Thanks to the frequent brainwashings of Toronto’s hyped-up clubs and their over-produced pop songs, I sometimes fear I’ll one day unwittingly lose my appetite for live music. It isn’t my go-to, not unless it’s, like, Solange, or something equally un-stadium-like where the audience numbers in the not-quite thousands. But Jazz Bistro, the new, three-floor, live music-slash-resto haunt tucked away near Yonge and Dundas, might just kick open the mind of anyone who hasn’t seen a living, breathing trumpet since middle school.
Come on, babe, why don’t we paint the town? …And all that jazz.
Start the car I know a whoopee spot, where the gin is cold, but the piano’s hot…
Okay, I’ll stop whispering the Chicago songbook in your direction. Jazz doesn’t need to be “cool” because, as my dad would always say, it can never go out of style. But if the way we experience it can be reborn, this is my cue to preach that the jazz age is inching back with a new groove. Located at the top of tiny Victoria Street, not far from the advertising feeding frenzy that is Yonge-Dundas Square, the not-so-tiny Jazz Bistro celebrated its grand opening last week. And how!
The Jazz Bistro space is far from an old barrelhouse. I don’t know if I’d call it modern, but it definitely feels of-the-now—a welcome antithesis to the crowded, nettlesome experience you’ll find too often in this city. “I opened [Jazz Bistro] after I looked at the jazz clubs in Montreal,” says owner Colin Hunter. “I thought we could [put together] a viable option in Toronto, one that would be more than a jazz club, that would combine a supper and music club that would also serve lunches and brunches.”
Hunter is not a neophyte, mind you. He actually moonlights as a jazz crooner—in the sleek style of Sinatra—and he’s released legit albums with JUNO award-winning legend Joe Sealy and other big bands. He does all that when he’s not hard at work as the founder and owner of Sunwing Vacations. With his plan for Jazz Bistro, it’s evident Hunter wants to take you somewhere else. And I trust him.
After some serious location scouting, Hunter settled on the former Top O’ The Senator jazz club space (which had been vacant since 2005) and kicked off an expansive renovation that began in August 2011. It was an ambitious project that moved the stage front and centre and created a second floor balcony for better performance views. He also increased capacity from 100 patrons to just over 200, ensuring that we’ll all still have room to jump and jive. Together with his wife Joan, Hunter has built a truly spiffy, swanky environ: accents of black and reds against gold tones, swooping chandeliers, and traditional cocktail bars stocked with every potion known to your mixologist. The main stage features a Steinway Red Pops piano (the only one of its kind in Canada) that costs about a hundred grand. The third floor’s “Jazz Cellar” offers a private show/dinner space (available for your next party, natch) lined with hundreds of bottles of vino in authentic timber from the Distillery District. Oh, and there’s also a bossy rooftop patio that will make the view from Milestone’s down the street look like amateur hour.
At the moment, live, supper-club-style music in Toronto isn’t quite lost or forgotten, but it’s certainly not everyone’s idea of a rager. I’d probably even endure another LED-fuelled clusterfudge before I’d be willingly inclined to eat, chat, and mingle over a soundtrack of live players. This happened to be the case, though, a handful of Saturdays ago when I had dinner at House of Moments on Carlaw, where a modest band played a set before the DJ took over. Sushi and jazz, I quite liked it. And the place was rammed.
This type of entertainment does seem very “grown up,” but when I survey them quickly, I realize I’ve been to more of our city’s finest jazz and roots-music spots than I realize. Roncy’s Gate 403 is always ready for a jam session, so is nearby Hugh’s Room. I’ve had open air, midday lunches at the Dominion on Queen with a band playing two feet away. And who could forget the style and sonic substance of Dundas West’s Lula Lounge?
According to Hunter, our “scene” has always been strong, but he says the secret to a wildly successful jazz joint could be the food. “Typically, the jazz places served ribs and chicken wings, and we don’t have that on our menu.” At Jazz Bistro, you’ll find lamb sirloin ($28), handmade pappardelle ($16), and sticky toffee pudding ($9), among a variety of other favourites from calamari to mussels. Hunter recommends the Arctic char ($22).
Essentially, Jazz Bistro fits in with the neigbourhood around it, but there’s no need to grab dinner at Jack Astor’s first. Shows at the Canon or Massey Hall are only a hop, skip, and an unsanctioned preacher away. Or do some brunch, then some shopping. Or make it a new place you frequent after dark. On the night of its big reveal, I wedged in a screening of Spring Breakers because, well, the newly-christened Cineplex complex is right around the corner. Naturally, the smooth tones of Jazz Bistro provided welcome relief from all the Skrillex.
Jazz Bistro, 251 Victoria Street. Open Tuesday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. jazzbistro.ca.