The Ceili Cottage
1301 Queen St. East Toronto, ON
When I first stepped foot into the decrepit old garage back in March to meet world famous oyster shucker and owner of Toronto’s Starfish Oyster Bed, Patrick McMurray, to get a picture of what his proposed Irish local would be, I thought to myself, "why choose this location of Leslieville, and why did he choose this run-down building?"
However, after hearing his plans and envisioning his layout the next thought that crept into my head was how dangerously close this new 'local' (McMurray does not consider it to be a pub) is from my home. McMurray sold me immediately on his goals for the Ceili Cottage (pronounced Kay-Lee, an Irish word for social get together of music and dance) as we stood there amongst the high mounds of debris. This was to be an Irish local, a real Irish local and not one of the faux-pas pubs that our province is awash in.
McMurray's life-long goal came to fruition as the Ceili Cottage officially opened on June 23rd and it has almost instantly become a new hangout for the area residents of Leslieville. Everything that McMurray touched on back in March has come to life and the transformation of the old garage is simply stunning, to say the least. Situated at 1301 Queen Street East, just east of Leslie Street, the white building with black trim-work is surrounded by a white picket fence closing it off from the busy street and if not for the black Guinness umbrella's on the patio the Cottage is almost indistinguishable as a drinking destination, looking more, well, like a cottage.
There is a small entrance that greets you upon arrival and you know you’ve reached your destination as the Cottage’s address is laid out in spent oyster shells in the cement. More shells have been embedded into the cement throughout the large patio, which can accommodate 40 patrons during the warmer months. Flower boxes sit atop wooden planks that are supported by decades old Irish whisky barrels and the white tables have a somewhat picnic table quality about them, evoking memories of the family gathering together for annual summer bbq's.
The Cottage is separated into two rooms: the dining room is located at the front of the building and the bar area is situated in the back, but to get there you must enter through the heavy bright red painted wooden door at the front of the building.
Walking into the dining room feels like entering a proper Irish local the way it would have been in the late 1800's (judging by photographs from the book: Dublin Pub Life and Lore). Large thick wooden plank flooring, barn like open wooden rafters, church pews, original brick and stone walls that have been cleaned up but have otherwise been left untouched and undistributed, are just some of the key pieces that put this room together. The tables in this room are very unique. Floorboards obtained from the now demolished 'Packing House' in the Historic Distillery District have been cut down and attached to form the heavy tables. "Thousands of Irish immigrants got off the boats in the early 1800's and headed to the Distillery District for work," stated McMurray. "They went looking for work in a field they already had experience in and the Distillery District provided them with that opportunity. Literally thousands of Irish feet have stepped foot on these floor boards so it was a no-brainer to go out and get them."
The back area, where the long 'L' shaped bar is located, is a large slender room with a piano, a century old church pew and a large cast iron bell above the bar. The main attraction in this room is the bar, which features a 2 inch thick Kilkenny Limestone bar top that dates back 4 million years. McMurray had it shipped straight from Ireland and the corrals and oyster markings are clearly evident in appearance. It is also here, behind the bar, that McMurray can usually be found chatting with customers as he shows off his shucking prowess. There are 16 bar back chairs that surround the long bar and gas fitted piping has been assembled to provide a unique footrest. Behind the bar are two large wooden shelving units that hold all the glassware, bottles of Irish whisky, plus a few extra trinkets and trophies and some copies of the book McMurray authored on oysters. In the middle of the shelving units is a chalkboard where the bartender informs patrons of what’s on tap at the moment and above that is a large flat screen television that is normally playing soccer matches, muted of course.
When it comes to beer selection McMurray knows his stuff. “I decided that there would be no bottle service here at the Cottage,” he stated. “The beer served here will only be available by the ½ or full pint, which helps to cut down on extra waste and it also ensures fresh beer.” McMurray chose the four core Diageo brands: Harp, Kilkenny, Smithwick’s, and Guinness to complement a number of local regional beers like Mill Street Organic, McAuslan Apricot Wheat, Church Key Lager, O'Hara's Stout County Durham Hop Addict, and Scotch Irish Stuart's Session Ale. McMurray also chose to install a cask engine in order to serve the increasingly popular segment of cask-conditioned ale, joining a select handful of other Toronto establishments. County Durham’s Red Dragon was the first cask ale to be showcased upon opening and proved to be a hot commodity going dry just four days after opening. “I plan to rotate the cask here at the local, offering customers a variety of the style.” McMurray also plans to introduce his Oyster Stout to the Cottage regulars soon, which is produced by County Durham. Each beer is also served in the appropriate glassware baring the logo of the corresponding brewery. Should there be no glass to match the pint the bartender will serve up the drink in an unbranded pint glass to avoid confusing the patrons.
The atmosphere inside the walls of the cottage is something special. Normally when you enter a pub for the first time if feels exactly that way - like the first time. A little awkward and overwhelming. But because of the atmosphere at the Ceili Cottage I immediately got a sense of comfortableness, and it felt like I had been going there for pints for years. It has a welcoming effect that, to be very honest with you, I have not felt anywhere else upon first impressions. McMurray has done a lot to create this atmosphere with everything from the soft Irish music he continuously plays over the speakers to the Irish peat moss he smokes behind the bar filling the Cottage with the smell of the Emerald Isles. McMurray also plans to have live, local, Irish music sessions on Tuesday nights and he encourages people to join in.
"We're getting a lot of locals in and it's great to see them coming back for repeat visits. We already have a number of regulars," stated McMurray while preparing an order of oysters. He says this as a gentleman at the bar starts up a conversation with the person seated next to him only to find out the two live on the same street. In less than 10 minutes the whole one side of the bar is deep in conversation with each other yet were strangers before heading up to the bar.
It also helps to have great bartenders and McMurray has found two in and Dom. , here from Ireland, and Dom, from Australia, have been with the Cottage since day one and are terrific at their jobs. "I never expected it to be this busy, so soon, but it has been great," said while trying to keep up with the never-ending drink orders. The two bartenders do something that I find rare in Toronto - they engage with the people sitting at the bar, starting conversations in between pulling pints.
The food is terrific. I've had a couple of items off the 'Staples' menu and each time I was overwhelmed by how scrumptious they were. The Peat Smoked Organic Scottish Salmon was simply delicious. Large chunks of tender salmon with homemade brown bread, sour cream, and pickled onions was very nice with my pint of the Red Dragon. The hearty dish of Ontario Mutton Stew with Champ is always a pleasure and reminds me of Sunday dinners back on the farm. The snacks are creative and satisfying as well. Too many times I've entered a pub after work hours with a hungry stomach wishing for something small and cheap to nosh on before dinner and McMurray's chef, Kyle, has put together a fun snack menu that includes roasted Ontario peanuts ($3), kettle chips ($2), and pickled sausages ($1) that hit the spot nicely.
It's really hard to fully describe the Ceili Cottage in a way that I want and in a way that it deserves because there is so much to it. It is a place that needs to be experienced first hand and taken for what it's meant to be.
When George Orwell wrote his famous piece of his vision of the perfect pub, The Moon Under Water, he described a number of things that I strongly believe in when it comes to my thoughts of an ideal pub. McMurray and the Ceili Cottage have already, in a short time, and in my opinion, incorporated many of these qualities and that's what will keep me heading back.
So back to that part where I mentioned how dangerously close the Cottage is to my place - I couldn't be happier.