Nine years ago, Casa Diablo, the world's only vegan strip club, opened in—you guessed it—Portland, Oregon, with a veggie-based menu and a ban on fur and leather onstage. It was years before Portlandia started spoofing the city's first-class weirdness, and at the time the idea seemed normal enough to locals, who have long bragged about having more nude bars and vegans per capita than any city in America.
But now the founder of Casa Diablo, Johnny "Diablo" Zukle, finds himself in a turf war. The vegan flesh peddler—who says he "puts the meat on the pole, not the plate"—recently opened a second branch of the club, Dusk 'Til Dawn: Casa Diablo 2, just feet from The Acropolis, a 35-year-old strip club-cum-steakhouse. The move angered Acropolis owner Bob Polizos, a proud carnivore who famously serves $7 ribeyes, and claims to raise some of the cattle himself on a nearby farm.
From there, things got stranger. A literal wall has been erected to keep a lid on any customer defections; hired security has been ratcheted up; and the clubs have been rocked by gun-toting drunks, family values protestors, and strippers quietly ordering food from the enemy. The proprietors of Acropolis are particularly unwilling to get along, saying that Casa Diablo is "a whorehouse" with "a bad reputation." (In 2015, Casa Diablo was sued by two strippers, who alleged they had been sexually harassed and denied back wages.)
How did it get this bad? It all started with "a good conspiracy theory." (Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Planting the seed
Johnny Diablo Zukle, 52, founder of Casa Diablo and Dusk 'Til Dawn: Casa Diablo 2: It was 1985, and I was 21 years old. I see this guy on TV named Dr. John McDougall. He's talking about how animal products can basically kill you. He's saying government is part of a big conspiracy, that we're all being scammed, that if you look at the food pyramid it's all about meat and dairy, but it's printed by the National Dairy Council. I like a good conspiracy theory, so I started doing research. And I realized that if I don't eat animal products, wear clothes made from animals, or use products tested on animals, I can eliminate so much suffering in the world. So I went from flesh eater to vegan. When I told my mom, she goes, "Oh son, don't become a fanatic." Well, too late!
Bob Polizos, 76, founder of Acropolis Steakhouse Strip Club: I grew up in Greece in a small village up north. My parents raised pigs, so we had a pig every Christmas and a lamb every Easter. I used to do a lot of cooking before I got to America. I worked on a cargo ship, and on the ship I would cook for a crew of 40. I loved it.
I went from flesh eater to vegan. When I told my mom, she goes, "Oh son, don't become a fanatic." Well, too late!
Zukle: So I'm thinking, How can I enlighten people to veganism? And you know the old saying: "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach"? I thought, Well, maybe the way to a human soul is through his stomach. So I decided to open a vegan restaurant. But we were in this blue-collar industrial area, and every day a couple of guys would come in and look at our menu, and say, "There's no meat?" And I'd say, "No, man, it's vegan." And they'd look at me and go, "Uhhh, we'll come back." And they'd get up and leave! This happened at least once every day. And I'm thinking, You big muscular pussies! This is supposed to be Portland—the vegan capital of the United States—and you guys are too chicken to try the vegan chicken! No offense to chickens.
Polizos: After I moved to America, I opened Athens West, a Greek restaurant in Portland. I ran it with my brother, but it closed because we couldn't get along. When I found the [Acropolis] building, the old owners had gone broke, so it was a cheap place to buy. I paid $40,000 for it in November 1976. We put $20,000 down. At first, we opened it as a restaurant. We tried dinner and live music, but nobody came. Nothing worked, and we were losing money. What could we do? So I brought [strippers] in.
Zukle: The recession hit in 2007, and sales went way down. I watched restaurants go out of business, some that had been here for 20 years. So I tell my girlfriend at the time, "I think the only thing that's gonna work in this industrial area is a strip club, because it's 90 percent men." Her response was, "Oh, hell no."
She said, "It's either me or the strip club." So I said, "Bye!"
Get some boobs up there!
Zukle: The thinking was: I have a building that's going into foreclosure. What do I have to do to get guys to come in and eat? So I put up a stage. And I got some boobs up there. And you know what they say now? They say, "This is some of the best food I've ever had." It's the happiest place on earth. It's Disneyland with tits!
Polizos: The ladies helped me; they brought the customers. They are good ladies. I love the ladies. Now people come here night and day. After I brought the dancers here, a lot of other businesses in Portland started doing it.
Zukle: The interior of the building was brick and wrought iron, so the name Casa Diablo sounded right. One bartender made a bunch of paintings to block the view from the street. One of them was a big one of me as the devil. It was cool because I'm a little bit of a … what do you call it?
Zukle: Yes, narcissist! I've heard most business owners are narcissists. I think you gotta have a little bit of that just to push forward. Plus, I'm gorgeous! No.
Polizos: For five years in the 80s, I was the only one in the kitchen here. I tried to hire people, but they didn't make good food. Now I have cooks and I teach them my recipes. I really want it to be delicious. About 10 percent of the steak we serve comes from my farm. Our beef is the best because I have land for the cows. I have 130 acres in Estacada [Oregon]. I've had up to 70 cows at a time.
I was the manager, the cook, bouncer, and the janitor. And for about two months, I was the DJ, too, after the DJ got his foot cut off.
Zukle: When we first opened, I was the manager, the cook, bouncer, and the janitor. And for about two months, I was the DJ, too, after the DJ got his foot cut off. I would announce the girls, say, "Give her a big round of applause!" And then I'd run back and make a veggie burger for somebody. Oh, man, I was sweating bullets, working a lot of hours. I got really thin. Slowly, as we grew, I delegated things out. Now, we're the number one club in the Northwest with a line out the door and an hour wait to get in on weekends. I have to thank the vegan gods.
Andreas Polizos, Acropolis manager and owner's son: We do 50 to 100 orders from our to-go window a day. We hand-cut all the beef ourselves. And we go through about a pound of sauce a day. We are not a normal strip club.
Bob Polizos: And we have a $2 salad bar with any kind of salad you like: macaroni, potato, lettuce for $2. Take a picture of my salad bar!
Tori, stripper, at Casa Diablo and Dusk 'Til Dawn: Casa Diablo 2: We were the first club in town to take advantage of new contact laws [Oregon allows "two-way" contact between customers and fully-nude dancers along with hard liquor sales] and live sex shows. We give better private dances than anyone else in town. People come from all over to try the food, too. They say, "It's so Portland."
Tit for tat
Zukle: I heard—from an Acropolis dancer actually—that the space next door to the club was available. And I thought it would be funny to open a second vegan strip club next door to a strip club that's a steakhouse. That was 2011. We opened in 2015. You can have a great meal here without hurting an innocent creature.
The old guy, Bob [Polizos]—I like him, he's a nice guy. When were first getting started, he said, "I like competition." And I said, "Good, because you're gonna get it!" People go over there for $5 steak bites, then they come here for a $500 lap dance.
Bob Polizos: I don't want them here. We are a real restaurant. They're nothing but a whorehouse!
Andreas Polizos: They have a bad reputation. When they opened, there were anti-strip club protests. We got screwed because it looked like neighbors were protesting us.
Zukle: Someone complained about it, saying there were diapers and syringes in the parking lot—not true. So all of these old ladies, these old bags, show up with protest with signs. Well, I gather 50 hot dancers for a counter-protest with signs that say, "Bisexuality isn't a sin," and "Spread your love and your legs."
Moxie, stripper, Casa Diablo and Dusk 'Til Dawn: Casa Diablo 2: Wanna hear our chant? "Vixens not veal, sizzle not steak!" And there's more, but I forget.
Andreas Polizos: Their club has been a big headache. Really annoying.
Fey, former Acropolis stripper, now bartender at Casa Diablo 2: Some girls have left Acrop to work here—and they bring their regular guys with them. At least four men I know come here now. They find a girl they like and they'll follow her to wherever she works.
Bob Polizos: Their customers come and go and make trouble. The liquor commission doesn't like them, either. They don't cut off customers when they're too drunk.
Wanna hear our chant? "Vixens not veal, sizzle not steak!" And there's more, but I forget.
Andreas Polizos: A lot of people stumble out of there and make trouble here. That's the main reason we put up the fence. It cost us $3000 or $4000. We did it to irritate them.
Fey: There's been some trouble with motorcycle gangs. But at our club we don't allow any signifying colors. You'll see condoms and hypodermic needles and people peeing up and down the street.
Zukle: I just thought it was so funny that they put up a fence. Like, That's a beautiful fence. Thank you. They paid for it. Maybe they didn't want to see our customers' smiling faces.
Fey: The fence hasn't done anything. It has only made it more of a pain in the ass. People are just walking around the fence. It hasn't stopped the foot traffic or club hopping.
Andreas Polizos: We had to hire a security guard to watch the parking lot on weekends. That's another bill—a couple hundred dollars each week. After [some legal trouble Polizos says was caused by a Casa Diablo 2 customer], the city gave a list of seven or eight things they want us to do, like stop serving shots after midnight. We're not going to stop doing that. We spend $8000 on lawyer fees. And cops keep stopping by to check on us. They're coming in and just eating our steak bites.
Fey: Girls here sometimes smoke outside topless. Maybe that's why Acrop doesn't like us?
Andreas Polizos: Culturally, it's two different worlds. It really is. They're vegan, and we're all about meat. That has to have something to do with the conflict.
Meet the ladies
Fey: Acrop is old style, and it's dirty. The private dance chairs haven't been steam-cleaned, like, ever. Casa is spotless; you can eat off the floor. The girls here are treated with a lot more respect. That was one reason I left. And the money is better.
Tori: Acrop staff was snarky with our girls when we ordered food from them. I'm not a fan of them. Even before I started working at Casa, I wasn't a fan. Their salad bar, out in the open air, is gross.
Jordan, stripper, Acropolis: We eat there, and they eat here.
Fey: Girls from there come here wanting to work. But they're nervous because, if Acrop owners find out they're working here, they'll get taken off the schedule.
Andreas Polizos: I have no interest in talking to Casa Diablo [owners]. I have nothing good to say about them.
Zukle: People say, "You don't exploit animals, but you exploit women." And my answer to that is humans don't exploit animals—we murder them. We torture and murder and eat them. Exploiting an animal would be like having a poodle, making it pretty and taking it to a competition to win fifty bucks. You might spend that fifty bucks on a dog toy—or you might spend it on marijuana for yourself. That would be exploitation. But chopping up these creatures while they're still alive, pulling off their skin and watching them scream in agony? That is murder and torture.
Broadly: So… women are the poodles in this analogy?
Zukle: Look, I don't cut up women. I don't eat women, either.
Blake Rauch, 33, customer: Acropolis is a destination spot. They're famously farm-to-strip-club-table. Their strippers are a little more… seasoned.
Molly Torbert, 31, customer: The strippers at Casa Diablo are punk rock and grunge, which I like. It's cool and different. I can appreciate a beautiful woman—but their shows with dildos and sex acts are too raunchy for me.
Nate, 33, customer: Casa dancers have a higher level of skill and freakiness and the chicks have a wide knowledge of art. But Acrop is, like, historical. Plus there's a weed dispensary across the street. Only thing is, I'm nervous I'll run into my dad there someday.
Zukle: The plan was never to run a strip club forever. I'm really into real estate; that's my main thing now. I want to build a vegan housing complex. I'd like to build a whole vegan city, maybe somewhere out in Willamette Valley. But I'm the founder of the club, so I'll always be around. It's kind of like KFC and Colonel Sanders: They'll just use me as a mascot. I'll be the vegan Colonel Sanders of the strip club world.
Tori: Casa Diablo is only going to grow and get better from here.
Jordan: We're well established. Nothing has changed in 35 years. We're not going to start now.
Bob Polizos: We're not going anywhere.
Andres Polizos: If I do take over, I'll modernize things a little. We'll see if [Casa Diablo is] still open in 20 years. Maybe we'll talk then.
Zukle: Can't we all just get along?