Robin LeBlanc: Jordan, I wish to make a declaration of love.
Jordan St.John: Robin, I already know how you feel about Scotch Eggs, there’s no reason to retread that ground.
R: You know I’ve been over them since the incident. No, I’m talking about a love for the place we all love going to, the noble pub.
J: Does it have to be specifically noble? I’ve been to the King’s Head, the Queen’s Legs, and the Duke of Kent, but I hold some regard for the untitled pubs as well.
R: I meant more noble in character, though I think even that might be a stretch for a few of my favourites. But the point stands, I love them and this pandemic has made me miss them more. There was a period just a few months ago where I was walking downtown in the miserable snowy weather and I came upon C’est What. It’s long been a favourite spot for me and I was saddened to be at the point where I couldn’t take shelter in the warm cozy basement pub over a nice pint of cask ale.
J: It has put a bit of a damper on things, the anxiety of knowing that there’s a trade off between going to the pub and potential health consequences. The truth be told, it’s also odd walking around downtown and trying to figure out which pubs are still there. It’s not like before COVID when stuff on the Bloor strip between Christie and Dufferin would just periodically change out. This is different, and I can’t say I care for it.
R: It’s really not been great. Pubs are a wonderful respite from the world and a great meeting place in general. And if you’re lucky you’ll land in one that has some really quality food to them. I know that there are now takeout options available for both the beer and the food and while I’m glad about it, the fact remains that it’s just not the same.
As a result I’ve caught myself daydreaming about travelling and all the pubs I’d like to go to. Do you have any specific ones on your list?
J: Sometimes, I’ll daydream about my all time favourites, but the truth is I’ve been going out to pubs periodically. I’ve been to The Only Cafe, for example, but I tend to go at odd times when I suspect it’s going to be nearly empty. A nearly empty Only Cafe is a marvellous thing: the sort of early afternoon, motes of dust in the sunbeam, bartender preparing for the afternoon vibe that Raymond Chandler dreamed about. It’s the glimpse into the promise of what the pub will be later in the day. Sometimes it can get a little over crowded later, but that early afternoon is magic.
R: The evening too. The music selection is always killer and the vibe is just that perfect throwback to the late 90s early oughts with a bit of a funky coffee shop swirl, which makes sense considering the coffee shop on the other side of the bar.
But okay, your description of the Only has got me thinking to rephrase my question; what are the qualities you look for in a pub?
J: It’s hard to know exactly what combination of things is going to make a good pub. I’ll tell you one thing for sure: I appreciate a comfortable seat. There’s little worse than the metal stools fashionable in craft beer taprooms. Comfort is important.
I also want a bartender that can carry on a conversation. I used to go to the John 3 over on Queen Street East because their Irish bartender Stephen was entertaining. Also, Stephen had a drink special and at this point in history there’s nothing wrong with a five dollar pint if you can find such a thing.
R: Totally with you on a good bartender. I like a friendly face that knows what they’re pouring and can be fun to talk to.
The more I think of the shape of my ideal pub though, the more I find that a big part of it is chasing the comforting vibes of my younger days. This obviously includes some of the grittier bars of my twenties and the old English pubs from when I was small, but the ongoing theme is a sense of comfort and being grounded.
J: I think part of that comes from being a part of a community. Some pubs, especially in England, have a tendency to practically be people’s living rooms. I remember going to a particularly good pub in Peckham called The Gowlett which was mostly famous for pizza, cask, and weekend DJ sets. The banquettes had become a little run down, and although there were regulars, you didn’t feel as though you were an interloper. It had that particular shade of Victorian red wallpaper and scuffed oak bar that always puts you in mind of gentle neglect. So much a part of ongoing lives that proper maintenance would have ruined it.
R: Interesting that you mention that aspect of English pubs because the more I start to think of it the more that I think what makes a pub a great one is that the place has its own sense of context in the time and place that its in and the owners and staff are fully aware of it. A few years ago if you asked me what makes a pub comfortable I would have said slightly dark and filled with regulars who are still welcoming, but then I pause as I think of the Sheffield Tap, which is bright and clear thanks to its large windows and has patrons who are about as transient as you can get since it’s part of the train station. It’s just comfortable with a good selection and fine staff.
J: I think that’s right. I’ve been rewatching Cheers, and the important thing is that it is self contained. A really good pub has to be a part of the community that it is situated within, but it also has to be a little solipsistic; a small universe of its own. It should have gravity. It should make you think, “ah, well, just one more…”
R: Well, taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
J: Aren’t we supposed to be beer writers? Shouldn’t we mention a specific beer we’d like to have on tap? Or are we old enough and tired enough that we just want a comfortable place to sit?
R: Honestly, I think the two are related. Once we have an idea of the comfortable place we’re sitting in, then we can look at the tap list and make decisions on what to drink. Or decide on complaining about an absent beer on the list..
J: Ah. The magic ingredient. Something to complain about. “Oh, it’s not like the tap list they had last week, and besides the new lighting’s too harsh, and they’ve only got the cheddar Sun Chips behind the bar.” Bliss.
R: Well, now the mention of Sun Chips has got me feeling hungry. Fancy some with a pint?
J: I’m holding out for a Scotch Egg.