What is a Multicultural Bar?


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?


6 thoughts on “What is a Multicultural Bar?

  1. This is a terrific post. Another factor to consider is sports. The one time I really see multicultural crowds at bars/cafes in Vancouver is when there’s a big soccer game. Or playoff hockey. For good or bad, the colours of the team add to the sense of common ground, making an establishment more accessible to everyone (but those who hate watching sports).

  2. Another approach to decor could be the more liminal type space of airports, waiting rooms or ‘continental’ restaurants. By making the place no place would allow it to be anyplace. Now, would you like to get drunk in those spaces?

    If like the seating there were satellite areas of ethnic markers or even broad strokes (i.e. Slavic cultures share eagles and colours, East Asian motifs, English/European pub dark woods) might make for an interesting but maybe too gimmicky environment. If this was done well, it could work.

  3. Your post proposes something so original and compelling, and because of the way you frame it by enumerating the five aspects then bowling them down, your argument is convincing and I actually, really hope this bar materializes. But I think, if it does, it will turn out to be either a great hit or an epic fail. Well-intentioned inclusive agendas tend to encounter more frustration than appreciation. The premise is the desire to feel “at home.” An abstraction of this desire bases itself on the politics of representation. Patrons would want to feel represented, or their ethnicities recognized by a certain set of signifiers that, ideally, spread evenly across the five aspects (although an even spread of each luckily chosen ethnicity across each of the five aspects would be an insurmountable challenge for the establishment). The best representation any patron would probably get would be a fragment, here and there. One would be excited to see the sinigang on the menu and then resent the imprecision of the flavour. Then the wonder sets in of whom this sinigang is actually for. Who owns the establishment and what kind of resources are they accessing? What gets lots in the translation between accessing information about a culture and executing it? How can the execution of this bar not resemble tokenism on drugs? Will the seating arrangements become a microcosm of ghettoization? One suggestion I would make about the decor would be to hang a large poster copy of Canada’s Multiculturalism Act that has undergone a severe close reading, marked and annotated heavily with a thick red pen, pointing to moments of performative contradiction that reproduce and widen the line between margin and centre, a widening that undoes the very inclusion it has attempted to articulate through its very articulation. That kind of irony would secure the hipster demographic for sure.

    Chances are, if a patrons wanted to feel at home they would go a monogamously racialized restaurant and eat their own food and drink their own drinks, without having to perform the imperatives of equal representation for the unmarked Torontonian Other to bear witness. Now, what if the premise wasn’t a desire to feel “at home”? This establishment would then flourish, for then we could all enjoy a teensy taste of so, so many (o)thers. I would taste the sinigang, reject it in great offense, then come back for that delicious-but-not-too-spicy curry, while rejoicing in the fact that I am eating this curry next to a full plate of injera and wat. The ideal clientele, then, the clientele this establishment will unconsciously be aiming at, and whose risk of being offended is least among the lot, comprises of those who are not racially marked: white people, in other words. While the racially marked signifiers of this bar come out into relief in an afro-indo-nordic?-indigeno-asian fusion (that’s HGTV’s Restaurant Makeover on drugs), the representations of white ethnicities would recede into Toronto’s predominantly unmarked night life, and we would be entering a reductively exoticized space. And if that relief effect doesn’t happen, no doubt someone would express resentment, because ‘white people get enough representation, why take up space in this small and unique bar that I can feel at home in?’

    On second thought, the irony of the Multiculturalism Act poster would undermine all of these concerns, and it would become a necessary addition to a distinctly Torontonian night life.

  4. Pingback: Would a Multicultural Bar Actually Just Be For White People? | The Ethnic Aisle

  5. Pingback: Would a Multicultural Bar Actually Just Be For White People? | cdnimm headlines

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