4 min

Comings and goings

The changing face of the west end

Credit: Johnnie Walker

Every time a Church St haunt closes its doors, someone cries, “There goes the gaybourhood!” But it’s hard to imagine such a well-established, high-density queer enclave truly disappearing.

The west end of Toronto has also seen a queer scene develop in recent years, thanks to a handful of venues and parties, and each one counts. Naco Gallery & Café, a hip Dundas St W watering hole known for its Mexican brunch and popular gay dance parties, was the farthest-west point in a small constellation of west-side gay venues, including the Henhouse and The Beaver. But on Dec 17, Naco closed for good.

“Someone else is just making the decision for me to end it, which is a little bit hard, because it has been growing a lot,” says Julian Calleros, Naco’s owner. “It’s been three years, and I’ve put a lot of effort and my heart into the space and into promoting it.”

Regulars trickling into the café pause to mourn their favourite hangout as Calleros explains how his landlord pulled the rug out from under him. “She decided not to renew the lease. She wants to open her own business — she works in the industry — so she wants the space back.”

Naco’s closure comes hot on the heels of another west-end queer fave turning off the lights: lesbian-owned and -operated video boutique West Side Stories. Coincidence? Well, actually, it probably is. As any former Blockbuster employee can tell you, it’s a bad time to be in the video rental business, and many independents have closed up shop this year.

Robin Sharp, a filmmaker and bar-back at The Beaver, has another theory on what might be going on: “Well, they had the street closed for a really long time . . . It was really hard to get to. So, that hurt a lot of the businesses on Dundas West.” In fact, massive construction projects consumed Dundas for the past two summers, rendering many businesses inaccessible.

Meanwhile, Queen St W, where The Beaver is situated, has had to deal with construction of a different kind. The controversial Bohemian Embassy lofts are finally open, and they alter the tone of the neighbourhood.

“We have condos now,” says Sharp. “And hopefully, we’ll be able to convince more people from the Embassy to come by. A lot of people from the new condos are coming into The Beaver Café during the day. I think we have work to do to bring them in during the night.”

But what about the original, rebellious spirit of The Beaver, which launched outrageous parties like Hotnuts? Can The Beaver still be The Beaver across from the Bohemian Embassy, or does gentrification turn everything into a mini Drake Hotel?

“We’re definitely starting to get more couples coming in and ordering cocktails,” Sharp admits. “And we are casual fine dining, so that does appeal to a lot of people who are new in the neighbourhood. But there is something very genuine about The Beaver. And we’re still very Queen West and very queer and out there, and a lot of the staff at The Beaver are practising artists, so even though the restaurant has managed to adapt and hopefully can cater to any new groups that move in, it still has that character that it’s had since it opened.”

Phil Villeneuve would probably agree with that assessment. Besides being a fab columnist, Villeneuve DJs some of the biggest west-end queer dance parties, including Fit at The Beaver, Tapette at Naco and the iconic Big Primpin’, currently at Wrongbar. “I feel like parties are very, very important. The Beaver has had some groundbreaking parties. Those are all really important, especially with the way Queen is changing; that place has become more important than ever. We absolutely need them. But they’re not going anywhere. And I just don’t think we need to worry.”

Of course, Naco definitely is going somewhere, and that has repercussions for Villeneuve, since Tapette will have to change locations. “For me personally, it sucks, because that’s been Tapette’s home since day one. And it’s such a fun, crazy, unique little space. I love telling people that it’s a gay, French dance party in a Mexican bar on Dundas West, you know? It just sounds so cool and weird.” But fans of the franco hip-shaker don’t have to worry: Villeneuve already has plans to move his night to the Henhouse. “The Henhouse, without even trying, has sort of become The Only Gay in the Village,” he jokes.

Speaking of the Henhouse, what about that persistent rumour that it’s up for sale? Xtra spoke with the owners, who confirmed that while the dyke-friendly hotspot is on the market, they are in no rush to sell, and all of the potential buyers they’ve spoken to are gay and want to keep the Henhouse as the Henhouse.

All of which raises the question: does the west end need specifically gay venues to maintain its queer cred? Or does the fact that more and more venues are throwing popular gay nights mean that cred is intact, gay bars or no?

“Dundas seems to be pretty open in terms of gays going to all the bars,” Villeneuve says.

What does the future hold for the west end? Only time can tell, but Villeneuve remains refreshingly optimistic: “It’s sort of like the Wild West has calmed down; all the cows are in one field now, and they’re relaxing and eating. But they’re also regrouping, and I don’t think there’s any danger of the west becoming less exciting. If anything, there are so many spaces that are just ripe for the picking, and people are going to just keep opening up cool, strange places. We shouldn’t be scared; we should just be excited.”