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Last year I took my first trip to New York City. The food choices were fantastic, the beer choices amazing. We went to museums and to Coney Island. We took a carriage ride through Central Park. We rode the merry-go-round.
But do you know what sticks out the most? A bathroom behind a bookcase. I must have walked by it three times while the bartender kept yelling at me trying to tell me where it was.
That trip got me thinking about cool, hidden spots here in Canada. We have some pretty sweet places to enjoy all those fancy beers and cocktails that are surfing such a wave of popularity recently.
I’m even happier to tell you that there is one in my current hometown of Ottawa - The Staff Room. It took me a while to get there since I often work when it is open. It's one of the downsides of being a chef — we work all the ‘good’ hours for socializing at night. But it was worth the wait for this hidden gem.
The Staff Room, Ottawa, Ontario
Walking through Union Local 613 to get to The Staff Room in the basement only added to my excitement.
I love the speakeasy vibe. You pull out a bookcase ... and there's the bar. What a great place to unwind and enjoy a well crafted drink or a microbrew made on the premises. Take that, other speakeasies! Friendly staff and some of the city’s best food. Once you walk through that door, the great selection of premium spirits, passionate and knowledgeable bartenders, and the right environment for conversation all combine to make it a great experience.
The old exposed piano sitting off to the side makes it easy to imagine yourself finding the way to an illegal watering hole and enjoying some cheap entertainment during the days of prohibition. During that time alcohol might well have been distilled or brewed by the owner of the speakeasy. As a homebrewer myself, I have a weak spot for this kind of commitment to the craft. The fact that Dog and Pony Brewlab brew right on the premises and serve up their delicious beer is even more incentive for me to swing by and see what is new!
From east to west, here are some more of Canada's fascinating "secret" bars.
The Noble, Halifax, Nova Scotia
This place has it all — a secret password, a hard-to-find entrance, and stiff drinks. To get into The Noble, you need to travel through another restaurant called The Middle Spoon. Some suggest bringing a guide to navigate your way there. Once inside you will get to enjoy skillfully made cocktails, soft jazz and décor to match.
Big In Japan Bar, Montreal, Quebec
Big In Japan Bar is so great that many people won't give away the address. And this bar is not to be confused with its larger sibling, Big In Japan. You want the one around the side with no signage except some red writing on the door. If you can find it, you're in for some tasty looking food and an incredible selection of Japanese whiskey.
Blind Tiger, Winnipeg, Manitoba
A winner in the best name category — "blind tiger" was coined in the 1800's to describe illegal bars that kept operating in defiance of temperance laws. The name makes me think of a super hero. Blind Tiger is a mild mannered coffee shop by day and a secret, wall-accessed bar by night. The drinks and food both seem to get the same amount of love, which is alright by me.
Nightjar, Edmonton, Alberta
You need to receive a text message to get into this place. I like that modern touch on an old concept. Nightjar has lots of couches and armchairs so this is a place you can get cozy with a big group of friends. They pride themselves on efficiency serving large numbers but they're also willing to accommodate special requests at the bar.
The Narrow Lounge, Vancouver, British Columbia
This tiny hole-in-the-wall is well patronized despite the lack of signage. Look for a red light at the corner of Main and 3rd. They offer a nice long drink list and a small menu that is sure to please just about everyone. The Narrow Lounge scores big for having a tiki bar out back during the summer.
I’ve done most of the heavy lifting for you now. Get yourself out and try to find one of these places. You'll have an adventure.