bagetown you say? Pity.
British to the core if a bit long in the tooth, this
Toronto neighbourhood has no shortage of strange,
eccentric pubs to beguile the summer tourist.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 17, 2000
Toronto -- A friend of mine was visiting from New York, and instead of
taking him to the usual trendy Toronto bars, I opted to keep things local
and a little more real. So we explored Cabbagetown. It may not be
SoHo or The Village. But it's not as if New Yorkers have never heard
of this east-end Toronto neighbourhood: No less than The New York
Times once described it as "the largest enclave of Victorian homes in
North America." And it's got its fair share of celebrities, just like the
Upper East Side, sort of: TV mountie Paul Gross, and Nicholas
Campbell of Da Vinci's Inquest.
Okay, so it's not New York, but Cabbagetown, we discovered, is a
great place to take a cool New Yorker, or anyone else from out of
town. And if you're visiting Toronto on your own, the neighbourhood is
dead easy to get to: Just amble a few block east of Yonge, along
Carlton or Gerrard streets, and you'll soon be in the thick of it. Here's a
look at five local bars, with a rating from one to four stars for each.
Tapas Restaurant & Bar ***½
226 Carlton St.
This may be an architecturally very British neighbourhood. But it's salsa
time at Tapas, a Spanish-style restaurant that hosts a Latin dance bar
downstairs on the weekend. The walls are covered with pictures of
matadors; prosciuttos the size of footballs hang down over the ceramic
tile bar. Even thicker than the crowd was the accent of our Spanish
bartender, who managed to tell us that the house specialty, stored above
the bar, was red wine from the Rioja region in north-central Spain. We
ordered a number of the small dishes that give the bar its name: Tapas
means "lid," and in Spain refers to the small servings of food served in
bars. This place isn't what you'd call hopping -- although to be fair, we
weren't there when the dance bar was open. But it's a fine place for a
quiet date or drinks with an old friend.
Pimblett's Restaurant ***
263 Gerrard E.
If Edger Allen Poe were to rise from the dead and choose a bar for
inspiration, it would be Pimblett's. This place is the essence of the mix of
opposites in Cabbagetown: gay and straight, rich and poor, tasteful and
gaudy. The bar is in the basement of a Victorian house, which has a
restaurant on its first floor. The space, scattered with a darkly lit mix of
bizarre curios, feels not unlike a theatre's prop room. Somewhere in the
middle of the deer's head, birdcage, model sailboat, hardbound book
piles, and mannequins dressed like the queen, sits the bar, itself
illuminated by candles and glass vases of fresh flowers. As we arrived,
Shirley Bassey was singing one of a catalogue of James Bond themes.
Quirky and warm, this is a bar to ease into Tetley's bitter, a beer as
dark as Pimblett's wood panelling.
Ben Wicks Restaurant ***½
424 Parliament St.
Looking like a Boston chowder house complete with nets hanging from
the ceiling, heavy wooden tables and chairs and an upright piano, the
Ben Wicks was named after its original owner, the famous political
cartoonist, and the walls sport some of his best work. The crowd
appear to be slightly older and predominately male. The entertainment
varies, but is at its best the first Saturday of each month, and even more
frequently in the winter, when a jazz or blues ensemble warms the place
up. And the drinks? I had Oban on the rocks and my friend a
Llagavolen. That seemed only appropriate, as whisky was definitely the
most represented liquor behind the bar. After a couple of shots, we
discussed why most Cabbagetown bars require a downward flight of
stairs to enter, but couldn't resolve the mystery.
The House on Parliament St. **½
One of the two main watering holes for Cabbagetown locals, the HP is
the kind of English pub from which you you can pinch beer mats from
the bar. Sports is on on the TV above the bar. The clientele in this
low-tin-ceiling and broad-Persian-carpeted space runs the gamut.
Martini glasses and whiskey bottles are given equal room behind the
bar. The food is best described as suited to an English palate. Miniature
model Messerschmitts and Spitfires above the mirror behind the bar are
meant to remind you, one supposes, of the Battle of Britain. Glancing at
the television on our way out, Manchester United had defeated
Olympique Marseille, 2-1.
Winchester Tavern *
537 Parliament St.
Other bars may contain the spirits of Cabbagetown, but the Winny, as
it's called, is the most impressive building in the neighbourhood, bar
none. The grandeur of this former hotel, built in 1888 as the Lake View,
stands in contrast to its contemporary clientele. Cabbagetown is too
all-embracing for a Burt-Reynolds-style bar room brawl; but if it were
to happen, it would happen here. Live rock and country music are
performed in the back room six nights a week. But for all the cool
surroundings, the drink of choice is nameless tap beer in a stunted glass.
The main food is links of pickled sausage and eggs in jars on the
counter, back-lit like lab specimens. An evening here can turn into a
long evening indeed.