Never pass a bar with your name on it." That was Irish writer Peter McCarthy's rule. Since pubs called Phillips are rare, I honour him by popping into Toronto's McCarthy's for a quick dram and a pint of stout. Instead of a friendly publican to greet me, someone is measuring plywood, boarding the place up. "It's closed," he says with a solid grasp of the obvious. Like an idiot, I jiggle the locked door just to be sure.
It's sad when a pub closes its doors, particularly one touted as authentically Irish. In Toronto, a city where you can't swing a shillelagh without hitting a pub, there will certainly be something Irish-like close by.
My cell phone dings - a text from Davin. "Trying Power's John's Lane - oily smooth and so succulent." He's gallivanting across Dublin. Finding an authentic Irish pub in Toronto isn't as easy, but I press on.
In North America most Irish pubs are corporate "pubs in a box" - emerald green walls cluttered with faux memorabilia. Facsimiles of what you might find in… Irish Disneyland.
I'm seeking Toronto pubs that transcend this triteness and capture a genuine Irish spirit - with a whiskey list to match.
Another text arrives: "There are broad selections of beer and whiskey in tourist bars but most of the pubs in Ireland have only three bottles: Paddy, Powers, and Jameson. Redbreast and Green Spot, if they have them, are considered very special." Suddenly Toronto is looking up.
At least once a year, on March 17th, Irish culture draws in everyone, no matter their background, so I track down Mac Moloney to find out why. Mac achieved the unthinkable, visiting 900 of Dublin's pubs and surviving to write The Dublin Pubspotter's Guide. He drained 11 barrels of stout in his decade-long authorial research.
"The general feel of an Irish pub is quite a social experience," Mac explains. "People communicate in a fun way we call 'having the craic.' The customers create the atmosphere and the banter seems to flow so easily." Then Davin's latest message: "Interviewing someone in a Dublin taxi and the cabbie is so engaged I can't get a word in edgewise."
Mac says most pubs in Ireland remain family owned and are handed down over the years from generation to generation. "A pub is like the proprietor's sitting room where the customers are guests and proprietors are never off duty."
This is what I find at The Roy Public House. Here the locals gather to solve the world's problems over a pint - Canadians having the craic. It's the elevated pub fare, though, that brings me here again. I'll go on record: The Sunday roast beef dinner here is better than your mom's. Buttery mashed potatoes, carrots and peas - since your mom wants you to eat more vegetables - accompany juicy pink prime rib with Yorkshire pudding and gravy. One of eighteen Irish whiskies on the bar will cap the evening. Ding: "Crested 10, it's 10 Years Old Jameson with a significant pot still component. Soft, rich and creamy with the oiliness of the pot." Grr.
Supermarkets and Rolling Stones
After founding Ireland's Quinnsworth supermarket chain and, in 1965, introducing the Rolling Stones to North American audiences, the late Pat Quinn left Ireland for Canada where he created a trio of family owned and operated pubs in the downtown Toronto area: The Irish Embassy, P. J. O'Brien, and Quinn's Steakhouse.
A massive Jameson whiskey mirror hanging by an ornate Powers mirror, reflects Quinn's polished copper ceiling. It's the whiskey wall behind the bar, however, that has me doing a Michael Flatley Riverdance. More than 230 whiskies, 34 Irish, stare back with puppy-dog eyes, just begging to be tried. There's more whisky here than in the Palace Bar. Just minutes from Sweny's Chemists, the druggist made famous in James Joyce's in Ulysses, Palace Bar is right in the heart of tourist Dublin.
Toronto's Quinn's can't share that history, but it does boast enough Irish whiskey to power a village. It also offers prime cuts of beef to help soak up their irresistible selection. As I dig in, another text arrives: "The menus vary in Dublin bars and the stock item is 'toasties' - toasted cheese or ham and cheese sandwiches on white bread."
I melt gobs of butter onto my mashed potatoes and for the first time envy turns to pity for my globe-trotting writing partner.
Historically Irish Toronto
Remarkably, the Toronto neighbourhood known as 'The Junction' was dry until 1997. Yet cans of beer were still served to those in the know, from hidden coolers in illegal after-hour bars replete with dealers and prostitutes. Today, The Junction thrives with chi-chi restaurants, craft breweries, and its own Toronto Distillery. Ending prohibition was a huge incentive to legitimate local businesses.
Another spark to this revival is the 4,000-square-foot bar at 3030 Dundas Street West, named simply 3030. Irish blood and Jameson whiskey flow in Jeff and Jameson Kelly's veins, though you won't find paper shamrocks slapped on the wall, or Irish beer on tap. Instead, 3030 captures an Irish aesthetic by serving the freshest local beer to a community that treats the space as its own living room. When the spirits are pulled down from the shelf, whiskey is king. Ding: "Barry Crockett tells me the key to the luscious sultanas in Yellow Spot is the Malaga wine casks." Grr.
Toronto's population doubled between 1780 and 1847 as waves of migrants arrived, mostly from Ireland. Their first order of business? Humour: "Any good pubs around here? Yeah, in Ireland." By 1867, a quarter of Canada's population was Irish and it was Toronto's Corktown where many Irish immigrants scraped a living together at one of Toronto's breweries or the Gooderham & Worts Distillery just to the south.
Some insist that Corktown was named for all the cork used here to seal beer bottles, but immigrants came here from County Cork during the great famine. County Cork today is home to Midleton Distillery, Ireland's largest. One of the last surviving relics from this period in Canadian history is here in Corktown: 'The Dominion Tavern', established in 1889 and once attached to the famous Dominion Brewery.
Ding: "Barry Crockett Legacy, the most complex Irish whiskey I've ever had. A composite of four different pure pot still whiskies matured entirely without sherry wood. Spectacular!" Grr.
Faux-Illicit and a Christmas Miracle
Crossing Queen Bridge out of Corktown, I arrive in Leslieville where An Sibin shares an intersection with an "adult" establishment plastered with fading photos of lasses who might have been plucked from a classic 1988 Whitesnake videos.
An Sibin translates as an illicit drinking joint, though this pub is anything but shady. Mac Moloney is right: the best pubs succeed by becoming an extension of home, a place where after a few visits you know everyone by name. Kelly McAlonen, behind the An Sibin bar, greets me like an old friend and cracks a joke. "What will it be?" After just one visit I am part of the family. He proudly shows me his heritage tattoos, an Irish design on one calf and a stylized Canadian flag on the other. His whiskey list pays similar homage to his mixed ancestry with its 30 Irish and 30 Canadian whiskies.
Chef Alan Moore's classy pub fare explains why Irish ex-pats flock here, comparing the curry to McDonnell's curry sauce from home. If not for the fear of another lecture from my cardiologist, I would have skipped the stout in favour of a pint of gravy. Next time I'll remember I could work it off dancing at the Sunday afternoon Irish jam session.
Ding: "Paddy is surprisingly refreshing 50:50 with ginger ale. Honestly, they're converting me." Suffer fool! The Green Spot I'm sipping demands to be savoured neat.
A short streetcar ride up Broadview Avenue brings me to Dora Keogh's front step. A colossal fireplace fit for Fionn MacCoul keeps the room toasty for the internationally acclaimed seisún live music sessions. I order a stout. Somehow, the live music magically turns one pint into several. A Christmas miracle in September.
Toronto's Irish bars cannot match Ireland's for authenticity. How could they hope to? But rather than just Paddy's, Powers, and Jameson on the bar, you'll find a much broader selection. And to eat? Pub food rules in Toronto where the fare is everything but toasties. Satisfied, I nuzzle up to my Redbreast 12, dreaming of that pint of gravy...
The Roy Public House
894 Queen St. East, Toronto, ON M4M 1J3
Phone: (416) 465-3331
Quinn's Steakhouse & Irish Bar
96 Richmond St. West, Toronto, ON M5E 1J1
Phone: (416) 367-8466
3030 Dundas St. West, Toronto, ON M6P 1Z3
Phone: (416) 769-5736
An Sibin Pub
709 Queen St. East, Toronto, ON M4M 1H1
Phone: (647) 748-2111
Live Celtic Music Thursday, Friday & Saturday Nights Live Ceili Session: Sundays at 4:30pm
Dora Keogh Irish Pub
141 Danforth Ave, Toronto, ON M4K 1N2
Phone: (416) 778-1804
Seisún live music sessions: Thursdays at 9pm and Saturdays at 4pm