Big Country, Small World

Turns out, our neighbors to the north know how to throw a party — and everyone’s invited
It’s almost closing time at The Imperial Pub and Tavern near Dundas Square in Toronto. I came here on the rumor that tabs are sometimes settled by arm wrestling, though there’s no evidence of that tonight.

No matter. There’s no leaving this place. The jukebox is filled with jazz records, and the atmosphere says dirty, local pub, not snooty jazz club. It is amazing how great jazz sounds when mixed with the ambience of barked cuss words and sloshing pints slammed on tables.

The Imperial was recommended by a Toronto newspaper reporter and friend known to have an affinity for unique places, and she’s adding to the din of swear words while pouring beer in everyone’s glass. She describes Dundas Square as the Times Square of Toronto, but honestly it feels more like Cleveland’s Public Square with a touch of East Fourth Street.

Upstairs, books fill the bar’s walls. Conversations jump from table to table. A Scottish man tells the story of hanging out in a hot tub with Barack Obama in Hawaii. (For what it’s worth, he says Obama is a cool guy.) This turns into a political conversation about the United States, the weak U.S. dollar and how Canadian politics affect the United States, spoken with so much self-deprecation that it’s almost embarrassing. “No, really! Canada is important,” I say, probably trying too hard to sound like I mean it.

These drunks know their international news. Had I not recently re-upped my subscription toThe New York Times, I would have been lost. Had I not re-upped my pint so many times to the pitcher, I might have been better able to contribute.

It’s here, in this bar, that I realize how much of an international experience this truly has been. This city is closer to Cleveland than Chicago, and if you let your guard down, you’ll get the full enjoyment of being in a foreign country, with its own culture, its own accent and its own fascination with Americans. That statement, of course, is incredibly American-centric, but don’t worry: They expect that out of us anyway. Really, you can only come off looking better than our collective reputation.

And of all the times to visit, the summertime, when a number of festivals take place, is the time to do it.

I’m staying at the Fairmont Royal York hotel, one of the oldest, most regal hotels in town. Heck, the Queen of England stayed here. (She is also technically the Queen of Canada. Crazy monarchies!)

But the real reason to visit this place is EPIC, one of five restaurants inside. And really, you just need to try one dish: crispy peekytoe crab cake with ahi tuna. These buggers cost $20 — and they’re an appetizer — but the mix of crab and ahi with an amazing mustardy sauce is worth every cent.

Plus, the waiters know their stuff. Our server dares me to abandon my staple Glenmorangie for a Glenlivet, and it works well with the food. This restaurant is where I start my adventure, the hearty meal meant to line my stomach for the beer festival.

The Canadians in attendance at Toronto’s Festival of Beer are happy to guide visitors away from Canada’s crap beers and toward the good ones. More than 30,000 people attend this festival, so be prepared to be a little crowded. And buy tickets in advance. It was sold out when we went.

You pay $1 a token, and they’re supposed to give you a 4-ounce sample. But this is Canada, so most of the hosts just pour 8 ounces and give you a wink. There are hundreds of beer tents inside, and it’s surprising how many varieties of Labatt exist, but save your alcohol tolerance for more adventurous choices such as Steelback, Big Rock and Steam Whistle.

One warning: If you can’t stand drunken young people, this probably is a festival you want to hit in the early afternoon. Even by early evening, the party gets out of hand. From my notebook at 8 p.m.:

Drunk Chick: So this gay guy starts kissing me ...

Dude: Was he enjoying it?

Chick: Yeah.

Dude: Maybe he isn’t gay.

Chick: I turned a gay guy straight?!

Dude: Do you think maybe he wasn’t gay but just wanted to kiss you?

Chick: [Silent]

As a rule, if the banter reaches this low, I opt to find a new locale. Based on the unintelligible scribblings in my notebook, we’ll have to forgo how I ended up back at the Royal York, bracing for the next day’s Hot and Spicy Festival.

This festival is the perfect spot to hit for an early lunch. When I arrive, I quickly learn the most important rule pertaining to the Hot and Spicy Festival: Follow the longest lines. Go for a short line, and you might get food that’s a little too authentic (i.e. small bones mixed in your meat).

After you grab some grub, plop down in front of the outdoor stage and listen to the Caribbean music. The locals even recognize the songs. I ask a woman about it as her son dances in his diapers. She shrugs, saying Canadians appreciate many cultures outside their own.

The next day, after a night that produces more unintelligible scribblings, I head to Krinos Taste of the Danforth.

This is the “it” festival in Toronto. It’s a Greek festival in a Greek neighborhood. More than 1 million people show up every year to the three-day event. And even though the festival is Greek, you’ll see dim sum and empanadas sold along the street. There are crafts from just about every culture. People in Toronto totally Canadianized the festival. No longer is it a festival to celebrate just one culture.

The size is reason enough to go. There’s more than a mile’s worth of closed off streets. And even though rain started to fall, people still couldn’t walk away. With all the festivals going on in town, this was the one everyone talked about. It would be akin to missing Cleveland’s rib cook-off.

On my last day in town, as I head for the airport, I yearn for one last trip to the Imperial Pub. Toronto’s multiculturalism is evident in the many festivals I spent my trip attending, but it seems to hit home even more when rubbing elbows with everyday folks who buy into the idea. Instead of being cautious about the differences, they’re excited. And that’s something worth bringing back to Cleveland.

But let’s be honest: More than anything, I want to see if I can get my tab paid with an arm-wrestling match.

Stay at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, 100 Front St. W.; 1-800-257-7544 or
Attend your favorite festival:
The Festival of Beers (Aug. 7-10):
The Hot & Spicy Festival (Aug., TBD):
Taste of the Danforth (Aug., TBD):
For more summer festivals in Toronto, go to

Don’t miss The Imperial Pub and Tavern, 54 Dundas E.; (416) 977-4667.
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