by Jodie James Elliott
Bring Your Own Lunch is a new series that visits bars and locals around the city that do not serve food. You are thereby welcome to bring your own.
It is an unattractive little shack in Kensington Market with an aluminum siding façade. Along its eastern, graffitied exterior is a phalanx of recycling and trash bins, stowed away in an inaccessible little courtyard and plastered in pigeon shit. Attached to its western exterior is a music store where, on Sunday afternoons from the sun-blasted patio, you can hear teenaged boys testing their repertoire of awkward riffs on electric guitars. An outsider may dismiss it at first glance as being a bit sketchy, and keep on walking. But this is because the outsider is unable to see what is actually taking place here, and what makes Ronnie’s special. It is more than just a bar popular among its staunch regulars, it is a successful example of a functioning social space.
Other bloggers have been duped by the signage of the well-known watering hole. I have not. It reads: Ronnie’s Local 069, established 1958. It turns out this does not refer to the bar itself, but to the father of one of the proprietors. 1958 being the year of his birth, he died two years before the bar opened in 2005, and is thus honored by his namesake. Before Ronnie’s the bar, it was called Peppers – not a bar at all but a small Portuguese diner. The industrial-sized cook vent still hides in plain view, on the ceiling at the front of the bar along with stainless steel splash guard still in tact. These features now host an array of post-tongue-in-cheek adornment: a Polaroid of adults posing with Santa Claus at Jane Finch Mall; a bar towel commemorating Pope John-Paul II, and one of the Kennedys; a record of 1970s BBC comedy duo, The Two Ronnies (oh, I get it now!); and so on. On the beer fridge, more Polaroids of staff mingling with clientele. The walls are papered with anaglypta and painted dark colours, adding a vague historic feeling to the interior. This is a lived-in space.
But it is not historically lived in. Long before Ronnie’s, and before greasy chicken cutlets sizzled under the cook vent at Pepper’s, back when service industries came second to resource, the purpose of this little aluminum-sided shack was to house live chickens. Of course, live chickens were common in the Market up until the late 1970s. Neighbourhood butchers ensured freshness by slaughtering chickens according to Kosher ritual and, like many of the shops in the Market still do today, they supplied Toronto’s restaurants. Historically speaking, then, Ronnie’s is about as Kensington Market as it gets.
The chickens have since flown the coop and are now to be found in factory farms, isolated in rural communities, and hidden away from the duteous gaze of the urban dweller (though we may now suspect they were probably happier in the city ranging freely in their little alleyway courtyards). In their place, the humans who now flock to Ronnie’s may bring their own feed – most commonly they can be seen enjoying an elaborate grilled cheese sandwich served in little red baskets with a side of chips and a pickle. These are provided by the grilled cheese diner across the street. Pop in to place your order, then go get your pint at Ronnie’s and take a seat. By the time you’re settled in, your sandwich will be delivered directly. This is an example of entrepreneurial symbiosis that, as far as I know, doesn’t exist anywhere else in the city.
For those who prefer a lighter meal, or who are perhaps a little intolerant of all that gluten and lactose, grain and salad bowls are available at Urban Herbivore on the corner of Oxford and Augusta. Served in an unbleached biodegradable papery-pulp take-out bowl, and clear, compostable-plastic lid (compostable in the geological sense, I suppose), these vegan dishes are popping up all over the city, and are thus increasing in price. About three months ago, a take-out meal at Urban Herbivore was priced at $10 and included five toppings of your choice. Now the base price is $12 and you have to pay extra for ‘premium’ toppings. Super prices for super foods.
On my way to Ronnie’s, I like to stop in at Cheese Magic on Baldwin. This is the best of the two cheesemongers in the Market. The guys behind the counter may be young, but they know their cheese. If you are so inclined to ask, they are more than happy to offer a brief history of a particular cheese as they offer samples. A few cheeses I recommend include Ossau Iraty, a ewe’s-milk cheese from the Basque region of France; Avonlea, a clothbound cheddar from PEI (this one has a great story behind it); and Prima Donna, actually a Dutch cheese inspired by Italian cheese masters. All of these pair well with a $6 pint of Stratford Pilsner. The cheese, the grain bowl, maybe even a Jamaican goat patty, you can bring anything you like for a snack. The point is not to take it too seriously. I’ve even once ordered a pizza.
When the weather is good, the patio is packed. The overflow of patrons who have arrived a little late wait inside, keeping an eye on things through the window, until an outside seat becomes available. When it rains, the indoor atmosphere is jovial. The bartenders know their patrons by name and drink of choice, and they keep a stack of first- and second-generation iPods behind the bar for music. I would love to mine these musical archives, but I have been here often enough to know the playlists include a diverse range of selections such as The Stranglers, Dead Kennedys, Wire, My Bloody Valentine, The Cramps, and Syd Barrett. I can usually tell who’s tending the bar on any given day by what’s playing when I walk through the door.
What makes Ronnie’s work is that it doesn’t serve food. Let me explain. Both the interior and exterior spaces are small but occupied by large tables. In a restaurant, a couple on a date would occupy a single table exclusively, and any overflow of patrons would be required to wait in queue on the sidewalk. But at Ronnie’s, not only are new arrivals able to share a table with strangers, they must. It is this spatial layout, liberated from customary dining rituals, that facilitates this kind of social integration. I can drop by without making plans to meet anyone in particular and squeeze myself in on one of the patio’s crowded picnic tables. After a pint or two, everyone is getting along like old friends. To the average passersby, it may appear as if everyone at Ronnie’s knows each other. That’s because it doesn’t take long before they do.