****Back in October at Volo's Cask Days, I ran into 'Notes on a Beermat: Drinking and Why It's Necessary' author Nicholas Pashley and informed him I had started this blog. Because I enjoyed his book so much due to his witty humour and detailed accounts of pub life, I asked him if he would be interested in contributing a piece for this site. So, I hope you enjoy his colourful profile on Toronto's Victory Cafe.....Nicholas Pashley******
When Paul Kellogg, the founder of the Victory Café, told me back in 2005 that he was selling the pub, I wasn’t surprised. He had been spending more time in Nova Scotia, had even got Nova Scotia plates for his car. The writing was on the wall, but it didn’t mean I was happy about it. From its beginnings on Bathurst north of Bloor (it moved to Mirvish Village in the late 90s), the Victory had grown into a damn fine pub with some quite decent beer.
Paul told me he’d sold out to a triumvirate of investors, which made me nervous. Were they going to wreck the place? Short answer: no.
I’m reluctant to write about the Victory lest I inadvertently give the impression that it’s the sort of place you ought to check out. Sure, the draught beer choice ranks among the best in the city, the service is friendly, the food is good, and it’s nicely located with a good-sized patio – but is that all you’re looking for in a pub? (And don’t imagine for a moment that I’m going to mention the cask ales.)
I must point out that my wife doesn’t think the bathrooms are all that great, sometimes I find the music a trifle loud, and a couple of times they’ve been out of Denison’s Weissbier after a hot, busy weekend. And on weekdays they don’t even open until 4pm. So it isn’t perfect. My advice is to stay away altogether and leave it to the regulars.
If you must go to the Victory – and don’t say I didn’t warn you – you’ll find a place not greatly changed from 2005. The new owners took down Paul Kellogg’s theatre posters and replaced them with changing exhibitions by local artists and photographers. They also painted over his Hall of Shame, an ever-expanding list of loathed local public figures Kellogg had inscribed on the wall on the way to the bathrooms (the writing was literally on the wall). And the signed photograph of Liona Boyd behind the bar is gone, which is fine with me ever since she made a snarky comment in her memoir about the boys in her high school (I was a boy in her high school).
But they kept most of their staff, which was a stroke of genius. Being served by Jamie, Ronley, or Paul is a life-affirming experience, especially when they’re bringing you one of twelve fine draught beer selections (and it would be irresponsible of me to mention the constantly changing cask ale from enterprising Ontario craft breweries because I’d never get a seat again).
Most of us didn’t meet the three new owners for a time. Blake is the man on the premises, but he’s a quiet fellow. Maz and Neil are the other two, but they have day jobs so you’re most likely to see them on weekends. She’s from Manchester, he’s from Ulster, so they know a bit about pubs. And they know a bit about beer too – you’ll see them at beer festivals around town, particularly if there’s cask ale to be had. They have been instrumental in taking a decent range of beers at the Victory and making it a larger and far more adventurous range that on any given evening might include beers from Denison’s, Black Oak, Mill Street, Great Lakes, Durham, Grand River, Granite, F & M, and Church Key. (Though I’m still not going to mention the cask ale program, especially since Neil has hinted that he might be making room for a second handpump.)
The Victory is a casual place. The main room downstairs has a long bar with general seating at either end of the room and a row of two-person booths in between. There’s also a pleasant (if chilly) snug off to one side. They’ve also recently renovated an upstairs room which is used mainly for musical or literary events or private parties, as well as sometimes taking the overflow from downstairs.
The food is good and homespun (though there used to be a sign behind the bar that read If You Like Home Cooking, Eat At Home). Before the medical profession condemned my cholesterol readings, I used to admire the cheeseburger with fries, a dish the original owner was rightly proud of. Nowadays I favour the vegetarian chili and vegetarian curry, both very tasty. There are also daily specials you won’t regret.
None of this is adequate reason for visiting the Victory Café. I find that lately the music has been getting louder. In Paul Kellogg’s day it was mostly jazz at a moderate volume; these days it’s usually indie pop/rock (sometimes a bit new-agey), sometimes the Rolling Stones, and once quite recently I heard what I would consider mainstream pop music, which worried me. And did I mention it’s getting louder? I said, it’s getting louder!
If, like most civilized people, you like to read in a pub, you might find the Victory a trifle dark by evening. Your best bet is one of the small booths. If you’re not going to be reading, please don’t hog a booth and deprive a literate barfly of his habit. Especially a regular. In fact, I’d say avoid the Victory Café altogether and let the regulars enjoy the fine ales in the manner to which they’ve become accustomed. Is that too much to ask? There are plenty of other bars in town. I hear the Brunswick House is very nice.
581 Markham Street,