Small, community-oriented, something-for-everyone bars are energizing an out-of-the-way neighbourhood.
A few Thursday nights ago, Narwhal, on Dundas West just past Keele, hosted a party for the first pop-up from Crywolf, a Toronto jewellery and accessories line. “Beautiful people, beautiful space, beautiful everything,” exclaimed a friend over beers afterward. But he was shocked that the modest Narwhal gallery, which moved to the area from Queen West last April, was able to attract such an effervescent, sizable crowd to its off-the-streetcar-track location.
I, however, was less surprised. For the last two years, I’ve heard the Junction hailed as the next everything, but it’s remained out of the spotlight. It’s like a better Annex, without the sushi. When the Junction’s liquor ban—a remnant of a 1904 prohibition law—was lifted in 2000, the area began to transform. There’s since been pitch-perfect, unhurried, even-tempered development. Here, it isn’t necessarily about what’s trending, but the going has just gotten good.
The catalyst for nightlife change was perhaps the opening of Margret Bar in 2008, which gave the Junction its first DJ nights. Owners Chris Brown and Jill Rooksby were so taken with the burgeoning neighbourhood back then that they were convinced to open a bar of their own. I ventured up to the area’s favourite dance grotto for Gay Nite, which happens on the last Saturday of each month. With a capacity of 58, the space is legitimately intimate. Recently renovated, Margret is growing up with its neighbourhood from “kitschy ’70s” to sexy and sleek. Guests are bathed in red light, and there are velvet banquettes to match. “There are lots of the newly transplanted young hip crowd, but happily we also met a lot of the neighbourhood’s long-term residents early on so we have a really fun mix of new school and old school,” says Rooksby. “It makes it interesting.”
The Junction’s newest family member is 3030, whose name doubles as its Dundas West address. When you walk in, you don’t know where to look. It’s a music-and-theatre venue. It’s also a restaurant. There’s a cabinet of board games so you can play Operation over Dark and Stormys, and stacks of VHS tapes so you can watch Drop Dead Gorgeous on the couch like you’re in an upscale university common room. The brick walls act as a gallery space, and the art is for sale. There are retro pinball machines. It’s just what the neighbourhood ordered—literally.
“We took input from community [members] who strolled by during renovations,” says manager Jeff Kelly, who opened 3030 in May with his brother and sister-in-law. Suggestions led to 16 Canadian craft beers on tap, a locally sourced menu executed by Adisa Glasgow (formerly of Grand Electric and Keriwa Cafe), and an environment where you can come for drinks on Friday, dancing on Saturday, and bring the family for brunch on Sunday.
Versatility is key to these new outposts, and it’s what attracts non-locals like me. At Narwhal, the Crywolf pop-up is part of a growing list of initiatives. Its current exhibition, “The Reading Nook” (until Aug. 19), showcases over 40 artists whose media include books and zines. On Aug. 24, the second annual Junction Design Crawl will celebrate local art and design, and Narwhal will co-host “New Mind Feast” with artist and chef Julia Kennedy.
3030’s diverse calendar is its biggest asset. There are DJ-led dance nights and live acts including a Bob Marley tribute band. On Analog Tuesdays, it’s old-fashioned fun with a vinyl DJ, stitch ’n’ bitch knitting circle, pinball tournament, and typewriting pool where you can type out missives (3030 will even mail them for you). They’ve also added a live radio show styled after Orson Welles’ The Shadow that will become a podcast. On Wednesdays, the Junction Temperance Restoration Society holds boozy spirit-education sessions in honour of the area’s history.
And while 3030 could pack up to 400 bodies, it won’t. “We don’t want to become a booming nightclub,” says Kelly. “As soon as noise hits a certain decibel, we close the front garage door and contain it.”
The people I spoke with seem intent on fostering growth while maintaining the Junction’s local charm and modest, interesting entrepreneurial ideas for and by the community. Rooksby thinks the area is moving in the right direction, but hopes “the gentrification doesn’t go too far and wipe out the flavour of the ’hood.” Kristin Weckworth, one of Narwhal’s owners, wants rents to stay reasonable and landlords to remain temperate. “This is something we’ve been witness to on Queen West for some time,” she says. “It’s sad when a neighbourhood can’t support the businesses that are responsible for pioneering its personality.”