A destination where all identifies can intersect
New London — From dishwasher to owner of an enduring company, the charismatic Robb Bartolomeo, through self-reliance and tenacity, has changed the world around him.
On a Wednesday night in May, the sounds of karaoke float onto the street from Dockside Resort Bar, opened in 2016 at 32 Bank St. On one of the bar’s busiest nights of the week, Bartolomeo, founder and owner of Empire Entertainment Group LLC, the gay-owned and operated parent company of Dockside, is working alongside company President Jonathan Lucibelli and Head Bartender Xavier Day.
“It’s like ‘Cheers,’” Bartolomeo says.
For those who remember the 1980s sitcom with the theme song, "Where Everybody Knows Your Name," the parallel is clear. The atmosphere at Dockside is relaxed and welcoming, and they do call everyone by name. The menu could be described as stepped-up bar fare, and though not quite Zagat-rated like the restaurant Bartolomeo once owned, the food was delicious and all homemade on a recent evening.
“Our food doesn’t come out of a box,” he says.
Day agrees that the food is excellent — he recommends the chicken parmesan grinder — but says reasons for their success are less tangible than décor and food.
“We are very hospitality driven," Day said. "We cater to everyone here at Dockside and create a space where all identities can intersect.”
The work requires long hours.
“It’s got to be in your blood,” Lucibelli says. He would know. In addition to his role as president, he manages the company’s other venue, Gotham Citi Cafe in New Haven, on Friday and Saturday nights. He's at Dockside on Wednesdays, and is a financial center manager for Bank of America in his spare 40 hours a week.
Day has a similarly full schedule. When he isn’t bartending, he is the Ryan White Program Coordinator for Alliance for Living, youth director at his church. He sits on the board of directors for OutCT, is a co-chair for New London Pride Week and for OutCT’s “Born This Way Fashion Show Fairy Tale Extravaganza” fundraising event.
Day, a Groton native who now lives in New London, is passionate about his work despite the long hours. He said it's important to show people how far the LGBTQIA+ has come.
Dockside’s success is rooted in Bartolomeo’s keen understanding of the industry and four decades of experience, including a quarter century operating Gotham Citi, which he describes as “iconic.”
Not only was the nightclub named one of “50 Greatest Gay Bars in the World” by Out Magazine, in 2007 and again in 2011, but it was hailed in the industry magazine Bar & Restaurant in 2002 for its target marketing.
He'd like to credit, but said the club opened at a time when society was changing and "whoever we promoted it to adopted the club as their own,” he explains.
Bartolomeo has no time for false humility.
“We were hugely responsible for integrating gay society in Connecticut,” he says.
When Gotham Citi opened in a basement in New Haven, the entrance on the side of the building was, he explains, “not hidden, but not exposed.”
In 1999, he took over the first-floor space and relocated the entrance.
“If you look at the history of gay bars, you’ll see that all the entrances are kind of hidden," he said.
Now he said, for the first time, the gay clientele was walking into a gay bar on the corner of the most prominent street in the second largest city in Connecticut.
“I had the only legal after-hours (in New Haven) from 1999-2015,” he said. The bar moved to its present location in 2015.
When area bars closed, patrons would come to Gotham Citi, and the demographics would shift from “80% gay to 50-50," he said, becoming a melting pot because of the after-hours.
Bartolomeo knows his industry, his contributions and who he is.
Raised mostly in Orange, CT, Bartolomeo, now 59, reflects on growing up in a successful, Italian, blue-collar family.
“My family didn’t like that I was gay, but I chose to live my life,” he said.
In 1999, he created Pride New Haven, which holds an annual Pride event and supports LGBTQIA+ events in New York and Connecticut. When it began, the only other gay pride event was in Hartford, he said. He stepped down as chairman this year, after 23 years.
His activism was never about him, he explains.
“All those things I have done for gay Pride were really for my friends and people that were feeling the pressure of it," Bartolomeo said. "I never really felt the pressure from it.”
He recalls being called gay slurs, but adds he was called ethnic slurs as well. He never let it bother him as a young man trying to make something of himself. He used it as fuel to further his life and career, managing a restaurant in the late 1980s as an openly gay man.
"I was never not out, and I never had a problem with it," he said.
Things are different from when Bartolomeo was 18, and that evolution has led to diverse clientele at both the New London and New Haven locations.
Lucibelli believes the diversity is due to the company’s structure.
“I think being gay owned-and-operated makes a big difference, especially when the staff is primarily gay," he said. "(The community) dealt with different issues throughout their life, so they welcome all.”
Day said, “You have to create that atmosphere for yourself and allow people to come in and see that you’re affirming, that you will create a safe space for intersecting identities. That’s not something you get just as a right. That’s something you have to earn, and…we’re fortunate that here, we’ve done that.”