Ello govna! Your friendly neighbourhood Firkin just got a big, sexy, and extremely British makeover.
Nothing will make you actually believe the trite adage that the “times, they are a-changin’”—or at least that Toronto is, for real, changing—like the gentrification of something you didn’t even know needed it: a British pub chain. Last Thursday, the forces behind the well-known, and well-frequented, Firkin Group of Pubs summoned us to the main strip of Rosedale for the official-official unveiling of The Quail (1055 Yonge St.), its latest outpost to come out of plastic surgery with a boisterous new Brit-nationalist veneer, a shiny modern-fusion menu, and an attitude to match. In a word, the Firkin has gone “sexy.” (Literally: That’s how it was described to me.)
Established in 1987, Yonge and Eglinton’s Fox and Firkin was the first outpost of a 30-location empire spawned by two South African brothers who had sold their steakhouse chain and headed north. Approaching the Group’s 25th anniversary, it was time for a reinvention. “This year, we thought it was time to rejuvenate and elevate our concept. The market is changing, people are becoming healthier, looking for different experiences,” explains marketing director Larry Isaacs, who does a really great job of selling the new spirit despite my reservations. The new Firkin was calculated in ways I didn’t expect: There was an 18-month research program that saw interviews conducted with Rose Reisman, Jamie Kennedy, university professors, current managers and staff, and patrons alike. The result was a series of observations about what the Firkin looked like and what people actually thought of them. Says Isaacs, “We asked all the hard questions: How’s our food, how’s our service, what does it taste like, what’s the decor like? We got all the answers we didn’t want.”
Isaacs took that research and ended up with a rebrand plan—at least decor-wise—from design firm Mackay Wong, who recently refinished restaurants like Pickle Barrel, Wayne Gretzky’s, and Reisman’s Shops at Don Mills resto Glow. The first soft launch for the new look was at York Mills and Leslie’s Goose and Firkin. Davisville’s Bull and Firkin came next, then The Owl and Firkin at Woodbine and Steeles. The Quail brings the re-brand one step closer downtown.
The Firkin, it appears, has received the Miley Cyrus treatment, sorta like a post-teen pop-star makeover (before/after a meltdown). There’s Warhol’d pop art of The Beatles on the walls. There are Sherlock Holmes and Queen Mum decals on the bathroom doors. There are bowler-hats-as-floating-light-fixtures, under a captain’s communal table. There’s a new lounge area with plush seating and Union Jack-clad couches under dim lights, all set to a Brit-rock soundtrack. There’s the evocative image of the red telephone box. There’s the pub signage branded like a London Tube Station stop. There’s a blending of staples like darts and billiards with the British flag lips on female servers and hickey-like tattoos on male counterparts (OK, that was just for the opening, don’t worry). The new Firkin takes recognizable, relatable imagery and artifacts from ’60s Mod and makes it vogue. It’s a tribute to a Britain that, perhaps 45 years ago, North Americans thought was worth being in.
When Issacs and I talk about the research and its findings, I gleaned the consensus was that the Firkin simply wasn’t, well, “cool” anymore. “Yeah, I think it had become dated; everything dates,” Isaacs agrees. “Over the last 20 years, you’ve seen a lot of new restaurants come to the city: eating habits have changed, drinking habits have changed. The consumer has become more discerning—they’re looking for craft beers and healthier foods, a cooler vibe.” This could also be, appropriately enough, the Firkin’s quarter-life crisis. You decide.
Indeed, the change was inspired by both the consumer and the competition. “We had stayed in the old traditional pub way and hadn’t evolved over time,” Isaacs says. “New places were arriving on our streets and we had to compete, and that’s why we went to a new look and feel.”
Isaacs describes the demographic that the Firkin is hoping to capture: the 25-to-45-year-old business person, single or married, who likes to unabashedly go out without fuss. “We call them FLEs: fun-loving extroverts. That’s what we want. That demographic is demanding better things and better ways of eating.”
Attracting the elusive female clientele is also a big deal. “We augmented [the traditional menu] with interesting comfort foods that will also attract the woman consumer,” Isaacs says. “One of the things that pubs have always been known for is that it’s a man cave. When you walk in the door, you’ll find 10 guys sitting at the bar, maybe their pants are a little bit low. And when women walk in, it’s not a comfortable place for a group of five girls to come and drink, so we’ve tried to address that.” That new lounge area is supposed to help ease girls into the cave.
Corporate chef David Godfrey, who cut his teeth at Canoe back in the day, will try to lure in FLEs with the menu, which presents a hefty salad section and trendy items like fish tacos and Parmesan-crusted grilled cheese. (I ended up going with old favourites: bangers, and fish and chips. Both left me feeling greasy, but that’s still the point of pub grub, no?) A revamped drink menu that will change seasonally also plays a big role. “Some of our bartenders and managers, with some of our customers, have gotten together to design interesting and unique cocktails,” Isaacs says. The Firkin has evolved beyond a house red and white to include a (very modest) wine list. They have their own brand of Butler’s Pale Ale, along other brews like Creemore, Barking Squirrel, and Samuel Adams. There’s also an after-work menu coming soon with affordable happy-hour eats, and a pairing menu is also in development to encourage exploration of the increased wine and beer varieties. (I mean, have you ever ordered wine at The Dog’s Bollocks on Queen West?) And don’t rule out the possibility of, say, a DJ night or local bands if the area “demands it.” But no one’s trying to be a mini-nightclub, yet.
I survey the room to collect opinions. A female who reminds me of Lily on How I Met Your Mother is still insistent that “pubs scare girls.” Another couple is “super excited” because they’ve never really been to a Firkin but they’ll definitely “be back.” A young lawyer who lives around the corner and considers Rosedale’s The Quail his local thinks it was an “unnecessarily stupid” change, and hopes the old rule of “never bring a date to the The Quail” will remain in effect. “When have pubs ever looked this clean and ‘perfect’,” says another guy, feeling duped by the new charm. A friend hiding in the corner said it best: “A pub is a pub is a pub.”
I ask Isaacs to sum up the new Firkin in a sentence: “We have brought the British funk back into pub culture.” It’s all about branding a voyage across the Atlantic that will cost you $7 a cocktail. Order three and maybe you’re there, though I doubt authentic Brit pubs would be so brash in their patriotism. Still, I bet the Spice Girls would dig it.
The Entertainment District’s Friar & Firkin (160 John St.) will unveil its new look by the end of October, and North York’s Frog & Firkin (4854 Yonge St.) will relaunch in November.