How is it that I had never heard of this place? I get emails all the time from people providing me with their favourite place and their recommendations to check it out. Personally, I had never heard of the Imperial Pub, located on Dundas Street just east of Yonge, until I opened my inbox last week and a reader pointed it out to me. It just happens to be a 5 minute walk from work, so I thought I'd check it out after a long day of correspondence.
As soon as I walk into a new pub, within 20 seconds I can safely state whether it's for me or not. Walking into the Imperial pub I could tell I liked it in 5.
A Brief History
Back in 1944, a 30 year old man by the name of Jack Newman takes over what was then "Glover's Cafeteria," a hotel owned by the Chief of Police for York Region, and Newman renamed it The Imperial Hotel. You see, back in the early 1900's only hotels and inns could serve alcohol under strict Ontario liquor laws, so the Imperial Hotel featured nine rooms in the upstairs section of the building in order to comply. Downstairs was home to the 'drinking room,' which would go on to be called the Aquarium Room in the 50's and featured a Seeburg Jukebox that played soft jazz. Newman's goal was to provide the area with a classy drinking spot, a place where the rowdies and roughnecks didn't want to venture.
During the 1960's, it was decided that the hotel rooms would close to proceed with an upstairs pub after the liquor laws changed. The area would soon be called 'the Library room' as Ryerson students made it their hangout, and hundreds of hardback and soft covered books graced numerous shelves and cases around the perimeter of the pub. It was also during the 60's that the Imperial Hotel lost its status as a hotel and became a 'public house.'
Like all drinking establishments at the time, the Imperial Pub (as it is know called), had women and men separated by a wall in the Aquarium room and it wasn't until the 70's that it was changed. Now all sexes can co-mingle as they sup on their pints.
In 1998 the City of Toronto tried to close the doors of the pub to make way for the development of Dundas square. After several protests, petitions and public outcry, the pub was spared and it still stands were it has been since the 20's.
Another interesting fact is that the pub is still independently owned by the Newman family, and it remains almost unchanged in appearance and laid back operation as it was back in the 60's. Today Fred Newman runs the show and various other family members hold positions within the walls of the storied pub.
The Library Room: Upstairs
For my first visit to the Imperial I decided I would start with the upstairs level, the Library room, to indulge in a pint of Wellington and chat with the regulars and locals. I met Fred and spoke briefly about the history of the building, the scenery and the liquor laws of yester-years.
The first thing I noticed was the colourful carpeting that blanketed the entire floor. Greens, reds, purples, swirling around in a funky pattern seemed to blend in well with all the other items situated upstairs. There are 7 or 8 leather couches throughout the room, many wooden tables and chairs that I'd bet have been there from the early days of the pub, an attractive gas fireplace that roars to attention in winter, iron barred light fixtures dated back to the 40's, many books, lots of plants by the window overlooking Dundas street, a wrought iron structure greeting you at the top of the stairs, a Foosball table, pool table and large screen tv and other knick knacks scattered about.
The room itself is an open concept, with red brick beams and pillars throughout, providing the feeling of a large living room. A man states just that as he scutters up to the bar for a pint, "been coming here for years, comfortable place, a home away from home almost." The clientele is as diverse as the city of Toronto itself. Young Ryerson students, young professionals, middle aged couples, the down and out and some elderly folk all provide a different image of the glowing pub. It makes for interesting conversations as each individual has different opinions based on their age bracket and background.
The bar isn't huge, it isn't small, it's just right. 8 bar back stools surround the heavy, dark wood bar with chestnut coloured leather patterns stitched on. It typifies an old hotel saloon bar, nothing fancy, just a straight up bar to serve pints over. No stainless steel, no sparkling wine glasses, and no pretentious bartender. Our bartender is actually a barmaid, a rough, tough looking barmaid who states she has been working behind the Imperial Pub's bars for sixteen years and they'll have to carry her out when she dies. She is very engaging, yet bold enough to capture the attention of those misbehaving. She is my kind of barmaid, she may not know a lot about craft beer, but she's not a robot like some other bartenders.
The draught beer line-up is limited to Amsterdam Blonde, Steam Whistle, Mill Street Tankhouse, Carlsberg (good soccer hangout), Moosehead and Wellington Pale. Bottles range from mainstream, to micros, to imports, Sam Adams Boston lager was even available. Amsterdam and Wellington were the best movers during my visit.
The Library Room in the Imperial Pub is a great old pub for all ages to enjoy. A place where you go to the bar to order a pint, to meet new people, to engage in conversation with strangers. I fell into a discussion with a Hard Rock Cafe employee who provided me with a glimpse into why this pub is so successful. "I come here with people from work when we complete our shifts as it offers us the atmosphere to relax, de-stress, to socialize, to get comfortable with a solid pint and meet others. It's also a good destination to come read alone as the soft jazz lingers in the background." Nicely put.