Friday, November 30, 2012

Toronto locals

The other day, I was reflecting for a moment - for reasons which now escape me - on the time I spent in Toronto about 15 years ago, working as a legal intern.

My scholarship programme provided quite a nice apartment for me, down near the waterfront on Queen's Quay. And I had a bar in my building. One of the strangest bars I have ever encountered - the Purple Pepper, a bar chiefly notable for its name: a deeply naff but undeniably very memorable alliteration. The Pepper, alas, didn't really feel much like a bar, since it was in a mall. Well, in the middle of a rank of shops along the ground floor of this block (the dry cleaners and the 24-hour supermarket and, especially, the great little takeaway pizza joint on the corner were all very welcome facilities to have within 5 minutes of home, but the Pepper was nothing but a disappointment). And hence it was a bit of a goldfish bowl, with floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows along the front. At least it was quite cosily dim inside - after nightfall - and the 'purple' motif was quaintly underscored with a purple lava lamp behind the bar (I'm a big fan of lava lamps: I could watch them for hours!).

There was also a rather beautiful Eastern European (Croatian, possibly - I forget) girl who worked behind the bar there a few evenings a week. But even this was not enough to entice me into becoming a regular. The place lacked atmosphere. Nor, indeed, did it have very much custom. It was a little expensive. And the service - from the gorgeous Croatian, and everyone else - tended to be a bit offhand and surly. [It seems the Pepper is still going after all these years, but is now promoting itself more as a café/restaurant.]

That, I found, was a more widespread problem in Canada, or certainly in Toronto. Canadians have a rather gratingly self-righteous pride about their supposed superiority to their American neighbours: they seem to believe - with overbearing earnestness - that their country is better in every way than the USA, and that they are a fundamentally nicer people than the Americans. And I'm afraid it just ain't so - not in the country's service culture, anyway. Whereas the almost ubiquitous "Have a nice day!" attitude you find in America usually seems genuine, or at least well faked, in Canada serving staff mostly seem as if they are just going through the motions. There's no perkiness, no breeziness, no friendliness. It wasn't just in the Pepper, but every bar I went in during that year in Toronto (and a fair few in other places I visited, too: Montreal, Ottawa/Hull, Quebec City, Edmonton, Vancouver). Even worse, bar staff there used to aggressively demand their tips, rather than just accepting that tipping was ultimately a matter for the customer's discretion. In America, I don't mind tipping, and tipping heavily - because bar staff give value: they're pleasant and friendly to you, they make conversation if you're on your own, they introduce you to other people at the bar; they'll quite often give you a complimentary drink every once in a while; and they almost invariably slice a big chunk off your tab at the end of the evening, if you've been a good customer. In Canada, they give you your drink, and ask for a tip. That's it. No smile, no chit-chat, nada. I soon grew to hate going to bars in Canada: it was more expensive than in the States, and not nearly as much fun.

Insofar as I did have a local in Toronto (the severe winters are a serious deterrent to going out; and I was away travelling a lot, anyway), I came to favour the Acme Bar & Grill, just around the corner. It was about a 10-minute walk away, but that's no bad thing. (A 'local' can be too local. There's not really any extra convenience in having a favourite bar only 2 minutes away rather than 5 or 10 - and 'convenience' is overrated anyway! - but the reduction in daily exercise can become significant.) Of course, it was the Wile E. Coyote reference that initially attracted me. And it did seem like a very promising venue: long, narrow, essentially windowless - nice and dark, lots of wood; almost the paradigm of the perfect (North) American bar. It had a pretty decent food menu too. Again, it was the frosty demeanour of the staff that let it down. If this place had been over the border in Michigan, I'm sure I would have enrolled it amongst my favourite bars of all time; but my experiences here were always undercut by irritation and disappointment with the service. [I learn that the Acme was relaunched as the more British-sounding Duke of Argyle in the early Noughties, and closed altogether a few years ago, when the area was redeveloped. I would like to summon up a little wistful regret, but I find myself unable to.]

Perverse and bizarre as it may seem, my 'local' during that year became the wonderful T. Hogan's - some 300 miles away in Philadelphia!

That's how much Canada's bars SUCKED.

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