Welcome to Boots ’N’ Bourbon, where there’s country music, beer-can chicken, and a giant mechanical bull.
It’s a chilly Thursday night in the city’s east end, and near the back of the cavernous Boots ’N’ Bourbon Saloon, an organized crowd gathers for line dancing. Smiling servers, decked out in Daisy Dukes, plaid shirts, and cowboy hats, cross the room with massive platters of chicken wings and nachos. At the oblong bar near the front entrance, patrons take shots of whisky and cradle tallboys of Old Milwaukee. This Queen and Broadview joint feels much closer to Texas than it does to Toronto, and it’s packed to the rafters. (That’s even with a legal capacity of 250 people.) In fact, the two-month-old restaurant’s instant popularity betrays a simple truth about this city: Many of its residents have flocked here from small towns, where there’s a strong country-western culture.
Boots ’N’ Bourbon is the brainchild of Rock Lobster Food Co. owner Matt Dean Pettit. In the same way his seafood restaurants transposed the kitschy, unpretentious feel of East-Coast lobster shacks to Toronto, Boots ’N’ Bourbon is meant to appeal to small-town-at-heart big-city dwellers. “I’ve always loved country music,” says Pettit, a Midland, Ont., native. “It’s fun, it’s populist, and if you can’t smile with upbeat country music on, you have a problem.”
Previously home to the Riverside Public House, Boots ’N’ Bourbon is a joint venture from Pettit, Nav Sangha (Wrongbar, The Great Hall), and Mike Homewood and Mike Strong (Muskoka’s Kee to Bala concert hall). And while the new spot is a restaurant first, it was always intended to be a functional concert venue as well. That means that four nights a week, Canadian country acts like Mike Butler, Colin Amey, and Gas Station Cowboys take the stage.
There’s also the appeal of line-dancing lessons, taco and wing nights, cowboy karaoke, and Guitar Hero competitions—not to mention the impending return of Russell the Muscle, a bucking mechanical bull. (Permit issues have temporarily sidelined Russell.) “When people go out to spend their hard-earned money, they should be able to have great experiences,” says Petitt. Unsurprisingly, then, this is the kind of place where getting extremely drunk feels perfectly acceptable.
If boozing to excess isn’t your bag, the kitchen puts out some serious comfort food, made with more finesse than you’d expect from a place offering chili and deep-fried pickles. Start with an order of the fried beer cheese ($8)—small, panko-crusted spheres of crispy, gooey goat-and-cheddar cheese—or the bacon bombs ($8), which are fried, beer-battered balls of ground pork and smoked bacon, served with buttermilk ranch sauce. If you’re with a big group, the beer-can chicken ($40), a sublimely juicy rotisserie bird with crispy skin, is one of the more unusual sharing dishes at a Toronto restaurant. Otherwise, go for the flank steak ($18), a seared piece of medium-rare meat topped with a mound of homemade hickory sticks and a fried egg, with sweet, smoky bourbon barbecue sauce on the side. “Comfort food is my wheelhouse,” says Petitt. “We just want to do food that’s creative, fun, and approachable.”
In fact, approachable is a pretty good word for Boots ’N’ Bourbon as a whole. The restaurant wears its charm as forcefully as the country-western playlist blaring over the speakers. And it works: The place is full of people catching up with friends, laughing, line-dancing, and having a good time. “We’ve literally had every walk of life in here—country-music lovers, of course, but also punks, hipsters, bikers, students, and the older demographic in the neighbourhood,” Petitt says, adding that he hopes Boots ’N’ Bourbon’s success helps get more people across the Queen Street bridge. “There are some great bars and restaurants along this strip, so I’m happy when I learn that people are coming to visit us from around the city. I’m just loving the whole energy that’s going on.”
725 Queen St. E., 647-348-0880.