A year ago, in one of the more exhilarating moments of my sad life, I got completely soaked in beer.
It was May 12, 2019, and I was on a stool at the Dock Ellis watching game seven of the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. At this point we all know the story—the game was tied with 4.2 seconds left, Kawhi got the ball, went to the right corner, shot a fadeaway, and four bounces later the Raptors advanced. All of Toronto exploded and the people inside the Dock Ellis were no different.
For one brief, beautiful moment the air inside the west-Toronto bar was more booze than oxygen (I am not a scientist). The ovation lasted for minutes. I hugged some strangers. I ordered some shots. The staff, unsurprisingly for those who work in a sports bar, joined in. I stayed late. I went to work the next day extremely hungover. It was the best. While that's the memory I always return to when thinking of the Dock Ellis, I have many more filed away.
There's just something about a good sports bar.
“The Dock Ellis is more of a community hub than just someplace to go watch the game and get hammered,” co-owner Andrew Kaiser told me. “That's what makes it a little more special and a little more hurtful when you're not operating and you're not having that sense of community."
" Cheers wasn't a lie, you know?"
One of the biggest appeals about sports is the sense of community it offers and few places will foster that feeling like a sports bar. Sports and where I watch them have always been important to me and that's only increased since I moved from Alberta to Toronto. The Oilers serve as a connection to my past whereas Raptors are my link to the present. The Dock Ellis, like all good sports bars, lets me hook that sense of community right to my veins.
This is the place that, during the Oilers 17 run (their first trip to the playoffs in a decade), the bartenders would find a corner TV in a corner for me to watch McDavid even if one of the Toronto teams was playing. The bartenders, who give sports cards with their bills, would save me Oilers cards for me (I still have the Tommy Salo card on my fridge). Kaiser said the bar makes an effort to have every sports package available and stay open late for the out of towners and our non-Eastern Standard Time viewing demands. Callum Woods, the bar’s other co-owner, said fostering that sense of community wasn't all that hard: "we're just normal humans, good people. We didn’t really try hard or anything, it’s just that everyone welcome because why wouldn't they be?"
Like most establishments during this downturn, the bar had to lay people off and among those were the folks behind the small, kind gestures. But, thankfully, the bar has begun to sell and deliver food and drinks,offering a bit of work to their former staff.
“We didn't want to hire third-party deliverers who do everything so we're trying to do it all in house. We have two of our bartenders doing deliveries on bicycles,” said Kaiser. “We're trying to keep our staff employed and keep them working."
"We know we're going to be delivering to our regulars, so for them to get to see the staff is really wonderful."
Kaiser said that with this model they've been able to hire back a third of his workers and, if it goes well, is hoping to hire back more.
When the Dock Ellis was opened by Kaiser and Callum Woods in the fall of 2013, it was almost immediately known as the “hipster sports bar”—a descriptor that was not entirely inaccurate but also, a touch unfair given how welcoming it is. ( Toronto Life called it a “a no-nonsense sports bar for the skinny jean set.”) It’s named after the man behind the LSD No-No, so I’m sure you can guess it’s ethos.
"It fucking sucks not being able to provide that atmosphere," said Woods. "People come here to watch the Leafs or Raptors game, to play foosball with friends, shuffleboard, or to just hang out. You can't really deliver that. You can deliver food but you can't deliver the atmosphere and vibes that we have.
“I’m here right now to answer the phone for deliveries and it’s just not the same when empty. It would be way better if everyone was here cheering and yelling.”
The bar is dim with two levels. When you walk inside you’re typically greeted with almost someone loudly cheering or groaning about some sort of game. The main floor features a line of tables with communal seating, some games, a line of stools and a bar. There’s a pool table and a shuffleboard towards the back and there was always someone using them. The downstairs is this wonderfully oppressive place that features cheap seating, a few couches and walls thick enough to cut out all cell service. On tap is a good selection of craft beer and it serves a fantastic array of fried chicken sandwiches.
The bar always had people there, even when Toronto’s sports teams sucked, which was often, but it’s not a franchise nor massive enough for me not to worry about its future. Kaiser said without knowing what is going to happen, having to close permanently “crosses my mind every day, still to this day” but they’re doing their best.
"The game plan is to move forward. It's to fight. We love The Dock,” said Kaiser. “The staff, some of them have been there since the get-go, they want to come back to work. We want to employ them. Some customers have been there since day one.”
There are hipper, or diveier bars to write about—several within walking distance of the Dock—but this is my answer when I’m asked: “where should we meet for a beer?” It’s the place where I recognize more bartenders than I don’t. It’s the place that gives me Oilers cards. And it’ll be the first bar I visit when this godforsaken pandemic is over.
"Oh man, I miss it like crazy," said Kaiser. "I still go there every once and a while, I make up an excuse like I have to clean something or file some stuff away, just so I can walk through the bar again."
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