In this week’s column, I answered one of the most frequently asked questions that I get, which is “What do YOU drink.” I imagine that anyone with a beer blog or column gets that question quite a bit. Most people go with the tried and tested answer “a lot of different things, depending on…” and then there’s a brief period where they name variables like whether it’s the third Tuesday in the month or which direction the wind is blowing.
I’ve answered the question with the choice of the moment. That’s different than having a favorite beer, by the way. My suspicion has always been that everyone who writes about beer probably has a favorite beer, but that since it is massively impolitic to answer the question, we’re allowed to get away with proportional amounts of prevarication.
The other question that I get a lot is “Well, where do you drink?”
I get around. I’ve been to most of the beer bars in Toronto at one point or another, and I have to say that I’m generally happiest in my local pub. This was not always the case. One of the reasons that I became a beer writer was because my local pub inexplicably went downhill at some point in 2007. I ended up hanging out at Bar Volo instead, which is the kind of place that just drills beer information into you and convinces you to take pen in hand.
The Bow and Arrow, as it was then, had some serious problems. First of all, it’s a relatively large pub and it seats something like a hundred at a time, and probably more than that if it’s busy. By the time the Bow and Arrow was on its last legs, there might have been 20-30 people in at once on a Friday night. It was maudlin. The carpets hadn’t been replaced in living memory and the pub had acquired that stale beer smell that goes along with that condition. The food had gone downhill. It was caught in a miserable spiral of less income leading to less upkeep leading to less income.
It was Brutal. If you had wanted to write a textbook on running a place into the ground, you could have looked at the Bow and Arrow at its nadir and worked backwards for your narrative.
At some point about three years ago, it became The Twisted Kilt. People periodically misread that and think that I’m talking about the Tilted Kilt chain of breastaraunts that are creeping into the Ontario market. Just the other day David Ort asked me whether I worried what people thought when I updated Untappd from a place like that. I wasn’t really upset that he thought I would frequent a place where the waitresses excuse a certain amount of obscene leering for a 25% tip. I was upset that he was impugning my pub. (For the record, I don’t care how good people claim the wings at Hooters are. Being a server in a pub is hard enough without having to display your décolletage for douchebags.)
The Twisted Kilt, while occupying the same space that the Bow and Arrow occupied, could provide a different textbook entirely. It has been building up relatively constantly for a few years now, and this is mostly due to having good management. The owner, John, is the kind of guy who looks at his enterprise on a nearly daily basis and attempts to decide what he can improve. This is a good quality in a pub owner.
Take the beer selection, for instance. When he started out the variety of stuff on tap was a bit samey. There were some standard Ontario offerings. There were some English Ales and some Euro Lagers. It wasn’t a very interesting lineup. At some point subtle changes started to be made. A crop of Paulaner lagers showed up one month along with a new beer tower.
Nowadays, when I go in there, he’s always got something to show me. They’re starting to get beers on tap before the other pubs in Toronto. He’s got Ommegang Hennepin. He’s got Maredsous. He’s got Hofbrau Munchen and Black Oak Pale Ale; a one-two sessionability punch that I’m not sure you can beat. It’s one of the most balanced tap lineups I’ve seen in town. Not European for the sake of being European. Not Craft for the sake of being Craft. It’s more or less one of everything.
He’s working on getting a selection of bottles of Belgian beer in. I haven’t seen the list recently, but I remember that some of the bottles were things no one else has. Part of the draw is the value for money. Duvel’s on at $6.50 a bottle (the regulars are now apparently going through about two cases a week). Westvleteren 12 is priced at $20.00. I popped in on Thursday night and he asked me whether I thought Green Flash in bottles was a good idea. The week before that, he was showing me pictures of the new chairs the pub will get in a few weeks. I have rarely seen a grown man so excited by chairs.
Of course, it’s not just about the beer. He’s managed to hire good people and keep them on. All of the bartenders have been there since the day the pub opened, which is something I don’t believe I’ve seen elsewhere. Turnover amongst the servers is fairly low as well. The food continues to improve, having gotten to the point where it’s near becoming a gastropub. I’ve gotten to the point where I trust them enough that I just order the special if I’m staying for dinner.
If you ask people about the beer scene in Toronto fifteen years ago, they’d probably mention that the Bow and Arrow was one of the highlights and that its sister pub The Woolwich Arms in Guelph was great too. I was at the Bow and Arrow fifteen years ago, and I can tell you that the Twisted Kilt is better than the Bow and Arrow ever was. It hit that mark about three months ago and it’s climbing steadily. It bustles. Wednesday through Saturday, it hums the way a neighbourhood pub ought to. They’re going to have to open the second floor.
It took me a long time to write about The Twisted Kilt because there are really appealing qualities in having a neighbourhood pub that isn’t a destination. For one thing, it is just barely sparsely populated enough that I usually get the same stool. That’s not going to last forever. It keeps getting better in minutely perceptible ways on a weekly basis and eventually quality will out. As a beer nerd, it’s fun to watch the progression. For me, it’s practically like a spectator sport. I don’t know that it’s one of the best pubs in the city yet, but if it keeps ticking along as it has it will be soon.