Just before the turn of the new year, and with little fanfare, another drinking establishment opened in deepest, darkest Parkdale. Now why is this particular bar, located just south of Gord Perks’ recently imposed Queen West West moratorium, any more noteworthy than the plethora of boîtes that have raised their shutters in the West end over the past two years? Well, that is because Pharmacy, at the corner of King and Cowan, is owned and operated by the one and only Chris Harper.
Harper is a veritable stalwart of the Toronto bar and music scene, familiar to many as a living, breathing, frowning, and chuckling musical encyclopaedia from his many years behind the counter at Queen West’s historied Rotate This record store… imagine, if you will, the Canadian version of the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel Hi Fidelity, albeit with better style, shedloads of tattoos, facial hair, and a way cooler understanding of the more esoteric shadows of the musical spectrum.
After his extended tour of duty at Rotate, Harper went on to man the taps at some of the West End’s most notorious watering holes, becoming one of Toronto’s most iconic Barmen in the process. From Good Food Revolution favourite The Communist’s Daughter, through Sweaty Betty’s, to The Red Light, it was always such a pleasure to have Chris remember your name, recall what you had drank the last time you were in there, and then proceed to regale you with some bizarre tale, tall and sometimes true. His warm, humorous hospitality is the stuff of legend, something that many a server/barperson could learn a thing or two from.
And so it was with great pleasure we discovered that he was opening a place of his own… Pharmacy.
Good Food Revolution: So you have chosen to open your bar in what can certainly be described as one of the grittier parts of Parkdale. What was your reasoning behind that?
Chris Harper: It was the building… I just fell in love with the building. The neighbourhood is great too… sure it’s a little rough around the edges, but there are some really lovely people here. Parkdale and Kensington are probably the only two neighbourhoods downtown that have managed to retain their character.
GFR: So how do you deal with the local neer-do-wells who inevitably will stumble in from time to time?
CH: Well sometimes there are people who probably thought that they were entering one of the other bars closer to Dufferin… when I see that happening I just very politely tell them that we are having a private party… it’s all very friendly… I never shout or anything, I’m not that kind of person.
GFR: The building is indeed very cool, I can remember coming in here for something once when it was still a pharmacy and thinking I had stepped back in time. I’m not going to tell you what I was picking up though… it’s a bit embarrassing.
CH: I’m sure it is Jamie.
I believe that the building has been here since around 1913 and was a pharmacy for around 50 or 60 years… I’ve spoken to lots of locals who used to shop in here all the time and they are curious what is going on with the space. The old man who had the pharmacy died some years ago and it was taken over by another family who I was told started running a meth clinic, something the owners weren’t too happy about and so they kicked them out. It was actually vacant for a while.
GFR: Now you have worked behind bars for so many years Chris… What have you learned over that time, and how have you applied this to your own spot?
CH: You know, I have decided that I just want to be super nice… I’ve gone through all that grumpy, rude crap and I am over it. I’m older now and I really want it to be welcoming to everyone… you know, if someone comes through my door and gives me business I really want to say “thank you for coming”
As I have gotten older I am come to quite like who I am and what I do… I’m a Bartender… and I like being a Bartender… and I’m going to be a Bartender for the foreseeable future… I’m not going to go off and become a Doctor or a Lawyer now. Some nights I’m going to make money, some nights I’m not.
GFR: In your mind, what makes a good bar ? Are there any places that you feel really do it right?
CH: The music and the lights…certainly… I’m a bit of a fanatic. You know, if it’s shit music then the place is shit… I leave places, restaurants, bars if the music is shit.
GFR: Something else we have in common Chris…
CH: And lighting… I have a serious thing for lighting… I cannot stand bars that are too bright… I mean nobody likes a bright bar do they?… I like to create a nice glow in here… although I sometimes worry that it shows dirt in the windows.
I also think that it’s very important to be careful with your selection of beverages… offer the correct stuff for the clientele… interesting stuff.
Who’s doing it right? Of the newish places? Hmmmmm… well I really have a soft spot for Oddseoul, and Cold Tea in Kensington as I just love the people… and then of course the Communist’s Daughter… as that’s where I started bartending again, when they first opened… You know I didn’t want to bartend again… put they lured me back… love that place. It made me realise just how much I enjoyed bartending.
GFR: How would you describe your bar? …and how will you differentiate from all the other places being opened by hairy, tattooed, hat wearing blokes?
CH: Well… I’m about 20 years older than all those other hairy, tattooed, hat-wearing guys for starters.
Seriously though… I was in the Gladstone for brunch one day last year and I started reading this article in the New York times about this dude from Estonia, where my mother’s side of the family are from… Taavo Somer. It was all about this guy handcrafting everything for his own restaurants in NYC… and I guess that gave me some kind of inspiration… to build a place that just felt really welcoming. And hopefully I have achieved that here. Some people are saying that they feel as if it has been here for 20 years… I just hope that they are not saying that because they think that the floors are dirty!
GFR: Local Craft Beer plays a big part in your beverage selection at Pharmacy… what is the reasoning behind that?
CH: Well, the crowd who are coming in here simply won’t drink crappy, big machine beers. There are other places up the street for that, and they have a very different clientele. So I like to offer more interesting things from people like Beau’s or Conductor… I have known Tom from Conductor for almost 25 years and I love him… I know him from working at the Kensington Cafe Le Gaffe back in 1988, he used to run La Hacienda and come in with his Chef to get hammered in the afternoons. Ahhhh… I have good memories of that place… Adam “Oysterboy” Colquhoun coming downstairs in his boxers for a coffee early morning along with all the drag queens.
GFR: And I see that you are offering wine also?
CH: Just the two right now… both Spanish reds… and people seem to like them… you know, they’ll have a glass for $5 and say “That’s not bad at all” and maybe have another glass… or two.
I have the Bodegas Castana Old Vines Monastrell and the Hecula…
GFR: Both favourites of mine actually… they are simply amazing value… and made by the same winery for your information!
CH: I’d like to get a few more wines eventually, but I’ll see what the crowd asks for, wait until I get a little more money to carry more inventory. I was thinking that I might pick up some stuff from Violet Hill Imports [Pierre, who runs Violet Hill with his wife, is Chris’ old boss from his Rotate This days]
GFR: What do you feel about the cocktail scene and all the nonsense that surrounds that?
CH: Honestly Jamie, I’m too arrogant and too lazy to spend 17 minutes making a cocktail that I’m going to charge someone 20 bucks for… there are other bartenders in the city who do all that stuff a lot better than I ever could, and some of them do it REALLY well… but I don’t really think that’s what this place is about…
I was asked by website She Does The City the other day “What kind of cocktails do you have?” and I had to say “You want some liquor? Mixed with pop or something?”… that’s more me… that’s more the vibe of this place.
GFR: What do you have planned in the way of food here?
CH: Well… Kevin from Woodlot, and Mary ex-pastry chef of Jamie Kennedy have been doing some stuff for me, Tourtière and things… but they are experimenting with preparing pickled things… herring, cabbage, apples… simple, rustic eastern European fare, open up a jar of the stuff on the bar, give them some tooth picks… They are looking at making an Estonian stew… a bowl for $5 served with some black bread.
GFR: And of course, I have to ask you about the music policy?
CH: Well… you know I’m horribly arrogant about such things… One thing I can say is that there will be no Hip-Hop… I’ve been in places where they blare Hip-Hop and I just don’t think it works, not when people are just wanting to sit down and have a damn drink and talk.
So I have been playing music that you don’t usually hear in that many bars of restaurants… playing around with things… I play a lot of garagey sounding stuff, a lot of soul… Hehe, I played the Orb last night, Towers of Dub, it just kind of felt right at the end fo the night… John Lee Hooker, you know, real bar music that you don’t actually hear in bars anymore… a bit of MC5… a bit of Chocolate Watchband… but I am always changing it up.
GFR: Well thank you for your time Chris, and we wish you all the best of success in your new digs!
Pharmacy is located at the corner of King St. West and Cowan Avenue, west of Dufferin and east of Jameson.
Right now it is open six or seven days a week, from around 8pm to 2am
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… And he cannot believe that just as Pharmacy opens he is moving from the neighbourhood.
You’re still within staggering distance, Jamie. It’s ok.