Home » Mark Hunter and Greg Kafka of The Bent Inn & Pub

Mark Hunter and Greg Kafka of The Bent Inn & Pub

Creating a New Gay Social Scene in Las Vegas

by Jim Gladstone

When you stay with us, it’s easy enough to get to all of the traditional Vegas glitz, but then you can get away from it all and just relax and enjoy the company of other gay people.

Greg Kafka (foreground) and Mark Hunter (Photos courtesy of The Bent Inn & Pub)

Sitting by the 12-man spa tub on the Bent Inn’s pool deck, Mark Hunter and Greg Kafka talked about their aspirations for the hotel, located just a few blocks from Fremont Street in the intriguingly evolving Downtown Las Vegas area with its burgeoning arts, culinary, and queer scenes.

It’s not uncommon for European gay travelers to spend time in both Las Vegas and Palm Springs, over the course of a single leisurely two-to-three-week visit to the western United States.

In Palm Springs, they like to unplug and chill out beneath the palms in an intimate, laid back environment, having breakfast, lunch, and cocktails served poolside. In Las Vegas, they have the option to dive into wired wee-hours neon nightlife with mega-clubs, high stakes gambling, big names in the showrooms, and celebrity chef restaurants.

Fortunately, since late last year, even Americans with limited vacation time can experience the best of both oases in a single stay at The Bent Inn & Pub (bentinn.com), Las Vegas’ only queer-centric hotel, owned and hosted by entrepreneur husbands Mark Hunter and Greg Kafka who, from 2010 to 2019 operated Palm Springs’ perennially popular men-only Escape Resort (now re-named and no longer specifically catering to queer travelers).

“We want to offer something different than any other place you can stay here,” explained Hunter. “We’re bringing some of the unique Palm Springs guest experience to Las Vegas. When you stay with us, it’s easy enough to get to all of the traditional Vegas glitz, but then you can get away from it all and just relax and enjoy the company of other gay people.”

 

STEWARDS OF SOCIAL LIFE

Sitting by the 12-man spa tub on the Bent Inn’s pool deck, the couple talked about their aspirations for the hotel, located just a few blocks from Fremont Street (vegasexperience.com) in the intriguingly evolving Downtown Las Vegas area with its burgeoning arts, culinary, and queer scenes.

“When Mark and I looked back at all the places we’ve stayed on vacation in our 20 years as a couple,” said Kafka, “the ones that stood out were the ones where we met people and developed new friendships. The first trips we ever took together (we’d been living in Denver, both working corporate office jobs) was to Palm Springs, and the small men’s hotels there really set the model for us. I remember sitting by the pool with the couple who owned the place where we were saying and asking them, how did you do this? Even back then, a few years before we’d finally reached our tipping point with corporate America, I think the seed was planted that we might want to get into hospitality ourselves.”

“We loved being somewhere there was an interactive social environment, with owners and managers who greet you, host happy hours, and introduce you to other guests. People are willing to let their guard down a bit when they’re on vacation. They want to relax and have fun and don’t necessarily have the same hang-ups they have when they’re out at home with their regular friend groups. As owners, it’s nice to help break the ice for people. I’m actually quite an introverted person myself and haven’t always done well in unfamiliar social situations, but I’ve realized that if I engage with our guests and help them meet each other, it can really help people come out of their shells.”

Balcony King Room

 

BUILDING COMMUNITY

The Bent Inn & Pub’s jaunty trapezoid-arched façade, illuminated in rainbow tones by night, opens into the property’s built-from-the-ground-up pub area, which also serves as its lobby.

Guests can order a celebratory first round of cocktails as they check in, toasting the start of their vacation and admiring the custom-designed wall art depicting giant pulp paperback book covers (The Devil is Gay, Locker Room Lovers, Mother Truckers).

This 24-hour lounge space is also open to the public. Drawing queer residents from several local apartment complexes and Downtown businesses, its already becoming a hub of LGBTQ+ community in the neighborhood. Happy hours are offered both in the early evening hours and between 2 A.M. and 5 A.M., in light of Vegas hospitality workers’ round-the-clock shifts. Bent’s pub is also a great source for insider recommendations on what to do around town (Something you’re unlikely to find at the big name casinos, which aim to keep their patrons on site as much as possible).

Tipplers tipped this journalist off to a fantastic patty melt at Winnie & Ethel’s Downtown Diner (winnieandethels.com), named after the chef and owner’s grandmothers. Scratch-made blue plate classics and a throwback special of 25-cent bottomless coffee are always on offer.

Another local pointed me to The Writer’s Block (thewritersblock.org), an enormous and utterly unexpected nearby bookstore/café with one of the country’s best curated selections of literature, located a stone’s throw from a drive-thru wedding chapel, a pawn shop, and a bail bond office. As it turns out, Writers Block is another queer-owned icon of the Downtown resurgence, operated by married former New Yorkers Scott Seeley and Drew Cohen).

Every Day Is a Pool Day at The Bent Inn & Pub

 

RECREATION AND RENOVATIONS

Bent Inn guests have direct access from the front bar to the courtyard deck where, in addition to the giant hot tub there’s a cleverly designed pool with shelf-like seating where one can sip a cocktail or flip through the latest issue of one of Las Vegas’ nightlife guides, available at the front desk. Regularly scheduled pool parties, including outdoor movie nights during the summer season, allow locals and guests to mingle al fresco.

From a tricked-out food truck outdoor kitchen, Chef Julianna Medel, a transwoman and one of the Bent’s first hires, heads a crew that prepares an extensive menu of elevated pub grub for breakfast, lunch. and dinner. Meals and snacks can be enjoyed poolside or indoors at the bar.

Beyond the pool, Bent’s 33-guest rooms are situated in a two-story former motel that more recently served as an apartment building. Hunter and Kafka took it down to the studs for a complete renovation. Kafka oversaw a redesign of the guest rooms, which feature a clean, uncluttered mid-century modern style with eclectic light fixtures and cleverly designed furniture. King beds are featured in every room except for two “bunkhouse” units, reserved for solo travelers and offered at lower rates.

Food & Beverage Selection at The Bent Inn & Pub

 

A SHARED EXPERIENCE

Almost all of the Bent’s sixteen staff members are queer, and they’re happy to engage with guests, sharing local advice, and their own stories.

“When we were getting ready to open,” recalled Kafka, “there was so much in the news about how difficult it was to hire team members in the hospitality business. We made it very clear in our job listings that this was going to be a completely welcoming space for queer people to be themselves, and that meant our staff as well as our guests. We were overwhelmed with applications and able to hire people who are enthusiastic about working here.”

“I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants and resorts in Las Vegas,” said Chef Medel, “and this is totally different. You can just be yourself without worrying about any hassle or harassment. And it’s not just that you can, you’re expected to be authentic.”

“We want our guests and our staff to have a real sense of belonging here,” said Hunter. “We want everyone who walks through that door to feel comfortable.” Hunter and Kafka have also begun collaborating on special events and fundraisers with the LGBTQIA+ Community Center of Southern Nevada and are quick to refer guests to the ever-increasing number of queer-owned and queer-friendly businesses in the Downtown area.

Just two blocks from the Bent is Ferguson’s Downtown (fergusonsdowntown.com), a full city block of multi-tiered landings lined with indoor-outdoor breweries, coffee shops, quirky boutiques selling the work of local designers, and crafty flea market stands. There’s also an amphitheater for concerts by local musicians and a stupendous landmark sculpture, Big Rig Jig, a precariously acrobatic arrangement of two tanker trucks originally created for Burning Man.

“We’re fortunate to have a mailing list of thousands of loyal customers who stayed with us at Escape in Palm Springs,” said Hunter. “And that’s been helping us get Bent off to a good start. But I think there are plenty of gay people who have traveled to Las Vegas before who would like to experience a different style of hospitality in the city.”

“We feel a bit like pioneers,” said Kafka. “In Palm Springs, we loved collaborating with other businesses and helping our guests build friendships, and that’s what we’re trying to do again here.”


Bent Inn & Pub, 1100 East Ogden Ave., Las Vegas. Tel: 725-305-9458. bentinn.com

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