The oldest bar in New York City is McSorley’s Old Ale House. The place first opened on East 7th St. since 1854–only six years before a tall Republican named Abraham Lincoln was reputed to stop there after giving his famous speech at the Cooper Union around the corner.
McSorley’s stringently adheres to its traditions in both decor (it appears unchanged in more than century, right down to the sawdust on the floor) and in drinks served (“What do you have on tap?” “Light and dark”). Unsurprsingly, it has become something of a draw for visitors to the city eager to stare up at Old Glory and portraits of Brendan Behan, or to stand by the same pot-bellied stove that once warmed up a singing Woody Guthrie.
And so, what was perhaps the quintessential neighbourhood bar has become something of a tourist trap (albeit an amazing one), and when a friend and I tried to re-visit the place one Tuesday night a couple of years ago, there was a queue stretching some twenty feet out the door.
Luckily for us, there was no wait to get into Big Bar one block over. Big Bar is not very big at all — about the size of a typical Winnipeg living room. It wasn’t 150 years old, and didn’t pretend to be. What it offered was soft lighting, soft music, a clean decor, a few staples on tap, and the usual stockpile of liquors behind the 11-seat bar. My friend and I ordered a drink and sat in a booth. After one more, we paid and left for his place on Second Ave.
There is no place like Big Bar in Winnipeg. This is not because Winnipeggers are not sophisticatedly “big city” enough for it — small, inexpensive, and unpretentious bars are something we are definitely suited for — but because of the nature of our liquor regulations.
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If someone wanted to open a similar bar in Winnipeg, the Liquor Control Act (2012) states that the place would have to either be attached to a hotel, book the cheapest live music they could find (cabaret), sign patrons in as “guests” (private club), or operate a full-sized kitchen and force patrons in some sections of the bar to buy food so that they can sit down and catch up over a couple of St. James’ (cocktail lounge). Add to this the lack of small commercial spaces (that would be zoned for a bar anyway), and it becomes clear why this town has more Moxie’s outlets than it does small neighbourhood bars.
Whether you think that these absurdly antiquated liquor regulations exist as an adherence to “social responsibility”; or simply because a greedy crown corporation is unwilling to give up the enviable position of being both Eliot Ness and Al Capone, there is no denying that Winnipeg has a lack of decent places to sit down with friends for a drink or two.
This list, I think, drives that point home.
10) Woodbine Hotel (West Exchange District)
With its origins as a saloon dating back to 1878, the Woodbine Hotel is home to the oldest bar in Western Canada, and still serves a lively crowd in the long and narrow space on Main Street. The staff try to keep the place friendly for everyone, but it can get a little dodgy some nights. Still, if sitting in the corner with a bottle of Club and listening to Kitty Wells songs in an establishment that dates back to the city’s earliest days is your thing, this is the place you need to be.
9) The Keg (Garry Street, downtown)
Yeah, well, so what? It’s nice, clean, consistent, and central.
8) Cousins (West Broadway)
This old place at the corner of Sherbrook and Wolseley has been around for a while, and in spite of a couple of renovations that have allegedly made it “too fancy,” it still remains popular but unassuming place for the city’s hippie/ster set, as well as neighbourhood denizens.
7) Peasant Cookery (West Exchange District)
This small place at the corner of Bannatyne and King has one of the nicer, more comfortable interiors in town, and the bar feels like a place unto itself rather than the lounge of the larger restaurant area.
Peasant keeps a good selection of just about everything, but loses points for having what are practically bank hours (10pm Mon.-Thurs., 11pm weekends). Get there early, because that’s the only time you can get there.
6) Ryan and Steph’s Porch (North Point Douglas)
First opened in 2011 when my pals Ryan and Steph moved to North Point Douglas, this places operates in the enclosed verhandah of a house built in 1903 on a quiet street near the Red River. An old wicker set, cast-offs from the dining room, and the steps leading outside act as the seating. An assortment of whatever beer you brought, or whatever Ryan has on hand, is available. (An MLCC outlet is a two-minute walk away, and if things get desperate, there’s also the Yale Hotel vendor.) Tobacco pipes and hipster brand cigarettes from North Dakota are welcome.
5) [Non-existent dive bar]
Prices at this hole-in-the-wall are kept down by their not having to operate a kitchen, or be attached to a hotel. This is a place where you can get far too excited putting too much money into a jukebox that plays ’60s Motown, ’70s punk, and ’80s new wave.
Points are lost for the aging scenesters who will inevitabley sit nearby and talk too loudly about back in the day.
4) Yellow Dog (West Exchange District)
The Yellow Dog is a comfortable, well-worn place that isn’t trying to be anything but a decent bar to meet with friends or watch the hockey game. Its location at Donald and Notre Dame makes it suitable for starting or ending off your night somewhere in the Exchange. And there’s a good chance they will be playing The Pogues, which is all the pub ambience you will ever need.
3) The Riverbank (various locations)
This is best suited to summer months, but also works in the more temperate months of Autumn and some season they call “Spring.” Along the Red and Assiniboine, there’s a few places with park benches, but in others, washed-up, bark-stripped, and sun-bleached logs will do just as well (they are everywhere).
2) The Grove (Crescentwood)
The Grove is an English bar in the sense that they serve Pimm’s, regularly play the Stone Roses, and post the latest Premier League standings in the men’s room. Thankfully, it’s not English in the sense that it has all the kitschy “pub” decorations and trappings of the handful of other popular local bars who shall remain nameless (because none of them made the list). The Grove’s location away from both Osborne and Corydon keeps this place feeling like a popular neighbourhood bar.
Points are lost for giant TV’s everywhere. Seriously, Winnipeg–why?
1) [Non-existent normal bar]
This is a place you go to sit down with a friend or two when you don’t feel like going out but don’t want to stay in either. This is a warm, clean and compact space, and although it inevitably gets a little busier and a little louder on the weekends, you don’t feel weird about going there alone, or standing in the corner with friends if all the tables are occupied. The selection of beer is good, but no snooty bartender with a Brylcreem’d moustache is going to scoff at you for ordering a Standard either. It offers both familiarity and the unexpected — like any decent local bar should.
Robert Galston likes to write about Winnipeg, urbanism, and other very, very exciting topics. Follow him on Twitter @riseandsprawl
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