I remember my days as a university student fondly. Drinking, studying, partying, learning. They were an excellent five months, at which point I dropped out. I still worship fraternities, cheap and disgusting beer and the beloved college bar. Where else can a just-out-of-Mom-and-Dad's-house freshman drunkenly and wildly cut loose, accompanied by the music of the Barenaked Ladies and Dave Matthews?
So, in a fit of nostalgia, I decide to revisit the top college pubs in the downtown area.
The evening's first stop is the Peel Pub (276 King West, at John, 416-977-0003) where pitchers are $6.99 Wednesday and Sunday and martinis $5 Thursday. I've brought my friend B. because it would be lonely and creepy to drink pitchers of Canadian all by myself. Stepping into the place, we're greeted by the sounds of Deee-Lite and Ce Ce Peniston, putting us into a hypnotic state of childlike pleasure. The space is divided into two rooms: a smoking area that's set up like an airport bar, complete with a crushing sense of melancholic depression, and a non-smoking banquet-hall-style room where the partying is intended to take place.
The room's DJ is also an MC of sorts, speaking into a cordless mike in a frantic effort to ramp up the partying, making semi-lewd remarks to a group of girls celebrating a friend's birthday and resorting to emergency party music like Thriller and When Doves Cry. Although this bar is ostensibly aimed at students, most of the patrons seem older and desperate to hang on to the glories of days past. There's even a small flyer announcing an event every Sunday where customers are encouraged to bring their school jerseys to relive their college days.
The Madison (14 Madison, at Bloor, 416-927-1722) has a completely different look. Spanning the breadth of two buildings, with four floors and four patios, this epicentre of the frat community overflows with boisterous folk. Tonight, one room features a fellow armed with an acoustic guitar offering U2 covers, but that's pretty much the extent of the music.
Drinks are not quite dirt cheap - a domestic bottle is $4.85, a pint $5.65, and the clientele reflects that. The well-lubricated customers, all of whom wear beaded necklaces, include boys so well coiffed and groomed that they look like upscale lesbians, while the girls seem ready for a good time, although not with me.
One man, who has a bleached-blond comb-over shoddily spiked with some form of hair glue, has followed us from place to place like a stray puppy. His constant presence is oddly comforting. Still, after a few beers at the Madison we want to escape him.
The natural next destination is the historical and infamous Ye Olde Brunswick House (481 Bloor West, at Brunswick, 416-964-2242). Two years ago a typical night would have involved the portly, aptly named DJ Heavy insisting the crowd "swallow it all the fucking way down, Toronto!" as he played mainstream rap and dance hits to a bevy of freshman girls and aged frat boys. The night would often peak with a few ladies hopping onto the bar and showing their thongs or breasts for a free drink pitcher, often to the beat of Sisqó's Thong Song and Heads High by Spragga Benz.
My expectations are high upon returning here, but a recent change has resulted in a slight Disneyfication of the Brunny. A brand new staff and set of DJs means that DJ Heavy's paunchy form now resides at a competing bar, O'Grady's, on Thursdays. The floor still looks like that of a bathroom in a public park. Also, the males outnumber the females here to a greater degree than elsewhere - crowds of boys surround the few female dance-floor stragglers. The blond comb-over guy's here, too. The vibe's surprisingly resigned. But check out the beer prices - 6 oz. drafts for $1.25, pints for $4.50 and $11.50 pitchers, tax included.
We head home, defeated by the lack of drinking songs and youthful revelry that we'd prepared for.
With the double cohort, many new university students aren't even old enough to get into bars. These spots could wind up being meeting places for people fresh out of university. It's a mature version of the adult baby phenomenon - instead of putting on diapers, 30-something ex-students dance badly to the Proclaimers while chugging dirty pints.