As it hits the big 3-0, the Madison Avenue Pub is celebrating by rolling back prices like it’s 1983—and reminding everyone that it’s still Toronto’s most iconic university bar.
Just east of Spadina, at the northernmost end of the University of Toronto campus, lies the illustrious, inscrutable, incomparable Madison Avenue Pub. Spanning three properties, the enduring student spot is essentially the Avengers of pubs—a super-pub if you will: six floors, 10 bars, four fireplaces, a handful of billiard tables, and five outdoor patio spaces across all levels. Parking is cheap across the street, and it’s free after dark on Bloor or Spadina. There are half-priced starters and $3.32 domestic bottles until 7 p.m. every day.
Even more significantly, everyone has a story—or at least a strongly-worded opinion—about the Maddy. This labyrinth of libations turns 30 this year, and it probably holds a few of both your fondest youthful memories and booze-soaked, regretful secrets. So what else happened in 1983? Trudeau was Prime Minister, and the world was introduced to the McNugget, R.E.M.’s debut record, Murmur, and MJ’s Moonwalk. And yet, in many ways, it feels like the Madison hasn’t aged a day.
Instantly, the smell of youth and Corona wafts over to you from all corners. If you’re truly—truly—“low maintenance,” the Maddy is the perfect place to prove it. To start, the easy, non-threatening clientele remains slightly unaffecting: boys wearing ball caps because they actually like sports, handcuffed boyfriends sitting silently while the GF downs shots with friends, that small corner of older dudes still hoping to score. And the girls. God, so many girls, wearing almost everything that makes you cringe. The bartenders round out the atmosphere: They hit the varying degrees between totally charming and just plain annoying. If there’s one thing I remember most vividly about the times I spent here, it’s that I always seemed to be waiting for a drink. Thankfully, the price of a rail bevy ($3.50, taxes in, on Thursday nights) is low enough to silence any frustration.
Many regular patrons don’t know much about the Madison’s charmingly humble beginnings. In 1975, David Manore met a girl named Isabel. According to a 2010 “Lives Lived” obituary published in The Globe and Mail, Manore was a passionate “renovator of older homes in the Annex.” A courtship spawned a business partnership, and in 1983, the couple opened the doors of Madigan’s, a sports bar in the basement of an old Victorian at 14 Madison. “It was the best thing that could have happened to both of them,” friends wrote in The Globe, continuing: “Without formal training in design or architecture, David designed, renovated and constructed all parts of his restaurants and hotels, providing many innovative expansions over the years. This included Paupers Pub in downtown Toronto and then the Madison Manor Boutique Hotel next door to the extensively expanded Maddie [sic].” Later, the pair opened a boutique hotel in Puerto Vallarta affectionately named Casa Isabel. (For its part, the Madison Manor features 23 bedrooms modelled after an English bed-and-breakfast sensibility and currently ranks number 65 on TripAdvisor.)
The decor at the Maddy represents a sort of Toronto B.C.—you know, Before Condos (and pretty nightlife with fancy international hotels, etc). The magenta-tinged velveteen banquettes that seem to soak into the floor, the pool tables, and the wealth of brass accents keep up the great British pub tradition. Don’t forget the Home Depot flowerpots, the weathered hanging lanterns waiting to come alive at night, the (vintage!) tube televisions, and the piano (and its Yelp-famous player). The beauty of the Madison, though, reveals itself in the quiet weekday springtime evenings, before the place morphs into a sweaty pool of Venus and Mars under an extreme heat alert.
And with several dozen staffers, the Maddy is a mammoth operation in the vein of hotspots like The Drake Hotel. Despite a whopping capacity of 1,900, crowds are often packed back-to-back, shoulder-to-ass. “We’re still packed all the time: weekends, Thursday to Sundays,” says Jim McCardle, who has spent the last 18 years managing the Maddy and watching Toronto rise up all around this little pocket of the city. “We’re just a gigantic pub with a comfortable atmosphere. You can get lost in here, have an adventure. I think people like that.”
Although the Annex has welcomed a plethora of new bars like the Annex WreckRoom, McCardle is pleased that his little strip hasn’t changed much and remains firmly committed to a relaxed good time. McCardle won’t deny that the Maddy’s core demographic is so obviously college kids, but urges they approach the demographic differently and with a stern hand. Unlike many of its neighbours, the bar has received no suspensions or monetary penalties from the ACGO in the last five years and hardly ever makes headlines for bad behaviour. (Although standing on Madison Avenue at 2 a.m. on a Saturday is enough to turn you sober forever, as crowds disperse rapidly to score a late-night food fix in the Annex.) Love it or not, you’d always choose the Maddy over The Brunswick House, which, past a certain sophomoric age, ceases to even be considered an option.
And yet the Maddy can sometimes be harder to get into than a streetcar at rush hour. McCardle says the bar’s good governmental behaviour comes from a rigorously trained staff. On weekends after 11 p.m., the bouncers only welcome the 21 and over (“so we don’t have the younger kids sitting at home most of the night getting drunk”), and everyone must present a valid ID. (No health cards!) Plus, there’s a no-backpack policy and, weirdly enough, a “smart casual” dress code that frowns upon tank tops, track pants, and flip-flops. (The dress code is barely enforced, however.) A pristine track record and a commitment to vigilance does come at a price: Most of the people I reminisce with agree that the Maddy is a decent place, but has an overly aggressive security detail that can sometimes mess up your game real good.
Aside from all that noise, the Maddy has endured as a sure bet for student-cheap everything. To celebrate 30 years in the business, the pub is rolling back prices like it’s 1983: on the first Tuesday of every month, they’re offering $3-$4 drafts, and $3 bar rail and food specials, plus a contest that includes a draw to win a new Fiat this December. Throughout it all, you can always stumble away with a life lesson or two on how to navigate the meat market and be young in Toronto: If a guy asks you to come back to his frat (there are several within a stone’s throw), one should almost always decline. (Next thing you know it’s 4 a.m. and you’re doing something you shouldn’t while everyone watches.)
But if you manage to manipulate it properly (and stake your claim early enough in the night), the Madison is like that dependable friend with benefits: always there when you need ‘em, especially after midnight.
Madison Avenue Pub & Restaurant, 14 Madison Avenue, 416-927-1722. madisonavenuepub.com.