Follow beer writer, Troy Burtch, as he explores the wonderful world of craft beer and the pubs that serve it. Great Canadian Beer is a place to come to catch up on beer news, read tasting notes, check out event listings, and for pub previews and reviews.


Saturday, September 19, 2009

Highway 61 - Southern Barbeque: Toronto, ON

Highway 61 Southern Barbeque
1620 Bayview Avenue
Toronto, ON M4G 3B7
(416) 489-7427

Back in July I was at the University of Toronto's Hart House Craft Beer and Summer BBQ when Great Lakes Brewing Marketer, John Bowden, introduced me to Highway 61's bar manager, Matthew Clappison. Bowden mentioned that Highway 61 had been open for a while and it was a place he thought was worth checking out - due to the enthusiasm the owners shared for selling craft beers and promoting their many virtues. Clappison meanwhile, invited me out to the bbq joint to see what they're all about and just this past weekend I finally made it there for a couple of pints and a plate of southern bbq deliciousness.

Opened on February 23, 2009 by three partners, the southern bbq style restaurant is also home to a terrific beer menu that features beer produced here in Ontario.

Ken McGarrie, Kerry Knoll, and Nick Sinnett, wanted to open a BBQ restaurant in Toronto that would capture the attention of carnivores city-wide and in doing so they realized that bbq'd ribs, pulled pork sandwich's, and dry rubbed wings just didn't go well with mainstream beer. As McCarrie (from Chicago and big fan of the American craft brewing industry) and Sinnett (described as a beer freak) were already fans of craft beer, it was an obvious choice to go with small batched products at their establishment, as the diverse styles and tastes suit the food found at Highway 61.

Located at 1620 Bayview Avenue, not far from the Eglinton Subway Station, Highway 61 is situated along a strip that has a number of restaurants ranging from Asian inspired noodle shops to generic watering holes; it seems this section of town offers area residents a choice of everything. The two storey building stands out from their neighbours, however, with the barn boarding that makes up the facade. A small 12 person sit down patio graces the sidewalk and it is kept shaded by the two Mill Street umbrella's.

Walking in through the front door you'll come upon a set of stairs leading upstairs and to the right is the entrance to the street level dining and bar area. More on the upstairs later.

The street level area features clean hardwood floors and more barn boarding that stretches from floor to the ceiling. The barn boarding is the perfect material to use in a place like this, providing a worn, weathered, and rustic appearance - western, saloon-like. Knoll, who joined me for a pint during my visit, explained that the panelling was left over from the previous owners who inhabited the building before them but the three owners thought it was perfect for what they had in mind.

A collection of Jazz and Blues posters hang from the walls on both sides of the slim room and are joined by some beer signage, old movie posters and other old posters and knick-knacks. There is long thick bench seating running along the right side of the room with a number of four person tables, and more tables are in front of the large open windows that lead out to the patio. This is prime seating on the street level - lots of sunlight and good for people watching.

The small bar is located at the back of the room and has four bar stools to perch yourself on while talking to one of the friendly bartenders. Speaking of bartenders, McGarrie makes it known that each of them, plus the servers, receives some form of education about all the beers that they get in from the various small breweries. "We have a beer of the week that we start profiling on Monday's. $3.50 pints and $10.00 pitchers, and we try getting someone from the brewery to come in and speak with the staff and talk to the customers," stated McGarrie.

On tap during my visit: Cameron's Dark 266 Lager, Great Lakes Orange Peel Ale, Nickelbrook Organic, Wellington Special Pale Ale, Trafalgar Harbour Gold Pilsner, Taps Charleston Lager, Saint Andre Vienna Lager, Mill St. Belgian Wit, Granite Summer Ale, and Highway 61 Lager (produced by Great Lakes). McGarrie, the man who takes responsibility for bringing in the craft beers, states that they have played around with the line-up by rotating taps and they'll continue that practice into the future. "We'll have Great Lakes Pumpkin Ale on soon, then come the festive season we'll swap it for the Winter Ale, and we'll switch up the Cameron's Dark with another one of their beers sometime soon, and so on. It allows our customers to continually try new beers and showcases the different options available from the different breweries."

And beer sales are going pretty strong. "The Monday night featured beer promo is a big hit, and I think because we don't even offer mainstream beer by the bottle that people have had to open their eyes to the craft beer and once they taste it, thumbs up," said Knoll, who had to be convinced by his two other partners that it was a good idea to sell craft beer. "I wasn't to sure before we opened, but when I tasted the different beers and saw how diverse they were and felt they would match with the meats better, I was sold."

Upstairs is where the live bands perform four nights a week (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday) and there is another full service bar and double the seating capacity.

The attractive wooden bar is shaped somewhat like the number 3 and has room for 12 leather bar back chairs. It is more attractive than the small bar downstairs, but then so is the rest of the upstairs. Tiled flooring and polished wood gleam as the sunlight streams through the large french windows that stretch across the width of the building. The windows are open, offering a nice cool breeze for the people sitting right up front, and it almost feels as though you are sitting on a patio. There are more posters upstairs that hang from more barn boarding, which are fun to scan over.

What about the food? Well, I'm not a critic, but I heartily endorse the ribs here. They're terrific! Actually, the food critics have also endorsed the ribs at Highway 61. Chef Michael Bonacini and restaurateur Peter Oliver recently conducted a rib showdown featuring meat from Highway 61, All Star Wings & Ribs, Eddy's Steak House, Phil's Original BBQ, Place for Steak and Sea Food and many more establishments. The two tasted the all the ribs blindly and it was the moist, meaty ribs from Highway 61 that were named the winner. "We were pretty stoked to hear that," said McGarrie as he showed me the full page of results in the North Toronto Post magazine.

The smell from the kitchen is wonderful and I witnessed a number of walkers stop near the entrance and peer in after getting a whiff of the sauces and the slow cooking of the meat. I ordered the Memphis Mini. For $18.49 I got a heaping plate of pulled pork, 3 sauced ribs, 5 slow smoked wings (awesome), baked beans and some coleslaw, all of which was washed down with a pint of Saint Andre's Vienna Lager. Highly recommended. And thank god there are think napkins.

Highway 61 is also pretty well known for their live music sessions that take place 4 nights a week. Blues, Jazz, and Southern Rock, can all be heard coming from upstairs, right next to the bar. Jack de Keyzer, Cassius Periera, and Dylan Wickings are just a few of the musicians who grace Highway 61's makeshift stage, and customers are loving it. "We have been toying with the idea of offering customers with music on Saturday nights in addition to the four we already have," said McGarrie. "People who can't make it out Friday night are asking us to have someone play on Saturday, so we're looking into that."

So there you have it. Ontario craft beer - pulled pork - slow cooked wings - tender meaty ribs - wicked sauces - good music - and three owners who care about their profession, all great qualities of a good drinking establishment in my books. Next time you find yourself in the area, stop by, take a big whiff of the aroma creeping through the front door, and head in. You'll be glad you did.
Highway 61 on Urbanspoon


malcolm said...

Love it - interesting and courageous beer selections! I'm not up there that often but that's the kind of place I like to support.

Troy Burtch said...

malcolm - I think you'd have a great time at Highway 61. The beers were all tasting fresh, the food was very good and there is a good atmosphere in the place.


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