Grill, Interrupted

Mimi Rodriguez's mother was a hot tomato in the '50s. On Friday nights, she would break out TV dinners for the kids and put on her mink, her gloves, her hat and her little black lace cocktail dress for an evening of dinner and dancing.

So when Rodriguez and two business partners decided to open A League of Our Own restaurant and supper club, she hoped to capture some of that elegance and innocence that captivated her as a child.

"I wanted the kind of place that, were my mother alive, she could bring the bridge ladies," says Rodriguez.

Hold on to your hats, ladies. Times have changed. The days when men were men and women were women are gone. Now we have public discourse about the president's penis. Now we have a restaurant with a sexual identity crisis.

A League of Our Own is located in the Arizona Center, directly above Hooters. Its theme is dedicated to female athletes -- the establishment takes its name from the film about a women's baseball league.

Before it even debuted in July, people got the idea that it is a lesbian restaurant. One day as Rodriguez stood outside when the place was under construction, two couples came up the escalator. One pointed to League and said, "It's the new lesbian bar." Rodriguez set them straight, explaining that League is an upscale supper club and lounge. Period. Doesn't matter who a patron sleeps with.

But then the establishment opened in the middle of the Phoenix Mercury's season. The WNBA team has a strong lesbian fan base, and the League's first crowds were postgame fans.

"It's a different theme down here because everybody honors men in sports," complains Rosanna Diaz, another owner. "It's not fair because nobody has ever said, 'Let's honor women.' Anytime you do that, people put a logo on it."

That logo carries a capital L.

Photographs of exemplary women athletes grace the walls, and Mercury players Jennifer Gillom, Michele Timms and Bridget Pettis help promote the club. Nancy Lieberman-Cline, former Olympian and now Detroit Shock coach, is also an ambassador.

This women-oriented establishment faces the same identity crisis faced by women's sports in general. Many people assume it's all about lesbians. Consequently, those who worry about the bottom line must figure out how to respect their lesbian clientele without scaring away straight people.

Word quickly spread that League was the new lesbian hot spot. Anita Carlson went to the restaurant with her girlfriend because she heard about it on SCAMP, a lesbian e-mail list serve of about 180 Valley women. She says she and about 25 other SCAMP subscribers went the night it opened, and she estimates two-thirds of the crowd that night was gay.

"We all got together to help out the community -- that's what we thought we were doing," Carlson says.

Controversy erupted after Denise DeSio, SCAMP's Webmistress, solicited advertising from League's general manager, Ralph Madill.

"He said that's the last thing we want to do is advertise to lesbians because we don't need any more lesbians than we already have," DeSio says.

"They told me if people walked in and saw 200 lesbians, they would be scared away. They need the afternoon clientele. Ralph said gay people go out at night. I guess we're moles or something. I guess gay people don't work, either."

Madill says all he told DeSio was that League prefers to focus its marketing in a mainstream fashion at this time.

However, when DeSio posted a message about the incident on her list serve, the issue took on a life of its own. Carlson says the imbroglio has soured her on A League of Our Own.

"I haven't had any desire to go back, which is a shame because I do have the money, and I like to dress up," she says.

And money is a major issue. An establishment the size of League most likely could not support itself with a strictly lesbian clientele. But League's owners say their restaurant was always intended to appeal to everyone. Incidentally, so does Hooters. It would be a wonderful juxtaposition of American sexual mores if there was an avowed lesbian bar situated atop Hooters. But there isn't. The owners swear.

After the place opened, Rodriguez says, "People were coming up to me and thanking me for creating this place. Then I realized that people were thanking me for creating a lesbian bar. I was speechless."

Debate over labels aside, League is a classy place done in 1940s style and an extraordinary attention to detail. It gets two feminist thumbs up for the complimentary tampons and pads kept in a floral box in the ladies' room. Not to mention the rose water and lavender lotion. The men's room is equally posh, with vaudeville photos of sexy women on the walls. No such photos appear in the women's room.

The food is fancy, with top-shelf liquor and nothing reminiscent of typical sports-bar cuisine -- unless you substitute duck fingers for chicken strips and fried calamari for onion rings.

Rodriguez says she wants A League of Our Own to be a place where people get dressed up, plan on spending some money and enjoying an evening of good food and good entertainment.League is trying to earn its heterosexual credentials. It could take a lesson from Lieberman-Cline, one of its ambassadors. Lieberman-Cline is Martina Navratilova's former personal trainer and lover but is now married and has a child. It makes her more marketable. Now she can be paraded in front of the media alongside other WNBA players who have husbands, boyfriends and children.

A League of Our Own's owners say they envision a place where everybody can feel comfortable, regardless of orientation. And, Diaz says one night a few weeks ago, she saw this concept at work. There was an 80-year-old heterosexual couple dancing side-by-side with a lesbian couple.

"Nobody cared who was with who that night," she says. "All they cared was that everybody had a good meal and danced to some good music. I wished I had a camera that night because it was every mixture you could think of and nobody batted an eyelash. Nobody labeled us that night."

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Amanda Scioscia
Contact: Amanda Scioscia