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They're straight, but not narrow

I was sure the guy with the wavy brown hair and snug, torn Diesel jeans at the bar was eyeing me. We were at the Encore Lounge, a piano bar inside the Roxy complex, and my new crush was seated beside a guy who was far too homely to be his boyfriend (but still, it happens -- remember Brad Pitt with Juliette Lewis?). Naturally, I shot him a furtive glance to say "stop talking and come on over," which my friend Mike later described as a nervous disorder.

"Oh, here he comes," giggled Mike. Just as he brushed by our table, he stepped straight into the arms of a leggy blonde with a Louis Vuitton bag and gave her a long kiss on the lips.

What the . . .? Duped again, we thought, by the city's straight denizens who happen to frequent the same hot spots as gay men and women. Then it occurred to us that Boston has plenty of locales that aren't merely mixed; they're especially gay-friendly. The Red Fez, the Model Cafe, and even Sunday nights at the Irish pub An Tua Nua's tea party-like event, Delight Sundays, all come to mind.

They are places that cater to both the jet set and the Chevro-let set. Encore, in particular, has its charms for both crowds, says regular Lindsay Keller. "I'd say it is maybe three-fifths gay," the 19-year-old Simmons College student says. She comes to Encore at least once a month with other lesbians and straight friends to listen to singers who belt out the big ones by anyone from Billy Joel to Tori Amos. And let's be frank, it's not because Keller has a need to sing in public. "Oh, no, no, no. I'm way too shy for that. I just like that it's a really relaxed environment, like we're not in Boston anymore," she says. Is that it? "Well, a lot of people come to watch the girls sing."

But just when does a place cross that thin line between being a gay-friendly destination and one that's downright gay? Do you need some sort of magic ratio, like 60 percent gay, 40 percent straight? Do you need a souped-up soundtrack with Whitney Houston remixes and long mirrors that line the path to the bathrooms?

If so, then Flux in the South End is the city's kingpin of gay-straight alliances. Last weekend, my friends Ami and Meghan, both of whom are straight, tagged along with me to check out the vibe. We were impressed, not much so by the food (every other bite of my brown rice was a crunchy mouthful, although Meghan thought her steak was cooked just right), but rather by the ambience.

It was like Urban Outfitters had morphed into a restaurant. Splashy orange stripes accented large, low-lighted globes that dangled from the ceiling, and nearly everyone looked gorgeous in designer duds and the men with a variety of faux-hawks.

A group of three across from us appeared to be a young heterosexual family, with one male, one female, and a tyke with beaded hair milling about. Beside us, two young men caressed each other's hands under the table and couldn't take their eyes off each other.

"So is this place gay or gay-friendly?" I asked my girlfriends. We were stumped. "Maybe we're missing the point, though," Ami suggested. "I don't think it matters. It doesn't feel like a scene, and everyone seems engrossed in their own conversations." Meghan piped in. "Yeah, every good restaurant has things like this, but I wouldn't say this is gay-friendly -- it's straight-friendly."

Halfway through the meal, when Stacey Q's "Two of Hearts" beckoned, we realized there was a DJ right behind us. Richie Ladue, a resident DJ at Rise Afterhours, sometimes spins at Flux on the weekends, and when he found out why we were trying to gauge the diversity of the crowd, he decided to help by putting on some Dolly Parton. Perfect. But it would have to be "9 to 5," instead of his preferred choice, "Jolene."

Sure enough, three notes into the song, certain men were on their feet and mouthing the words, while others didn't miss a bite. The girls and I drew our own conclusions: Yep, they're gay. E-mail James Reed at jreed@globe.com.

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