Toronto

I Bar Crawled King Street to Find the Truth

It’s the centre of Toronto and the centre of the city’s biggest controversy. I drank there until I got the real story.

by Jordan Foisy; photos by Mack Lamoureux
Feb 2 2018, 3:57pm

Things are dire on Toronto’s King Street. The city’s King Street Pilot Project, which eliminated parking and through traffic on the major street in a bid to improve transit, has turned Toronto’s Entertainment district, home to Canada’s Walk of Fame (shout out to illustrious Canadians Corey Hart and Will from Will and Grace), AHL versions of big-time Broadway plays and clubs that seem like they were designed according to a dying cologne model’s final wishes, into a ghost town.

Of course, this is according a number of local restaurant owners who have been super vocal in their criticism of the project and super into creating “edgy” ice sculptures promising to “Make King Street Great Again” or telling you to fuck yourself.

According to local business owners, the project has devastated business, turning a bustling nightlife into a desolate graveyard haunted by ghouls and patrons of Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant. The criticism has been led by Kit Kat Bar and Grill owner Al Carbone, whose name is the most sandwich-sounding name I’ve ever heard. Carbone was the mastermind behind a series of giant, ice middle fingers facing streetward erected throughout the neighbourhood, in a stunt best described as Banksy if Banksy was actually Robert De Niro from Casino. Carbone claims the gesture was directed at Mayor John Tory but passing streetcar passengers couldn’t help but think they were the intended targets.

I am one of those passengers. I take the King streetcar frequently and am Pro Pilot. It feels as if trips have gotten quicker (and the data says that’s very, very true) and more reliable. In fact, the project might be too successful since the streetcar rides are so packed you feel like a servant being buried alive with your dying, mad king. There is also a giddiness at seeing decisive urban planning that doesn’t cater to the crazed bloodlust of the automobile owner. Perhaps this is the first step in transforming Toronto into the liberal wonderland it promises to be; with efficient, gleaming transit and co-working office spaces for every citizen whose merit is approved by our unbiased overlords at Alphabet Inc.

I am also permanently skeptical of the apocalyptic concerns of the small business owner. For some business owners, any deviation from status-quo, no matter how slight, will lead to absolute destruction. Theirs has always been a desperate worldview, built on the fear and anxiety of knowing that your profligate spending on fancy napkins will lead to yours and your family’s ruin.

Still I don’t really want to see people lose their jobs, so I wanted to find out if this vulgar cry for help is justified or if it’s a product of the permanent, paranoid victim mindset of the small-business owning conservative. The appearance of future failed PC leadership candidate Doug Ford in the thick of things did not reduce my suspicions that this was merely another edition of urban/suburban culture war that dominates Toronto’s politics.

I knew there was only one way to solve this municipal crisis: I would have to do a bar crawl on King Street and investigate the matter for myself, one “what’s your cheapest beer” beer at a time.

6:30 PM, The Office Pub

Mack, a VICE employee who offered to shoot the evening because it involved alcohol, and I meet at The Office Pub at 6:30 PM, one of the bars where an icy, middle finger was proudly extended. As one of the pubs that has had a variety of stand-up open mics running on its second floor like some kind of Gothic novel secret, it was a both a warm, familiar place to begin my journey into the bacchanalia of Friday night on King Street and a location where I could compare how busy it was to my previous visits. The bar, which is actually located a just north of King, had the usual amount of softly-bro dudes out looking for a beer commercial plot to call a life. Not packed but also not more dire than I’ve seen it before. Charming in the way an unexpected belch from a reserved friend is, I think as long as food costs are kept low The Office Pub will be fine until it’s torn down to make room for a condo.

We finished a pint each and headed down to the King and John intersection, where the glamour of the Toronto International Film Festival headquarters/cinema and condo faces off against a strip of tourist-trap restaurants, led by Kit Kat and Carbone, in a race for solvency. We are hungry and there on the southwest corner is a man giving out samples of sushi on the street, which is, God bless him, undoubtedly the grossest food to give out as free samples.

7ish, Maki My Way

The man is Rob, proud proprietor of Maki My Way, a sushi restaurant where the hook is you can design your own roll. Rob, who is an adorably genuine, candid and sweet man, informs us that he came up with the idea after repeatedly annoying sushi chefs with his own substitutions and that he had been given the stamp of approval sought by all outside-the-box-thinking small-business owners—an appearance on Dragon’s Den.

His cuddly friendliness cannot be overstated. He bustled to and fro with trays of free sushi, whistling along to Peter Gabriel before enthusiastically explaining to us how the menu works. After Mack designed a truly horrendous tasting sushi experience, picking cream cheese as a topping in what I can only describe as an act of self-harm, Rob offered a free roll to replace the grotesque experiment my compatriots’ hubris had designed. Which, while incredibly friendly, I feel like letting people design their own sushi and then replacing it when they inevitable fuck-up might not be that hot of business idea. (I can’t bear to tell Rob this, however.)

That said, my deliciously designed roll of tilapia, pineapple, and tempura sweet-potato, on the other hand, would have given Jiro himself pause.

Despite how admittedly foolish I find the idea of his business, Rob won me over. Fuck the TTC, I’m rooting for him, I don’t care if I have to tear this whole city to the ground and exile every member of Broken Social Scene to Brampton, we need this comically inept idea of a sushi restaurant to succeed.

8:30 PM, Kit Kat Italian Bar and Grill

Next we moved to the rebel headquarters itself: Kit Kat Italian Bar and Grill. Outside, the ice middle finger had been replaced by two warped thumbs up, which as of this writing have been replaced again by Trump-inspired ice sculpture asking us to “Make King Great Again.” Kit Kat understands that the content gods are always voracious and must constantly be fed and is happy to provide. We saddled up to the bar, and despite there being a Raptors game on, the TV above the bar is filled with the luminous visage of Guy Fieri. Perfect.

For the past 27 years, Kit Kat has been whipping up pasta dishes that your grandmother who is afraid of the GO Bus station would love, and over that time has acquired a certain amount of charm. The walls are littered with thousands of pieces of kitschy wood sculptures, hand painted pictures of eggplants, and pictures of the owner with various celebs including Shania Twain and legendary improv maestro Ryan Stiles. Considering that every new place on King is all smooth lines and sterile aesthetics it was refreshing to be in a place that resembles live-action version of Uncle Moe’s Family Feedbag. There is even a damn tree that you can make a wish on.

Speaking of the owner, it should be noted that the king himself was in the building. Carbone holds court at the front of the restaurant like Artie Bucco greeting Tony Soprano, welcoming regulars who come in offering support and receiving signed posters in exchange. It isn’t long before he spots the camera and plods over to us. Immediately he presented us with and crowed over the fact that he was the subject of The Star’s editorial cartoon of the day. He then proceeded to emphasize how the project has turned the neighbourhood into a “ghetto” and how, while his stunts have helped his business, his neighbour’s business remains “soft.”

If Rob was my tender-hearted ideal of a small business owner, Carbone is the other side. A shameless huckster, Carbone is a trope we have all become too familiar with over the past year; the greedy, loud-mouthed businessman who carelessly shoves his way into debates without an ounce of data, nominally on the side of ignored “little guy” while hoovering up all the glory he can. Classic improviser Ryan Stiles would be ashamed of the way this guy hogs the spotlight for his own ends.

Much better was our bartender. I trusted her, she was dependable and I felt we had a blue-collar connection given our restaurant industry backgrounds. She was adamant that sales from the past December were down thirty percent compared to last year’s. Worse for her was that their regulars, the kind that would wrack up big bills, had been scared away by the “chaos” of driving on King Street, and the people coming in, she scoffed, “Were not real diners.” (OK, I do have to wonder about your business model if you are relying on suburb clientele when you are located in the densest part of the city.) Anyhoo, to emphasize her point, immediately after saying this, she had to ID three clubland kids who came in looking for underage drinking but were kicked them out after they only asked for water.

While, I found her insistence that the streetcar users who thought the middle finger was directed at them were the immature ones, hilarious, her description of the restaurant’s plight was convincing. The numbers are down, the customers are changing. And she was adamantly not anti-transit, she just wants a compromise, take the cars off the road during rush hour, sure, but at night and the afternoon bring on the Fury Road.

9:30 PM? N’Awlins Jazz Bar and Dining

These messages stayed consistent throughout our increasingly fuzzy evening: drivers are intimidated, numbers are down and there should be a compromise. We heard that at N’Awlins Jazz Bar and Dining, which was actually packed and fun and you should definitely check out if you ever wanted to know what a jazz bar on a space station that is never intended to return to earth would be like. According to the host of the USS Jazz, while Friday and Saturdays have been regular, the daytime has seen a drop and, again, no one there is against transit but they hope for a sweet, sweet compromise. Perhaps the hopelessness that the businesses along the strip are feeling was best expressed by the bartender at The Red Tomato when she informed us the bar was closed tonight with a very ominous and potentially prescient, “You are witnessing the death rattle.”

10:30 PM, Peacock Bar

Our next stop was at Peacock Bar, a cramped (in a good way!) club, with table top hockey and an aesthetic that can best be described as Graffitti: A History, certainly, if not death rattling, had a nasty cough. It was pretty dead in there and according to the cool-as-fuck bartender Timothy, he had noticed business had gone down, and like Kit Kat, less regulars were frequenting. Timothy, who lived in the neighbourhood, was also unnerved that, “To me, to know I can jaywalk with my eyes closed...it’s scary.”

After promising that we’d come back later on to see if the bar had filled in, we head outside again to see how jaywalkable the street was. The answer is given to us by the grizzled bouncer of Peacock Bar, Rick. He pointed out to us that around this time drivers could give a fuck about the law and as if on cue a line of cars just rolled straight through the intersection. A bike cop I interviewed confirmed Rick’s observation stating that on weekend nights he could give out thousands of tickets and that it would take hundreds of cops to enforce the bylaws.

11 PM, Somewhere on King Street

By this time, it’s 11PM and the idea of King Street as a ghost town seemed more and more preposterous. This is not to disagree with the bouncer at Everleigh who stated how the bylaw has affected business, “People used to pull up in their car in front of the club, hop out have a couple and drinks and then get back in the car.” (Note: He meant this as a criticism of the pilot project but I think it may actually be a pretty good reason for it.) But when you are on King in the club area between Spadina and Bathurst the first thought that comes to mind isn’t, Wow these businesses are fucked, it’s: Oh god, I’m old and hideous and Where do these people come from and where do they work out? and Humanity is a worthless endeavor and I fear for our future.

We stop and talked to some ravenous youth in the gigantic line outside of the douche-tastic Belfast Love, a bar that is a mixture of a classic Irish pub and the blood rave scene from the first Blade. After finding out that they got to the bar in an Uber, I asked them if they were always going to come to King Street (an affirmative yes) and whether or not they thought twice about because of the streetcar pilot project (certainly not).

At another line outside of a club I chatted with three gentleman who disagree about the effectiveness of the project. One, who worked in transit, was a supporter, citing the city’s statistics about improved wait times and speed. The other two, who live in the neighbourhood and drive, talked about how frustrating and confusing driving has become. Then one of the drivers said, “In a city this big, you can’t make any moves without hurting somebody.”

Closing Thoughts, 72 Hours After My Hangover Ended

That’s what was so frustrating about this situation; like all tragedies it is inevitable. Nobody is wrong here. Businesses are being hurt, that is not hyperbole. But it’s not because King Street is turning into a wasteland, it’s because the city is tumbling into a future, haphazardly and awkwardly. Old habits and patterns are being shed to make way for the shiny and new. Where suburb drivers once ventured, young gentrifiers now Uber or walk. Forces of finance, demographics and migration are chewing up the past and even as attempts are made to mitigate issues, worse ones emerge.

King Street is not going to die but it’s never going to return to a time when Kit Kat is the spot where one might catch of glimpse of famed improviser Ryan Stiles. Maybe that’s good, although to be honest, I’m not sure I like the places it is being replaced with. It may be that the alcohol dissolved my brain and left only a beating heart but the bile I had for these opponents of my beloved, utopian transit dreams was replaced by fondness and sympathy. I grieve that we may be turning into a city that does not have the room for a tiny, sweet man giving out fish in the rain who just wants to share his dream of customizable sushi with as many people as possible.

Alas, we did go back to Peacock Bar. There were not more people there. But there was a multitude of free-ish shots resulting in a hangover so bad I think it gave me PTSD. If I learned nothing else from this night, it’s that the King Street Bar Crawl make paupers of us all.

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