest the rust belt utopia that it was. Thank you for the parties, the games, the drinks, the food, the laughs, the tears, the memories, the safety, and the community. You made Northeast Ohio a better and safer place to exist freely, authentically, and proudly. The Side Quest may be complete, but all of us are stronger and better prepared to tackle whatever comes next in this adventure we call life because of you. So long, and thanks for all the fish. 🔥