by Navneet Alang and Anshuman Idamsetty
Nav: This past summer, I lost a silly bet with my Dad, the details of which are far less important than what was wagered: the loser had to buy the other beer. Strangely though, my Dad has yet to collect on his debt.
Maybe my father is just lazy. Okay, fine, my father is just lazy. But I do wonder if I could entice my old man out more easily were there a bar where we, two South Asian dudes, might feel a bit more ‘at home’.
It got me to thinking: do we need “multicultural” or “ethnic” bars? What would one even look like? Intrigued, I consulted Ethnic Aisle collaborator and friend Anshuman Iddamsetty, and we were soon sitting down in a Bloorcourt pub trying to figure it out. What we came up with were five aspects of a bar we’d need to address: drinks, food, music, seating and decor. As it turned out, though, the more we thought about it, the more complicated things became. Here’s what we visualized:
DRINK: When it comes to booze, familiarity is important. That means any multicultural bar would have to be unusually well-stocked, keeping not only the usual local and popular brews, but among others, Tsingtao, Kingfisher, and Red Stripe. For liquor, you’d need to get more adventurous: next to scotch and gin, you’d need palm wine, Borovička, and arrack in addition to ouzo and grappa—though there is that pesky problem of sourcing these things from both the LCBO and beyond. Whether you wanted to get fancy and experiment with cocktails containing five-spice or coriander, would probably depend on how up- or downmarket you (or your clientèle) wanted to go.
Could it be done? Clearly, an exhaustive list would be impossible, but a decent array of booze from Toronto’s major ethnic groups might be plausible.
FOOD: Bar food at its best is comfort food. The trick for any mutliculti bar would be to cater to the many different forms in this city: pork buns and dumplings, samosas and pakoras, doubles and channa, izakaya/pojangmacha small plates, and more. Of course, any truly multi-culti bar would also have to dip into fusion too, whether it’s the kimchi grilled cheese or the jerk chicken quesadilla.
Could it be done? Food is the form of diversity Torontonians are most familiar with. With a short list of staples and a rotating menu, this one is totally doable.
MUSIC: Outside of spots devoted to trap or gee-tar, bar music is sort of predictable – you often know the words before you even know the song. There’s your chipped tea cup folk, your CBC-approved Canrock, and if the staff wants to wild out, a Polaris nominee sneaks by. What would a multi-culti bar sound like? Imagine a playlist of constant discovery; K-Pop rubbing shoulders with South African kwaito; Brazillian psych-rock dogging Heems’ “Soup Boys.” Where lyrics and melodies are remembered because they’re unlike anything you’ve ever heard before and omg Shazam why aren’t you working?!
Could it be done? There is this wondrous thing called internet. So yes.
SEATING: This is maybe the thing we’re most familiar when it comes to drinking and diversity. The European beer-hall table can be found at places like Wvrst or Hrvati Bar, and can encourage interaction. But small tables are more popular for a reason: we Torontonians can be a private bunch. The ideal multi-culti bar would likely have a mix of both: either a central area with large communal tables, with smaller ones as satellites all around; or separate areas of the bar: private tables inside, and communal ones under a covered patio, a la Lahore Tikka House.
Could it be done: Seating = personal space, social conventions etc. Yikes! Getting this right might be possible, but would take a very un-Toronto vibe of collaboration and chilling out.
DECOR: Toronto bars tend to oscillate between two aesthetic poles: the [INSERT ANIMAL] & Firkins – traditional, lacquered, My Guinness! – and the bespoke ale houses of the instagram set, all Brannan and filament bulbs. Curiously, both styles attempt the same trick: the sensation of some mythical Proper Space To Get Plastered. But this is why multi-culti decor has to tread carefully, because at what point do the trappings of, say, a Persian bar, become caricature? And how would first generation immigrants respond to such a space compared to the second or third? Is the ideal multi-culti bar the absence of all ethnic signifiers, or something more gonzo? We were reminded of one Ethiopian social club in Bloorcourt. Its window display is populated by exactly two things: a bike… and a plaque-mounted poster of The Fellowship of the Rings. Outside, men trade insults in their own language. This stumped us.
Could it be done? Perhaps the hardest of all, if not totally impossible?
It’s funny, but thinking about bars brought us around to the basic questions of Canadian multiculturalism: of whether the goal is a single national culture, or a collection of many; and whether inclusion means changing something mainstream, or creating something new. It turned out to be a question much too big for the two of us to answer. So we turn it over to you: would multicultural bars be a good thing? And if so, what would they be like?