Touring the Pubs of Toronto
Ann Arbor, MI, in my student days ranked first in the nation in per-capita Molson consumption. Molson Golden was our first step toward appreciating better beer. That was back in the Seventies, before the craftbrewing revolution got started.
Since then, I’ve done a great deal of traveling, much of it in search of new and interesting beer. I’d like to show you around, sharing with you the history and culture of some beers I like and the places where they’re brewed and enjoyed.
The first stop on our tour is my favorite summertime destination: Toronto, Ontario. It’s only a five-hour drive from my home, give or take a few construction barrels. Every year, I spend at least one long weekend roaming through the city’s museums, wandering around its ethnic neighborhoods, and perhaps catching a Jays game at the SkyDome.
Of course, I come for the beer, too. Toronto’s better establishments serve Ontario craft beers, few of which are found south of the border. The area’s small breweries include Black Oak, Church Key, Creemore Springs, Kawartha Lakes, Scotch-Irish, and Wellington County. They’ve recently been joined by Toronto’s own Steam Whistle Lager, produced by veterans of the Upper Canada Brewing Co., a perfect beer for a sunny afternoon.
Weather permitting, which is usually the case in the summer, beer is best enjoyed al fresco. The season is short, but the evenings are long and warm; on a weekend night, it seems as though entire neighborhoods spill into the outdoor cafés.
Toronto Stops of Choice
More often than not, my first stop is The Rebel House (1068 Yonge Street). It’s named for an 1837 uprising against the Crown; according to legend, a skirmish in that short-lived revolt occurred close by. Consistently rated one of the city’s best pubs, The Rebel House has a Cheers-like atmosphere, especially around the tiny first-floor bar where the regulars gather. I prefer the back patio, where I unwind from the trek up Highway 401 with a pint of hoppy ale and some Ontario tavern food. I’ve promised that this will be the year I tackle a meal-size portion of poutine, a plate of French fries mixed with cheese curds and covered with gravy. Invented in Quebec, the dish has achieved cult status across Canada.
Another favorite patio of mine is Allen’s (143 Danforth Avenue). It’s guarded by three huge, century-old willow trees that keep out the summer sun and city noise, making it possible to carry on a conversation—which soon turns to what beer to order. A blackboard lists the many beers on tap, and there are dozens more in bottles. The patio is home to a barbecue grill that works nonstop evenings and weekends. Locals are so fond of the grilled food that they’ve voted Allen’s the best place in town for outdoor dining.
Despite its location in the middle of Greektown, Allen’s is an enclave of Irish culture, complete with Celtic entertainers. There’s a bit of New York City ambience, too. Before coming to Canada, one of the founders worked at the legendary P. J. Clarke’s, which explains why the interior is reminiscent of Manhattan’s ubiquitous Irish bars.
When darkness starts to descend, I’m left in a quandary. Some nights, the mood is right for the reunion-like atmosphere of the Madison Avenue Pub (14 Madison Avenue). It started life as a basement pub but has gobbled up two adjacent Victorian buildings, with too many barrooms to count and five large patios. On one July day, I was greeted by a sign proclaiming, “All Patios Open Due to Stunning Weather.” Although students from the nearby University of Toronto are gone for the summer, the locals more than make up for their absence. While the “Maddy” doesn’t have a wide beer selection, it’s the ideal place to get acquainted with Creemore Springs Premium Lager, a flavorful brew from “Cottage Country.”
Smoke Free and A-C
When I’m in a beer-hunting frame of mind, I head for downtown and Smokeless Joe’s (125 John Street). Smoke-free bars are no longer a novelty in Toronto, and a different Joe now runs the place, but little else has changed. More than 250 bottled beers, including hard-to-find Belgians and a wide selection of Rogue Ales, stay cool inside Joe’s refrigerator. Six Ontario micros are on tap, including a hand pump selection. The interior of Smokeless Joe’s is tiny but immaculate; there’s a blackboard announcing “New Stuff,” oysters on crushed ice, and an air-conditioner strong enough for the muggiest of nights. I prefer to settle back on a wicker-backed chair on the front patio and watch people heading out for a night of dancing.
If the weather turns foul, or if I just need to cool off, there are plenty of alternatives. High on the list is the Bow and Arrow (1954 Yonge Street). In a city dotted with British-style pubs, this is one of the most authentic. The decor includes a wooden U-shaped bar, turn-of-the-century wainscoting, and flowerboxes underneath the windows; all that’s missing are a couple fruit machines. It was here, sitting at the alcove table next to the window, that I had my first cask-conditioned ale in Canada: an Arkell Best Bitter.
The Bow and Arrow is committed to supporting local suppliers, which means that Ontario food as well as beer is on the menu. My favorite snack is a bowl of maple chili, made with ground bison meat. On some weekend nights, there’s an extra treat: fiddlers from Cape Breton, a foot-tapping accompaniment to a pint or two.
A must for visiting beer mavens is C’est What? (67 Front Street East), a quirky downstairs pub just outside the tourist zone. Most of the 29 tap selections are Ontario micros. It’s also a small-batch brewpub, whose regular lineup includes the popular Hemp Ale (“enjoy it, don’t inhale it”), Coffee Porter, and whatever the brew master is tinkering with. My favorite is Mild Brown Ale, C’est What’s rendition of a British mild. It’s good for keeping one’s head while playing board games, which the staff thoughtfully provides. The pub shares quarters with a nightclub where Jewel and The Barenaked Ladies appeared on their way to stardom. And rumor has it that an expansion—along with a wider beer selection—is in the works.
Granite with a British Accent
Another brewpub, which many consider Toronto’s best, is the Granite Brewery (245 Eglinton Avenue East). This western outpost of the original brewery in Halifax offers an all-ale lineup: a Best Bitter and a dry-hopped “special” version (also available from the cask); a blonde ale, with or without raspberry flavor; an Irish stout; and a summer seasonal. These are served in a cozy, British-accented bar area complete with fireplace and book-lined walls. Since man does not live by beer alone, there are three dining rooms in the back, where the brew kettles and Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” and “Beer Street” etchings can be found. Granite serves brunch on weekends and holidays, and hosts brewer’s dinners featuring guest micros.
Postscript: Toronto beer lovers were shocked by the recent closing of Denison’s, a brewpub with connections to Bavaria’s royal family. It’s a reminder that Ontario can be a tough environment for small breweries and a good reason to “drink locally” while in town.
Paul Ruschmann is a writer, editor, and researcher. In his free time, he travels as much as his budget permits; over the years, he's visited many of the places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed. Paul and his wife, Maryanne Nasiatka, who took the photographs, live in the Ann Arbor, MI, area. He can be found online at www.BeerFestivals.org and www.PaulRuschmann.com; her work can be found at www.sabat.com.