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Historic Venue Spotlight: Gus’ Pub & Grill

It's an unofficial landmark of Halifax, and it has the sort of stories you'd expect from a maritime bar.
September 9, 2014, 6:55pm

"It's great to be back at Gus's Pub and Casino," says Hamilton's B.A. Johnston, greasy and topless, doling out smoked bacon and snot rockets at Gus' Pub & Grill. For the last 15 years, the overweight song and dance man has booked Gus’ shows and events using his Hotmail account. The sound system at the pub isn't state of the art, and the stage is uncomfortably small, but the cozy neighbourhood tavern has become one of Halifax's most well-known live venues, and an important part of Halifax's music scene.

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Opened in 1961 by Gus and Maria Georgakakos, Gus' family restaurant catered to the north-end blue-collar neighbourhood. On the corner of North and Agricola Street, you could get a two-buck burger platter, a three dollar steak or a feast for a fiver. You couldn't get Maria out of the kitchen. She was known to be charitable and always gave away food to those in need. She made the pub feel like home for decades.

By the late 70s, civic development drew families to the suburbs, to the brand new Halifax Shopping Centre, and the business sector of the area took a dip. Residential growth came in the form of public housing. There was mixed clientele; the pub's central location attracted a wide range of customers.

Eventually Gus and Maria's son, Dimo, an employee since childhood, became more involved in operations. In 1985, Gus' Grill acquired a pub license, and they booked live music on the weekends. For a decade, only country, Celtic and cover bands played, but there was a raised stage and a working PA.

The neighbourhood around Gus' got a little rough in that time. Neglected buildings, crime, clinics and homeless shelters depreciated real estate. It wasn't long before students caught on to the cheap rents. In 1991, a local newspaper was already reporting an increase of "yuppies" in the area so by the early 2000s, gentrification was in full swing. On the upside, "cool" young people wanted an alternative to the club-heavy downtown scene. Other ‘hip’ businesses and non-profit organizations were returning to the north end. And Gus’, a warm and welcoming pub with cheap food, began drawing in the new residents.

"Then one night, one of these indie band guys asked me if his band could play on a Thursday, because the weekends were already booked up," says Dimo, "I said, sure, why not? And on the first night of it, the place was jam packed! Then we started Thursday Nights at Gus' for the local bands and it just totally blew up! It was our busiest night. So we started booking something every night and it's been busy ever since."

The number of bands that have played at Gus' is too many to list, but they likely wouldn't have played there if it wasn't for B.A. Johnston. At the peak of popularity for Halifax’s Just Friends Records, B.A. would play to a full house with his sideshow sparklers and disgusting antics. In 2007, he filmed This Is What 110% Smells Like at Gus’, a music doc that featured an eclectic roster of local talent. In 2008, Israeli garage band Monotonix played to the at-capacity crowd in the street until five cop cars showed up.

There have been dozens of black eyes, ripped t-shirts, stolen purses and lost lunches for every one good night at Gus’ Pub. The pub has seen its share of tragedy. Former bartender (and dear friend of my family) Peter Roberts was caught in an altercation causing injuries from which he later died in 2009. The bar held a KISS Tribute Show in his honour, one of the most touching displays of the Gus’ Pub community.

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Over the years, Neil Hamburger, Rich Aucoin, Deer Tick, Cousins, Each Other, The Real Mackenzies, Dog Day, Slam Dunk, pop punk, crust punk, metal festivals, art rock, math rock, wrestling, DJs, dance nights, rappers, Superbowls and so many trivia nights have gone down at Gus’. And it will continue.

"Sure you get some stinkers in the bookings, but we're an incubator for Halifax music. A lot of bands cut their teeth here and then go off into the world," says Dimo, reflecting on the role that Gus’ plays in Halifax, "Or bigger bands come here and we're packed to the doors. Either way, we're here for the music."

Bands don't have to pay to play or book Gus' Pub, and rarely are shows billed at more than five bucks. Gus’ is also used as a venue for local festivals and special events, and the bar's square footage lends itself well to small audiences for the more niche events at the pub. For its size, the bar is dynamic.

But the best thing about Gus' Pub is its overall character. It's unique in many ways. The bar's granddaddy cowboy mascot, a now-dead regular named Sammy, has appeared in so many ads that he's a Halifax icon. There's a bowl of free Party Mix near the bar (and the bathroom), which is as hated as it is loved: "We go through 7 bags a week, 30 bags a month, 365 bags a year," says Jake Thurgood, long-time bar manager. There are tiny beers for two bucks, a novelty and good deal; the blinking of the year-round Christmas lights, the feedback from the amps, the familiarity and comfort of the multi-coloured shadows.

It’s also Gus’ bar-staff that makes it special. Maria, now in her 80s, still swings by the pub several nights a week. Jim the Door Man has been intimidating people for years. And Barry, the pub's longest employee, has been bartending for three decades. "He's my favourite thing about it," says Thurgood, "Barry embodies the place in that he's authentic, he's no-bullshit and he hasn't changed his look since the 80s."

In the last few years, the Agricola corridor has boomed with upscale restaurants and condos, which alienates and will eventually push out the area’s existing marginalized groups. But the growth has exposed Gus' to a new customer base. Last year, Maria closed her kitchen and invited long-time friends, the Christakos family, to open up a gourmet burger grill, Ace Burger Co. Now families sit alongside executives next to construction workers. Plus, Dimo and Jake added local micro-brewery ales to the taps.

"I noticed the change in customers, yeah. We want to appeal to everyone," Dimo says, "We've always appealed to everyone. So we're adapting." The crowd of tough regulars who play the gambling machines muscle through crowds of hipsters like nothing. Everyone somehow co-exists peacefully at Gus’.

Moreover, Halifax's live venue closure rate is ever-increasing: "When a bar that we usually compete with closes down, we don't rejoice about it. It's a sign of the whole industry." Whereas most small businesses in Halifax face very high rents for prime locations, the Georgakakos family owns the building. This has no doubt helped the bar survive the economic waves that affect business prosperity in Halifax.

As much as it has been serving the community, Gus’ Pub is a community. From the employees to the family who employs them to its customers. "I can't believe I'm back here again,” says B.A. into the mic, one more time, for the millionth time, every single time: “Get some of that bubbly! Get Gus’ Pub’s finest champagne. I think Dimo makes it in a bathtub upstairs.” In its own weird way, Gus' Pub is beautiful.

Adria Young wrote this in memory of Peter Roberts (1965-2009), who she misses. @adriayoung