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Drag/dinner ‘palace’ Lips serves up opulence, fine dining and stunty performances

Guests at the Near South Side venue can expect an experience that’s just as over-the-top as the decor, thanks in part to the performers who do double duty as servers.

Drag queen Shavonna Brooks, a South Shore native who’s worked at the Lips Atlanta location for five years, welcomes patrons to Lips Chicago.
Drag queen Shavonna Brooks, a South Shore native who’s worked at the Lips Atlanta location for five years, welcomes patrons to Lips Chicago.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Walking through the entryway curtains of Lips, Chicago’s newest dinner theater experience opening Aug. 23 on the Near South Side, is like stepping into an alternate, drag queen dimension.

Four eight-foot crystal chandeliers dangle from above, casting light on the vibrant pinks, blues, purples and other neons that line the room. Campy stiletto-heeled, mannequin legs protrude from the balcony, overlooking the extravagant stage at the front of the room.

“Welcome to Lips, where the ladies are men and all y’all are jealous,” drag queen and show hostess Shavonna B. Brooks told guests during a recent family and friends preview of the theater.

Lips Chicago (2229 S. Michigan) is the fifth location of the 23-year-old drag/dinner mini-chain. According to its founder, a former drag performer who goes by Yvonne Lamé, this is the restaurant’s largest and grandest location to date (other locations are in New York, Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta and San Diego).

Guests enjoy their dinner at the opulent Lips Chicago drag/dinner theater.
Guests enjoy their dinner at the opulent Lips Chicago drag/dinner theater.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

“Think of the Palace of Versailles, but a drag queen is running it,” Lamé said.

Designer Robert Tabar, who used to work for Mattel creating Barbie photoshoot sets, enlisted Lips performers Tori Sass and Kinley Preston to transform the building — an old Ford Motor Company showroom — into the drag palace. From the giant floral bustier overlooking the entrance to the pink, rhinestoned Barbie convertibles displayed at the bar top, every inch of the venue is covered with fabulously gaudy detail.

“I’m still in awe every time I walk in that I helped put it together,” Sass said. “Lips is making dreams come true for a lot of girls and it’s a blessing to be one of them.”

Guests can expect an experience that’s just as over-the-top as the decor, thanks in part to the performers who do double duty as servers.

“You’re being entertained from the minute you walk in,” Lamé said. “There are flashy visuals and great music is playing. Then the queen is bringing the party to your table and ‘kiki-ing’ with you throughout dinner.”

Designer Robert Tabar, who once worked for Mattel creating Barbie photoshoot sets, transformed an old Ford Motor Company showroom into a drag ‘palace of Versailles’ for Lips Chicago.
Designer Robert Tabar, who once worked for Mattel creating Barbie photoshoot sets, along with Lips performers Tori Sass and Kinley Preston, transformed an old Ford Motor Company showroom into a drag ”Palace of Versailles” for Lips Chicago.
Kyle Flubacker

At showtime, the lights dim and a state-of-the-art sound and lighting system kicks in, complete with a decadent cluster of glistening disco balls. Diners (the club seats 175 patrons) can expect a different show depending on what day of the week they visit.

On Wednesdays, Delilah J. Brooks, who spent two years at Lips New York, hosts “Twisted Broadway,” where queens do traditional Broadway numbers with a campy twist. “Dinner with the Divas,” the celebrity impersonation show hosted by Angel LeBare, happens every Thursday night.

Shavonna B. Brooks, a South Shore native who’s worked at the Lips Atlanta location for five years, hosts the Vegas-themed “Glitz and Glam” show on Friday and Saturday nights. A late-night, adults-only show, “Taboo,” is in development for Saturday, Brooks said.

“No drag venue in this city touches the level of production value that Lips has,” says Sunday brunch showgirl Mikki Miraj.
“No drag venue in this city touches the level of production value that Lips has,” says Sunday brunch showgirl Mikki Miraj.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Sunday features two shows. Mz. Ruff N’ Stuff hosts Lips’ “Dragalicious Gospel Brunch” in the morning, and Mimi Marks hosts its modern hits show, “Showstopper Sundays,” in the evening.

“I felt like a real queen when I stepped on stage and the spotlight hit my face. No drag venue in this city touches the level of production value that Lips has,” Sunday brunch showgirl Mikki Miraj said. “You get to see your favorite divas on a stage that they deserve.”

Each show is stacked with a diverse cast of local queens mirroring the breadth of Chicago’s drag talent. The rotating 30-queen cast is a mix of performers of various gender identities, ethnicities and performance styles.

“It’s a phenomenal blend from the more traditional pageant girls to punk rockers to comedians like me and even a bearded queen,” Delilah Brooks said. “There are so many different flavors in Chicago drag that you’ll get to see it all at Lips.”

Chef Thomas Schmitt, who honed his culinary skills at some of Chicago’s most tony restaurants including Green Street Smoked Meats, Publican Quality Meats, and Little Goat, has crafted the menu at Lips Chicago.
Chef Thomas Schmitt, who honed his culinary skills at some of Chicago’s most tony restaurants including Green Street Smoked Meats, Publican Quality Meats, and Little Goat, has crafted the menu at Lips Chicago.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

The show’s menu was developed by Tom Schmitt, of the award-winning Little Goat restaurant, who’s no stranger to the realm of drag. Schmitt said his roommate of 19 years is a drag queen, and he previously worked various roles at a drag bar in St. Louis before moving to Chicago in 2010 for his culinary career.

“I come from fine dining restaurants, so seeing drag queens walking through the kitchen is weird, but we all love it,” Schmitt said. “My idea was to capture that playfulness and whimsy with familiar dishes that I could have fun experimenting with.”

All items are named after Lips performers. Appetizers feature the Batty Davis elote corn fritters with fresh cilantro, lime zest, queso fresco and smoked chili crema. The Ginger Snap crispy shrimp cocktail is served with a sweet garlic cocktail sauce. Entrees include the Angel LeBare shrimp fettuccine alfredo, the Ryan Royale flat iron chicken with kohlrabi slaw and more.

The Angel LeBare shrimp fettuccine alfredo is served at Lips Chicago.
The Angel LeBare shrimp fettuccine alfredo is served at Lips Chicago.
Max Herman/For the Sun-Times

Lips offers two competitively priced dining packages, including dinner-and-a-show for $39.95 on Saturdays and brunch with bottomless mimosas or Bloody Marys for $30 on Sundays.

The drink menu features frozen drinks, cocktails and shots, as well as a signature drink — the frozen cosmo — named after Lamé. The Frankie Cocktail is a fruity mix of Stoli Ohranj, vodka, triple sec, orange, cranberry, pineapple and grapefruit. It’s named in tribute to the Lips New York bartender of 22 years who recently died, Lamé said.

“She was our number one drag queen bartender, and we loved her like family,” Lamé said.

Shavonna Brooks said that sense of family is what makes Lips special.

“Becoming a Lips diva is a life-changing experience,” Brooks said. “It’s the best job I’ve had in my life. They respect their girls and give them the resources to thrive in this industry. Lips allowed me to be me.”

Hours: 7-11 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 6 p.m. -midnight Friday; 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; noon–11 p.m. Sunday. Reservations can be made by calling (312) 815-2662.

The decor at Lips Chicago is as fabulously over-the-top as the entertainment.
The decor at Lips Chicago, such as this sculpture, is as fabulously over-the-top as the entertainment.
Kyle Flubacker