Coronavirus

I Miss My Completely Unremarkable Local Dive Bar

I fear for the future of mom-and-pop bars like Jenny’s.

by John Semley
Apr 29 2020, 1:21pm

Jenny's, in all its glory. Photo by author. Logo by Hunter French.  

If you look up Jenny’s Bar & Restaurant—an establishment in Toronto’s West End that holds the dubious distinction of being, geographically, the closest bar to my apartment—on Yelp you get a message reading “Hey there trendsetter! You could be the first review [sic] for Jennys Bar." Operated out of a narrow, dim, space, just north of Dundas West station, in what used to be Happy Day Chinese Restaurant, Jenny’s is what’s sometimes called a “dive bar.”

And not in that way where it’s playing at being a dive bar, with carefully sanded-blasted table tops to suggest the weathering of time in an establishment that only opened three months ago. It’s not a dive bar in that enervating way where “dive bar” is a set of aesthetic choices divorced from meaning and context, where any notion of authenticity, any sense of that greasy residue we sometimes call “history,” has been flattened into a set of interior decorating decisions: some faded, tin beer signs purchased at mark-up on eBay, “classic cocktails” on draft enjoyed by the warmth of energy-inefficient Edison bulbs, a faux-faded sign that reads, in an annoying font, “INTOXICANTS + PROVISIONS.” It’s not that kind of dive bar.

Jenny’s is a dive bar more in a fruit-flies-in-the-urinals way. If I took my parents there, they’d think I was trying to trick them. Jenny’s comes by its character (and cast of characters) honestly. It’s tended to, from early afternoon to last call, by Jenny herself: a slight, friendly woman, who adorns the slate-wall interiors with inspirational quotes of the “Live, Laugh, Love” and “The mind is like a parachute: it only works when it’s open” variety. Jenny hosts afternoon cribbage games, reheats frozen dumplings to order, and once gifted me a brand new leather belt, for no apparent reason, other than thinking I might have use for it. Save for a two-week period when she had to return to China to tend to her ailing mother, leaving her son in charge of the place, Jenny was, to my knowledge, always there. It was, well, Jenny’s Bar.

Once, while hammering loonies into the digital jukebox to cue up my go-to Jenny’s soundtrack (usually just a loop of “Cowboy Song” by Thin Lizzy, Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” and Willie Nelson’s “City of New Orleans”), some young men from the suburbs galumphed in and ordered some beers. They were instantly in the thrall of the place, in that way that young men (late-teens, early-20s, legally allowed to drink, if just barely) often are, all, “Woah-ho! Now this is a real bar!” These thirsty young saplings were, to me, an old and grouchy man, very tiring. But they were not wrong. Jenny’s is the sort of establishment that caters to no particular taste or trendy concept of what a bar is, that aspires to nothing in particular, and just is. I love it without qualification and I worry about it more every day.

A few weeks ago, before everything seemed quite so heavy (but was still pretty heavy), I ran into a friend and fellow Jenny’s-goer at the liquor store. “Have you been to Outdoor Jenny’s?” he asked me. I hadn’t, and asked him what he meant by “Outdoor Jenny’s." Apparently a few regulars were congregating in a neighbourhood parkette (at, what I was told, was a safe social distance) and taking their afternoon tipples. Beyond the mere concept of dressing up “drinking outside” as “Outdoor Jenny’s” (which reminded me of my friend Sam, who refers to sandwiches she prepares herself as “homemade Subway”), I found the idea touching, for reasons that are perhaps self-evident. Places like Jenny’s offer a genuine respite for people from the neighbourhood to gather, chase a few vodkas with some skunky drafts, listen to Willie Nelson (or Staind), play cribbage, and generally just be. You go to Jenny’s, foremost, to drink: not to “try” some weird new saison-style beer or “check out” a space appointed to look more-or-less like every other upmarket bar in the city. That Yelp page may as well read, “Hey there trendsetter! You have absolutely no business here!”

It’s a place to find a bit of peace, or a few hours of fully drunken dissociation, without all the annoying corporate upholstery and painstakingly “cool” trappings that despairingly define the topography of modern bar-going. And it is, I genuinely worry, only those sorts of boring, same-y, Noun-And-Firkin-style corporate bars that will survive the shut-downs, if only because they can afford to take the hit. Meanwhile, the smaller, neighbourhood places like Jenny’s—the ones you might walk by without even giving a second thought—may seem like reasonable casualties in all this; the small business-equivalent of “acceptable losses.” The Subways will persist. The homemade, mom-and-pop Subways? Maybe not.

I fear the future of places like Jenny’s: small, sorta-dingy, otherwise unnoticeable bars that rely on a steady stream of neighbourhood regulars for whom the primary draw may be something as simple as geographical proximity. I miss the comfort of going to a place where I can have random, half-hearted conversations with people, while pumping change into the jukebox to cue up the same three or four songs. These are the places, in my heart anyway, that matter most because people need them. Because whenever you see four guys standing six feet apart on a patch of grass somewhere, knocking back big Żywiecs, it might be because they no longer have a Jenny’s.

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Tagged:
Food
Toronto
bars
Restaurants
COVID-19
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