Toronto
3 min

Tips for better bars

Talking to others is a nice way to start

Credit: Xtra files

Pick a Saturday, any Saturday, preferably late at night, pretend you’re in the ghetto, and tell me that you’ve never heard this classic conversation once, twice or maybe a dozen times before.



“Where’d you go tonight?”



“Bar X and then Bar Y. Same old thing. Pretty sad, eh? But where else are you going to go? I didn’t know anyone. Where does everyone go?”



Grumble, grumble, grumble. That’s all we ever do. Bitching about the bars is Church Street’s national sport. We’re not quite sure what we want, but we’re quite sure we haven’t got it.



Despite the success of Hair Of The Dog and 7 Maitland, and isolated queer forays onto College and Queen West, the local scene seems moribund. There are lots of practical reasons for the current impasse: restrictive zoning by-laws, grumpy neighbours, high rents and intrusive police.



But I’ll leave the structural problems to the politicians. What interests me are the atmospheric details, the bizarre conventions that curb social interaction. Herewith a few modest suggestions, aimed at patrons and bar owners alike, for reshaping the social landscape.



o Just say no to TV. It doesn’t matter whether the giant overhead monitor is showing porn or Martha Stewart, the TV is not your friend. Aside from the fact that it makes you look bad – the well-lit folks on screen out shine you and everyone knows it – it also, literally, makes you look bad.



Some bars have adopted the blue light of the box as a kind of ambient mood lighting. Ba-aaaad move. Blue light turns most people to scruffy smurfs or fuzzy amoebas floating in a sea of wavy blue weeds. If you foolishly stand in front of a monitor, with your back to it, your face will be a black puddle. In a world built on appearance, this is just plain bad marketing.



* Watch for the dykes. Dykes are to gay bars as truckers are to truck stops: A sign of decent grub, metaphorically speaking, of course. All-male events tend to be despondent demonstrations of sexual desperation – everyone wondering whether the sludge-puppy to their left “will do” and hating themselves for it. But add a few women and the atmosphere lightens considerably, the sexuality gets turned down a notch and people start to talk. With luck you might even get laid.



o Bring back the underwear parties of the early 1990s – the ones in houses, not commercial caverns. Illegal, unlicensed, after-hours and out-of-the-ghetto, they had an anything-goes feel that is the exact opposite of today’s heavily scripted circuit parties. Conventional, condo-crazy Toronto could use a bit of that energy.



* Open a down-market pub. We’re floating in drag shows, best chest contests, talent contests, one-night-a-week homo spectaculars and other forms of “entertainment.” What we need is a place to just hang out.



* Open a porn-only bar. That way I won’t have to watch it anywhere else. Bar managers tell me the public divides pretty much equally on this issue. Half the world loves it, the other half hates it. I’m in the latter camp if only because the stuff – like any other flickering image – distracts nervous homos from the more difficult game of social interaction. If wanted porn I’d stay home with my kleenex. If I’m going to go out, I want to meet real people.



* And now for the most radical suggestion of all, and the one that flies most clearly in the face of Toronto tradition: Talk to someone you don’t find sexually attractive. C’mon, Toronto, you can do it. I’m sick of hearing about this “cold, unfeeling, unfriendly city” (and/or waiting for the Americans to arrive each summer). Do something about it. You’ll probably get called a tease or worse, but at least you’ll have the satisfaction of bucking centuries of Protestant repression.



And if all this sounds like too little, too late (and none of it likely to pump your social life), remember small things have big, and often wholly unintentional, consequences. I doubt the builders of the condo at Church and Alexander intended to create a new social space. But that’s just what they did. Some sleek retail, a couple of concrete risers, and there you have it, The Steps, Part Two, the community’s newest venue for cruising and conversation.



Some people quibble about the placement of the benches (don’t ask), but night or day, folks are doing their best to turn the corner into our version of a European cafĂ©.



Homos are simple people. Give them a meeting place, and they will come. Just stay clear of the doodads. They only get in the way.