D’Arcy Drollinger’s livelihood revolves around bringing people together, so when the coronavirus pandemic forced the actor, writer and director to close Oasis — the cabaret and nightclub in San Francisco that has become a haven for an eclectic clientele and the home to more than 100 drag queens and kings since it opened in 2015 — he had to get creative.
Drollinger has launched a YouTube channel and produced a weekly drag parody show, turning his club into a sound stage. And he has crowdfunded to support some of his part-time employees.
But perhaps Drollinger’s biggest success story to come out of an exhausting stretch is “Meals on Heels,” which gives people in and around San Francisco the opportunity to order dinner and drinks for delivery or pickup, with a lip-syncing performance by a drag queen or king.
“Some days I feel like the biggest idiot, and then other days I feel like I’m going to be the last person standing and keep this space open for the community if it’s the last thing I do,” Drollinger, who recently announced he has become the sole owner of Oasis, said in a phone interview. “It’s been intense, but every day feels exciting and rewarding when you feel like you’re affecting other people’s lives.”
“Meals on Heels” was supposed to be a one-time deal, a fun way to give a few of the club’s regular performers who have been out of work since March the chance to earn money. When word got out about the drag on-demand service, so many people called the club asking about when they could request a performance that Drollinger made it a weekly offering.
Drollinger contacted his good friend and fellow actor and director Cindy Goldfield. Feeling useless after the shows she lined up for the summer were canceled, and after buying way too many groceries on a frenzied trip to Costco, Goldstein started a food preparation and delivery service in April with her partner, chef Willi Nordby, called Martha Avenue Home Cooked Meals.
“I am a person who needs to feel of use and this has given me a real sense of connection to our community and to feeling like we have a purpose,” said Goldstein, who also works as an event planner.
Martha Avenue’s regular menu, including fresh pastas, soups and baked goods, is available three days a week. Unlike other takeout options, most everything comes sealed in a Mason jar so customers can prepare the food when and how they want. Goldstein and Nordby include a list of helpful serving instructions, with recommendations ranging in difficulty level from basic to pro.
The project has given Nordby, who left his position as the executive chef at Restaurant Picco in nearby Larkspur and was in the midst of figuring out his next culinary adventure when the pandemic hit, the opportunity to experiment with new types of cooking. The special “Meals on Heels” menu he and Goldstein created for Drollinger on Fridays has featured everything from Southern barbecue and Provençal cuisine, to Mediterranean-influenced and Pan-Asian items.
“What it’s about is eating good food, so people have something that feels comfortable and grounded in the middle of what’s turned out to go from a ‘simple’ pandemic to a whole s — -storm of everything,” Nordby said, referencing the wildfires that have ravaged Northern California this month. “I think having fresh pasta and ragu gives people a little hope. It gives me hope making it, anyway.”
While the meals are almost always secondary to the heels for customers who pay roughly $100 for the experience, Drollinger says the quality of the food has contributed to the service’s repeat customers. Every Friday since “Meals on Heels” launched in June, about four or five performers have made upward of a dozen stops at homes throughout the city to deliver meals and give a three- or four-minute performances.
Actor and dance instructor Paul Renolis, whose drag name is Juhnay Arabesque, met Drollinger shortly after the Oasis opened and has performed drag there ever since. Renolis has been auditioning for various roles via Zoom and recently booked a commercial but said drag was his largest source of income before the pandemic. He has delivered for “Meals on Heels” twice.
“I felt like a fish out of water a little bit,” Renolis said of his first socially distanced performance. “It felt exhilarating. You could tell from the patrons’ faces, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen a drag queen in so long.’ Sharing that energy with each of them was awesome. We have a lot of patrons who are regulars at Oasis, so I got to see some familiar faces, which was great.”
Renolis, who lip-synced Janet Jackson’s “Made for Now” and Beyoncé’s “Love on Top,” said performing on some of San Francisco’s especially hilly sidewalks provided “an interesting design challenges.” The delivery service tends to draw a crowd.
“A lot of times, a group or even one person will order it, but the neighbors will stick their heads out the window to watch,” Drollinger said. “One time, a driver stopped on the street, got out and tipped the queen and then got back in the car.”
Oasis opened its rooftop with limited capacity this month for socially distanced food and drinks. Drollinger said it will likely be awhile before the club’s entertainment schedule returns to its pre-pandemic form. Meanwhile, he plans to continue “Meals on Heels” for the foreseeable future and is even considering increasing the service to two days a week.
“It’s not a gigantic moneymaker,” Drollinger said. “At this point, if I can just pay the rent and pay my employees, I’m happy to weather the storm ... The joy for people getting to see live performances, even far away and on the street, it’s really moved them.”
“People know that artists are resilient,” Renolis said. “Oasis has really blown it out of the park and I’m really glad that they’re trying to support the artists.”