© 2024 WGLT
A public service of Illinois State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Bistro's 'Momma' crafts a safe space for LGBTQ people — one cocktail at a time

An older woman with long white hair and glasses stands behind a bar, smiling. She is wearing a white and red shirt with the text "XOXO" on it. The bar shelves behind her are stocked with various bottles of alcohol, and a sign reading "Bistro" is visible.
Lauren Warnecke
Jan Lancaster, owner of The Bistro, will be inducted as a 2024 McLean County History Maker on June 18.

Jan Lancaster is a business owner, a community organizer — and soon-to-be History Maker.

But to many in Bloomington-Normal, she is simply known as "Momma.”

Lancaster joins the 2024 class of McLean County History Makers with Julie and Bob Dobski, John Penn and Barb and Bob Hathway.

That she is counted among McLean County’s greatest citizens is perhaps the greatest testament to Lancaster's work.

“You wouldn’t think they’d give this award to someone that says f*** as much as I do,” Lancaster said from her perch at the end of The Bistro’s long bar.

“I felt very honored and humbled to be considered,” she said. “It’s really been thrilling, and I’ve enjoyed this journey. I’m very proud of what we’ve done here.”

Lancaster grew up in Normal. Like many of her peers, she got married at 18 and had two children shortly after that.

But Lancaster’s life has been anything but ordinary. She worked for Johnny Martin Chevrolet, then for the Music Shoppe, and enjoyed letting off steam at the bars and pubs in downtown Bloomington. In the early 1990s, Lancaster found a new spot to hang out on Main Street, called The Bistro.

“We came in here and it was great,” she said. “There were no TVs; people were talking to one another.”

A black and white photograph of three individuals, from left to right, Tony Robbins, Jan Lancaster, and Dee Engel, placing skis in a snowbank along Main Street in Bloomington. They are standing outside The Bistro, a sign for which is visible in the background.
David Proeber
Pantagraph archives
During a heavy snowstorm in January, 1993, Tony Robbins, Jan Lancaster and Dee Engel cross-country skied down Main Street to The Bistro. Their escapade was captured by the Pantagraph. Lancaster bought the bar later that year

That was 1993. A few months later, Lancaster was persuaded to buy The Bistro. She kept the name and has [mostly] avoided TVs — but everything else changed.

“Never have four drinks and say, ‘I’ll buy a bar,’” Lancaster said. “Never do that. But that’s basically what happened.”

An alternative bar

The Bistro is more than a bar.

“We needed to have a bar where everybody felt safe and everybody was welcome,” she said.

In the early years, it served as a safe haven for queer people at the height of the AIDS epidemic. Lancaster co-founded Prairie Pride Coalition and worked to pass the equal rights amendment in Bloomington and Normal. The Bistro also organizes downtown Bloomington's annual Pride Fest.

Lancaster recalled a time when patrons parked their cars far from the bar to avoid being outed. Many nights, she’d walk people back to their cars for protection. LGBTQ youth in need of a hot meal and a dry place to stay temporarily found one at The Bistro — Lancaster served Christmas dinners to “chosen family” who couldn’t go home for the holidays.

“I was not prepared for so much hate from people,” she said. “It was totally shocking to me."

Keeping the bar afloat has been a perpetual challenge, but The Bistro lives on. Lancaster credits owning her building as the thing that has allowed her to weather every financial storm — even outlasting her fine dining endeavor called Lancaster’s.

“There were many years when anyone with a brain would have closed,” Lancaster said. “I just shuffled money here and there to try to keep it going because I thought it was so important for the community to have this safe space.”

A sea change in LGBTQ tolerance and acceptance has forced gay bars, born out of necessity, to ask themselves what role they still play in the bar industry — and the queer community.

Lancaster insists that The Bistro is an “alternative bar,” not a gay bar. But it maintains the trappings of one.

And she admits gay bars need to change in order to survive, including appealing to a wider audience. The Bistro draws a range of customers to Bingo nights and karaoke; what was once weekly drag shows have been pared down — a lot.

But Lancaster hopes LGBTQ youth come to The Bistro not just for late-night cocktails when the other downtown bars close, but for the history lesson it offers.

“We always will try to keep saying the history of the community,” she said. “I think that’s very important.”

As for an off-ramp, Lancaster thinks a lot about retirement. She hasn’t yet found the right owner for The Bistro and isn’t quite sure when enough is enough.

“Things have changed — a lot for the good, but there is so much that we need to keep working on. We’re moving forward. It’s just, sometimes it’s slower.”

The History Makers Gala takes place June 18 in the Bone Student Center at Illinois State University. Tickets are $74-$100 at 309-827-0428 and mchistory.org.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.