It was a Toronto institution for more than two decades, but when The Barn closed its doors in 2012, many believed it was only a matter of time before developers dropped yet another pile of condominiums onto our collective heads. But with a new look, several coats of paint (bye bye, mon cowboys) and a surprising menu, The Marquis of Granby is proving a worthy heir to its venerable predecessor.
Now to be honest, it’s been a very long time since I’d stepped through The Barn’s doors. My memory of it is very hazy . . . mostly due to the clouds of cigarette smoke that drove me to a hasty retreat lest my right lung collapse. I never made it upstairs to the notorious backrooms, where hearts were joined and rent asunder in the time it takes to unzip a pair of leather pants.
Things have certainly changed. The décor is all sleek leather chairs and understated lighting, impeccably clean and urban, if a little lacking in personality. It still feels very gay-welcoming, and the smattering of Ryerson students and 20-something straight couples gives a relaxed atmosphere that feels naturally integrated.
Fortunately, the staff and food are packed with personality. Our husky-voiced server is a hoot right from the start, ably answering questions about the bar, the food and the upstairs club space while adroitly handling a respectable number of customers. Her name is Hannah, and she clearly already has a rapport with many of the regulars. It really does give the place a nice neighbourhood feel.
The menu is pub grub but with some interesting surprises. Hannah recommends the deep-fried pickles, a questionable-sounding delicacy with which I am unfamiliar. My dining companion at first turns up his nose at the suggestion, saying he’s had them at other places and been repulsed by the soggy limp mess of batter and breadcrumbs. We get them anyway, along with a caesar salad and some wings.
They’re easily the best thing I’ve eaten at a pub in years. There’s something about the sour bite of crunchy dill pickle that meshes beautifully with the crispy coating — and dipping them into the accompanying buttermilk sauce makes me wish I’d skipped the wings and just plumped for a second order. Not that the wings weren’t good . . . crispy and perfectly cooked, but hey, they’re still wings. The salad is fantastic, definitely not out of a bag, with a lemon-and-garlic zing that renders my breath wonderfully toxic for the rest of the evening.
Outside of the staff and food, the place is still clearly finding its personality. The night we go, UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) is featured on the big-screen TVs — a thrilling brawl for straight viewers and a kinky sweatfest for those of us who like watching men beat each other up in cages.
Surprisingly, everyone stays to watch, and the place doesn’t end up feeling like a sports bar. With Hannah laughing and chatting, it’s almost like hanging out at someone’s house with a television on in the background. Things get a little gayer upstairs, with dance events like Mighty Real holding court once a month.
“We like to say it’s an everybody bar,” manager Chris Karachalios says. “We have the Ryerson crowd, the gay crowd and the neighbours. We don’t have a market; we’re happy to have everybody.”
Karachalios oversaw the extensive renovations prior to the Marquis’s opening earlier this year and is enjoying the space’s evolution. One of his favourite projects, a new outdoor mural, is restoring art to the building’s south wall that once featured an iconic illustration of two gay cowboys. The previous mural’s removal was a sad necessity for the building’s new owners, when they were notified by the city that there was no existing permit and it would have to be removed. The new installation, an ultra-mod creation by Christiano De Araujo, features LGBT themes, with a nice nod to the cowboys in silhouette.
“It’s part of Kristyn Wong-Tam’s murals on Church project for WorldPride 2014,” Karachalios says. “It’s so great to have something back up there, for us and for the community. It’s going to be amazing when it’s finished.”