The tall sign standing over Panic's minuscule parking lot on the corner of 18th and N streets says the bar has been "family-owned" since 1982. That's noteworthy and maybe a bit confusing because the founder and original owner, Kelly Erisman, is the first and only Erisman to ever own Panic.
According to bartender Laura Davies, Panic's family encompasses more than a few people, and all found that family on the bar's back patio.
A Refuge to Call Home
For LGBT folks in Lincoln, Panic has been a place of solace and safety since Erisman first opened its doors in 1982 after she herself was attacked outside a different bar for being a lesbian woman.
After resolving to make sure nobody would ever suffer the same fate, Erisman designed a bar for people to find an accepting community ready to protect them.
"Everyone that comes here, be it me and the staff, the regulars or the ones that only show up from time to time, they find their family here," Davies said. "And for some of us that happened because our own families disowned us for who we are, but here we celebrate that aspect of ourselves."
The interior of the bar is cozy, with a black corner bar and a few small tables scattered about on top of the violet carpet. Patrons aren't squeezed together, but bumping shoulders with people isn't uncommon.
"Lots of people here end up friends, but I've seen people look at each other across the bar one day and end up married later," Davies said. "It's a really cool thing to see here."
A Cornerstone of Lincoln LGBT History
Just looking at the exterior of Panic, one can see remnants of the nation's early resistance to the gay liberation movement. A tall mostly translucent fence surrounds the patio and the entrance is painted black to make it harder for people walking in to be recognized, some of whom once had to park several blocks away and walk in the front door with hoods up just in case someone might recognize them, according to Davies.
"There were times when people used to sit across the street with BB guns ready to smear the queer," she said. "We still have issues here and there, but we're much more ready to confront them. Lincoln Police have been great to us, and helped us catch people last summer who were throwing things onto our patio. They were just 16, too young to hate like that."
Before the building was called Panic, it was originally a bar that had separate rooms for gay men and lesbian women. Since then, the building has stood as a place for Lincoln's gay community from before the Stonewall to the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case which legalized same-sex marriage across the United States.
And you can bet Panic had a few drink discounts that evening.
"This place was packed to the back and Kelly bought the first drink of everyone who walked through the door," Davies said. "So many people were hugging strangers and crying. It was a surreal moment for the bar."
Even if Panic gears itself more toward an older crowd in the mid-20s and 30s, it knows how to throw a party.
The bar utilizes its old front entrance in the north corner to make room for a small stage for local stand-up comics and musicians.
"It's a talented staff, everyone does something. They're playing music or they're in drag or they're really funny, so they want to have a stage and for everyone else to be able to put on a show too," Davies said.
Panic serves the standard tap beers, vodka-Sprites and Fireball shots for a relaxed crowd looking for a chill night out, but its events and people still leave a mark on the bar's specialty drinks. The bar's must-have cocktail is Mrs. Yuka Layme, a bright pink drink served in a skinny tall glass with tropical-flavored liqueur underscored by a heavy whiskey base. Its namesake comes from a particularly popular drag queen who used to stop through the bar every so often.
"It's one of those drinks that really stands out when people have it at the bar," Davies said. "And if you knew the real Yuka Layme, you'd know that this drink is absolutely her."
Other drinks are concocted by bartenders looking to experiment in a boozy laboratory, including the Deemeister, named after one particularity curious server. Davies wouldn't reveal the recipe, but, it doesn't contain even a hint of Jägermeister.