Irene’s, Bank St., Ottawa, Canada

Last night before going to see the Pixies, the siblings and I took advantage of the moment to visit an old friend, Irene’s pub in Ottawa’s Glebe district. Irene’s is a neighbourhood bar which means it is not necessarily the place to take someone on a first date unless you are on a serious testing night-out. If she agrees to go to Irene’s again, she wins. If she suggests going to Irene’s again, you win.

Opened in 1985 as a sort of Maritime Canadian bar in Upper Canada, its almost 20 years of experience shows in the honeying pine of the wainscoting and the furniture, the colour of good real pale ale. I have seen bands play there, ended work weeks there with pals, had dinner parties collapse into it and wished often I lived nearer to it. People there can be loud. They can also be worse for wear for the night – or even for the decade. A little harder than the Pilot House in Kingston but the same idea. The beer selection is pretty good but not great. The Guinness moves well, however, meaning it is always fresh. Upper Canada Dark on tap is also a good choice. I was driving so those were the brother’s choices.

The Queen’s Inn, Kingston, Ontario

When I was going up to find the back view of the Royal Tavern the other day, I passed this pub and realized that it said established 1839 on the awning. For those of you in outside of North America, this may not be extraordinary but for Canada – especially west of Quebec – operating establishments of any kind older than, say, 1900 are rare. Far rarer are bevvy related things of that age as we had prohibition for a good chunk of the period before WWII. In PEI this lasted decades, from before WWI to after WWII. As a result, few aspects of the inn and pub life of the place remain. Ontario’s prohibition lasted only from 1919 to 1927 but as this article points out the rippling effects of misguided do-goodery were felt for decades.

I had suspected the Queen’s Inn in large part due to the brick wall seen in the alley and the somewhat phoney limestone rebuild out front but when you get back behind the place you see the real history. The brick wall in the alley must have been pit in when a neighbouring building was removed and you can clearly see from the rear views to the left and below that the limestone walls are indeed of the early or mid-1800s, rough and irregular. Similarly to the Royal Tavern, to the post on which I have added two exterior rear shots, there is the monarchist aspect to the name, too, that requires a certain age for the use of reference to the Crown to be grandfathered.

Also like the Royal Tavern, I have yet to make a stop at this pub but will do some interior reconnaissance soon.

Pilot House, Kingston, Ontario

Another in my occasional series on the pubs of Kingston. This is at the corner of King Street and Johnson. Half a fish and chip shop, half pub. This is our version of Chess’s of St. John’s, Murphy’s of Truro except it has Guinness on tap. Your choice of fish and chips includes smoked cod. Seats about 30. The outside patio along the right side of the building in the picture was getting put up yesterday. Summer is a comin’ in.

Later: Here is a November morning shot of the Pilot House.

The Royal Tavern, Kingston, Ontario

My days of bar hopping are long past. The five and a half years of rural life which wrapped up a year ago did its best to kill the habit geographically as did the advent of kids. There are, however, things that are habits and things that are personality traits and I think that the architecture of bars will always interest me. One class could be called the hard little place, that is not a sports bar, not a pub, not a road house. It might be a neighbourhood bar if you didn’t like the neighbours. The old Victory Lounge, formerly in the Lord Nelson Hotel in Halifax, Nova Scotia, or The Green Dory in the Halifax Shopping Centre come to mind as examples as does The Hillsborough Hotel (aka “the hug and slug”) in Pembroke, Ontario. I may, with such an introduction, be slandering the Royal Tavern on Princess street on one particularly non-gentrified block but the place simply does not invite. I would be interested in being proven wrong.

 

 

 

 

I thought that the adjective “Royal” was not permitted except with government permission. Indeed, as no doubt you all shouted as one at the screen ust now, look up section 10(1)(a) of Ont. Reg 122/91 which makes implying a connection to the Crown a dodgy matter. Did the Queen Mum put in a good word? Maybe she stopped there once in 1937. Most likely the name is saved by section 12(1) and the grandfathering clause for pre 1991 uses. Glad we cleared that up. The phoney Dickensian touches on the exterior, like the Ye Oldie font illuminated “Tap Room” sign over the door, are intriguing but you can bet the inside will disappoint, that the only thing on tap might be Labatt Blue. Actually it kind of looks like a location for a meeting of toughs on Canada’s first coroner TV drama from the late 60’s, Wojeck. The mock ecclesiastical glass and angled door, detailed below, are interesting but somewhat weird touches. I will have to look again but it appears that to the left of the building there is a filled in carriage arch which would have led to a back stable. There are still a number of these arches around the town. There is one great one in Charlottetown, PEI in a wooden house on one of the streets behind the former The Harp and Thistle.

 

 

 

 

Later: The carriage way is confirmed and even advertised. Apparently the place is very old on the inside even having cobbled or stone floors.

The other day I went back to get the exterior of the rear and was glad to see that the old limestone and double dormers are still there. At City Hall, there is a framed 1875 business directory map of the downtown which shows the building as having the twin dormers and an enclosed walled space out back. From the view below of the inelegant car park you can see reminants of the old walls to both sides of the property with the capping of the wall to the left apparently still intact. Likely it was for horse barns and other out buildings, it is kind of nice to imagine a walled ale garden circa 1840. Come to think of it, though, it is three dormers I am looking at with the one to the right being over the carriageway. The carriageway now feeds into the lean-to like addition to the right of the picture.

 

Sophat Vann

Unbeknownst to me last Saturday night, I ate at one of the favourite spots of Ra McGuire, the lead singer from Trooper. It’s information like that that doesn’t change your life but might lead one to pause over one’s Phanaeng Goong (spicy shrimp in basil peanut coconut sauce). [If I see him, there bending over noodle soup noisily, I will call him “Trooper Boy” – I will, I will…]

The Whig last Saturday had a great full page on Mr. Vann…or Mr. Sophat…who has started five different Cambodian restaurants in downtown Kingston – he starts one, gets it going, sells it to someone he trains for a few months and then goes on to open another. When I first moved here I asked whether there had been an immigration wave at some point, thinking it would take a fair number of families from one culture to sustain five restaurants. I got some odd looks. It was, I now learn, a one-man piece of work, creating a momentum for the stuff that helps keep the downtown thriving. Way to go. I have only attended one of his earlier shops, Cambodian Village, so far but his own kitchen Cambodiana is right around the corner.

This is the way it should work. Coming from Nova Scotia, I was used to Lunenburg Greeks, the Lebanese of 1948, the Greeks of the mid-50’s, the Vietnamese of the mid-70’s, the Lebanese of the late 70’s, a guy in my class called Zoltan whose folks got out in ’56, and the former Yugoslavs and their neighbours in the 90’s – and ate their sausage, kibbe, mousakka, croissants (remember the guy at North and Agricola who was a Saigon french pastry chef?), donairs, kapusta and other stuff. In undergrad, I wouldn’t trust a pizza not made by a guy who wasn’t raised on the Mediterranean. I would eat their mother’s home cooking, whatever it was. Food should be an entry to the immigrant experience for the non-immigrant. Eat curry and nans when you are 18 and get a little understanding of understand Mr. Khana, the grade 12 supply math teacher who posed unbelievably hard questions to keep us from being little bastards. Eat a donair from Sam Kasam and Lebanon is a little less about terrorists. Have apples and honey and listen to a friend’s grandfather quiz the young rabbi into embarrassment, think about the menorah. Share a joke over Tom Yum Goong and the jokes at the expense of others quickly sour. All in the cause of shaking up the brain and its residue of preconceptions through tasty food.

Even though I am the kid of two immigrants, I don’t, however, expect to see diners based on smoked herring and haggis. Your loss. Maybe in south-east Asia there are trendy corner stalls with chip butties and Irn-Brew…and deep fried Mars bars.

Midtown Tavern, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Midtown Tavern, R.I.P. David Swick has the whole story in Halifax Daily News.

A city that prides itself on its heritage, and a legendary tavern whose days are numbered. Sounds like a match made in tippling heaven. Operators of the Midtown Tavern in downtown Halifax have applied to the city to tear the old place down, to be replaced by a new drinking spot in a 20-storey hotel. Chances are good that this will actually happen. Times have changed. Even 10 years ago, the Midtown was hot, hot, hot. But plain decor and basic food are no longer the key to success.

“We still serve a tonne of food [Ed.: Dave, even I don’t think Mr. Grant was thinking metric], but no one’s drinking anymore,” says Eric Grant, one of two sons of longtime owner Doug Grant. “We used to break even with the food and make money on the beer. You can’t do that if people don’t drink. If you won the lottery tomorrow and told me you wanted to open a tavern, I’d say you were crazy.”

Doug Grant, now 78, has told his kids they can do what they want, Eric said. So they worked with a developer to create a plan, and are now taking calls from hotel chains, with an eye to putting a fancy new bar at the base of 20 storeys of rooms. Rather than unceremoniously destroy the Midtown, tourism and heritage officials might consider picking it up and moving it. Plunked down somewhere else in town, it could become a curious attraction. Here, after all, is a tavern that did not change for decades — and stayed enormously popular through almost all of that time.

We’ll never see its like again.

Boiled dinner, two and juice. Even in my Halifax time, 1981 to 1992, you passed through the Midtown on your way to other bars, the Deck or the Seahorse. Now it would be a stop or more likely a walk by on the way to Rogues Roost. It wasn’t the same after Jerry moved on a long time ago. He held the place open for us on a blizzardy Friday night.

Around 1984, I saw an oil painting of the Midtown jazzy on a rainy evening for $400.00. I kick my own arse thinking about not buying it. I had steak and egg and two and juice there before seeing Gretzky play for Canada ona Saturday afternoon in September 1983 against the Czeckoslovaks with Hasek either in goal or on the bench as a kid. I think I have had a beer with three-quarters of my best friends in that bar.