Behind the tiny pink snack shop is a sprawling cocktail spot featuring Chinese small plates and retro decor
MAHJONG BAR (1276 Dundas West, at Dovercourt, 647-291-6097, facebook.com/mahjongbar) is by no means Toronto’s first secret bar. Others, most notably Kensington backroom Cold Tea and Mahjong’s neon-lit neighbour Unlovable, have gone from cult hangout to requisite box ticked in every local bar guide (in short, not a secret at all).
But Mahjong might just have more of the hidden-bar secret sauce – that zero-to-100, through-the-looking-glass wow factor – than any of its predecessors.
Begin in a tiny front room, painted ballet-pink (because it’s 2017). A wall rack of prepackaged mass-market snacks – KD boxes, White Rabbit candies and Cheetos (the crunchy kind, as the good lord intended) – bounces the lavender glare from a neon sign reading “Cocktails.” A yellow glow emanates from the beer fridge behind the glass-and-wood counter stuffed with vintage copies of Penthouse and a few Korean beauty products.
To the left of the desk: a curtain made of smoke-grey vinyl, translucent enough for a sliver of red light to hazily wink through.
You turn the corner, pass through a glowing red keyhole-shaped entrance, and it’s Narnia – or, rather, an expansive back room decked out in Twin Peaks-worthy checkered floors, deep wood and opulent metallics, with red lights from an imposing antique bar shelf gleaming off a lacquered mural of palm fronds painted in soothing greens.
In short, the place is a jaw-dropper. And, of course, if you were standing outside the front door in a nondescript row of bars on Dundas West, you’d never know it was there.
“All the people I’ve talked to are like, ‘We don’t tell people we’re bringing what’s inside,’” says Josh LeBlanc, who previously co-owned Track and Field and is one of four partners in the space.
Andrew Perry, the former GM of restaurant Home of the Brave, chimes in: “‘We’re just going to get beers.’ ‘What’s the place like?’ ‘Oh, don’t worry about it. We’re just getting beers.’”
Kyle Wong and Emily Blake round out the team of friends behind Mahjong. Blake and LeBlanc are dating, and Wong is LeBlanc’s ex-roommate all four poured their “perfect bar” daydreams into the former sports bar.
The idea for a secret entrance came from LeBlanc and Blake’s travels. “There was one bar [in Paris] that we walked past on the street like three times with our phones out, walking halfway into people’s houses a couple of times, trying to find the right entrance – and then once you actually do it, it’s really rewarding,” she says.
But the Chinese-mid-century vibe of the back bar is direct from Cosy Restaurant & Tavern, the St. Catharines restaurant owned and operated by Wong’s family, where more than one game of mahjong went down in the back room after hours with his mom and aunts.
“It wasn’t a matter of if, so much as when I’d follow in the footsteps of what my grandfather had done [opening the restaurant],” Wong says. “A lot of the aesthetic is blended from things that were very much a part of my childhood or ingrained in my memory – these fixtures that had been made in this completely different era.”
The Cosy opened in the mid-60s, and many of the original furnishings and design features still decorate the space, including a red-lit keyhole entrance just like the one in the bar. (“It’s really fun to see his family members come in – they lose their minds,” Blake says.)
Another feature that was top of mind – particularly for LeBlanc and Perry – was the cocktail program. The result is fun without being over-the-top kitschy tropical, herbaceous and salty flavours abound. The Peach Panther is a low-ABV sipper that pairs salted watermelon and soju with a dash of fino sherry for the pineapple and lime-based Tropic Thunder, they infuse rum with coconut oil overnight for that fresh-off-the-beach taste without all the Malibu sugar.
But by the group’s own admission, they weren’t quite prepared for the vicissitudes of running a kitchen, so they roped in two more pals – Tricia and Lauren Soo of Ossington Malaysian snack spot Soos – to design the food program. The resulting dishes` are riffs on Chinese favourites like Shanghai beef noodles and pork and shrimp dumplings, served in bar-snack-appropriate portions.
After the kitchen closes at midnight, you can of course slay your munchies with a pack of Twizzlers in the front shop, which they refer to as “the bodega.”
Those familiar with the recent (and thorough) online roasting of a vending-machine startup with the same name might find that an awkward choice, but, as Blake explains, “part of the reason we call it a bodega is that it will at some point have food that isn’t just chips. One of our ideas was to do some really souped-up instant noodles for late night, in that spirit of the New York bodega where you can have a beer in the window seat and a bowl of noodles, and you can buy your beauty products.”
How about a sheet mask to stave off tomorrow morning’s puffy circles?
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