While the bevy of beers and rum chasers make way for martinis and White Russians, downtown St. John’s still boasts a colourful nightlife of anything goes, for a spirited good time
by Russell Wangersky
At first light, George Street in St. John’s, NL, has a hangover. It’s empty and littered, the doors all closed and the pubs dark. The last of the streams of late-night taxicab stragglers have retreated. There is often broken glass; always cigarette butts.
There are, perhaps, prettier ways of thinking about the main drag of a downtown, but few are as apt. The area has one of the highest concentrations of pubs in Canada, and a rich history of colourful nightlife and hard partying. But the bar scene is shifting—and despite the street’s ever evolving mixture of drinks, its hangover never lasts long.
There are still seafarers fresh off the boat with money to spend—the mainstay of partiers historically—people off foreign factory-freezer trawlers and oilfield vessels, and those from the navies of Britain and Ireland, the United States and Spain. But the big business downtown now encompasses a different type of transient: conventioneers. They tend to be the new faces now, and downtown, George Street in particular, is often a highlight of a convention’s nighttime itinerary. It’s a short, wild street made up almost completely of pubs and bars and their sometimes quirky characters, the names—Greensleeves, the Sundance, the Rob Roy—now a tradition all their own. You can leave one, take a few short steps, and enter the next. A pubcrawl can be an exceedingly low-mileage affair.
It wasn’t always this way. Scattered historical accounts of the street list much more pedestrian properties on George Street: ranges of houses occupied by sailors, a smithy, a watchmaker and a cattle feed store. The family names include Parnells, Morrisseys, Powers and Squires. A family of Bishops, father and three sons all ship’s stokers.
And long-time denizens of downtown remember dark pubs whose patrons had a penchant for hard liquor, particularly rum. The Portuguese white fleet (big boats in from the Grand Banks) used to flood the Killick Lounge, Mammy Gosse’s and the Colony Club, the hard-core drinking establishments, with scores of sailors. The regular joke about some of the bars was that they had grillwork on the windows not to keep thieves out, but to keep the customers in.
One long-retired Royal Newfoundland Constabulary sergeant says that at the start of his night shifts as a beat constable years ago he’d go into every pub in the downtown, and ask at the door if there was anyone inside who wanted to fight him. If anyone did, they’d square off then and there. “That way,” he says, “you got it over with early.”
Now, though, nothing ends early. The bar scene in St. John’s often doesn’t really start to roll until well after 11 p.m., when cabs of all descriptions start swooping down towards downtown to drop off carload after carload of already warmed-up partiers, and bars don’t close until 3 a.m. or even later.
Tonight, on a damp Thursday night, George Street is alive with realtors with nametags around their necks. There is a Re/Max convention in town, and the revellers sweep in and out of pubs like their own sort of tide.
In preparation, sausage and pizza wagons leave their marshalling yard on Duckworth Street at 10:30 or 11 p.m. You can stand on the sidewalk in the misting rain and watch the hard-faced vendors load their carts. While you stand there, the cars hissing by in the wet, you can hear a no-cover three-man act called Eddy Stevens playing a martini bar called Grafenbergs; the waitresses all wear slinky black, and there’s a huge fish tank along one wall, dazzling with large tropical fish. In the summer, the garage door behind the band is rolled up, and you can hear the music right down the hill. Today, though, it’s too cold. It’s cold work for the vendors, too, all layered up behind the propane grills on top of the carts. They make the most money late at night, when people are both hungry and not so worried about spending a dollar.
It’s dim in the Fat Cat blues bar and not yet crowded; the inside is wood floors and dark walls, the bar a well-lit semi-circle against one wall. Almost all the patrons are on chairs at the bar, an oasis of people in a mostly empty room. A few stay to listen to a lone singer and his acoustic guitar, while an ironworker named Chris from the Voisey’s Bay nickel project—so far north it’s almost beyond imagining—wanders the bar, giving back and neck massages to anyone who looks remotely interested. He says he won’t be back to work at the nickel project—he’s from out west, and Voisey’s Bay is too isolated and too cold.
But Chris fits in well with the downtown’s eclectic character, the old with the new. Old-fashioned nightlife—think cigarette smoke and beer by the pint—increasingly rubs shoulders with happy hours promoting White Russians (a milk, vodka and Kahlua combination). There are wine bars and jazz clubs in a downtown that is being revitalized both commercially and residentially. The realtors would understand the concept if they weren’t all partying. Old downtown three-story homes are being refaced with traditional clapboard, retrofitted with Jacuzzi tubs and stone-tiled kitchens. Prices are going up, the vinyl siding is coming down. The city is trying on vintage clothing and finding that it fits.
Musically, something similar is happening. On the Thursday night, most of the realtors have found O’Reilly’s bar by now, and the Punters. There are four guys in the Punters, and they play an electric, pounding Celtic music that is irresistible to your feet. It’s all a lively, often booze-filled carnival, the bright lights and noise, the live music all a clear change from the steady, hard serious drinking of old downtown St. John’s.
But while it has already gone through one evolution, downtown St. John’s is looking at changing again—the bar owners on George Street are considering making the street and sidewalk all one level, with cobblestone or brick instead of asphalt. They’re thinking sidewalk cafés, a lunch crowd to complement the established throngs of nighttime visitors.
Even with the changes, traditions linger on. There are still establishments that lock the front door at last call, so those left inside can while away the hours until dawn, more companions than patrons. And there’s a strange levelling in that, a companionship that erases social structures—lawyers talk to sailors, the famous jockey with the infamous. Another hold-over: pubs still regularly have five or even six different rums—Captain Morgan, Morgan White, Navy, Bacardi, the rich but strong Old Sam, and Appleton, to name some—and most nights, a dent gets put in them all.
Off George Street bars are quirky and eclectic as well, familiar enough to fit the British model of the local. The single pool table at the Duke of Duckworth has a special, short cue for playing the side of the table near the wall, or for playing when the bar is full; the rack of pool balls has two red 3 balls and two purple 4s among the solids. There are a handful of small tables in disordered rows, rarely enough chairs, and the chairs sometimes barely hold together. A sign over the bar clearly says “No Tabs;” behind the bar, the tabs are lined up in neat rows, usually with credit cards perched at the top. There are rows of import beers on tap, as there have been since the unthinkable: a 1985 beer strike that literally shut off the taps for local beer.
At the bottom of the long and dangerous steps from the Duke is the tiny Rose and Thistle. Newfoundland ECMA-winning musician Ron Hynes is playing there, backed up only by a silent, gaunt steel guitar player with a tight-fitting black woollen watchcap. He starts his first set at 11:30 p.m. The tables are only two deep between the narrow stage and the back wall of the club, and cover’s always five bucks. When there’s a band with four or more members on stage, the performance is eerily close-quartered, like watching a dozen clowns squeeze out of a Volkswagen beetle.
After midnight the waitresses mysteriously bring out sandwich trays, a snack offered for no discernible reason.
Back at O’Reilly’s, the Punters are still playing and so many people are crowded onto the dance floor, jumping around, that you can watch your glass jumping up and down on the table, too. Chris of the massages is back, but it’s a different kind of crowd and he swims through it like a salmon going upstream, not stopping to chat. The realtors look dazed by the noise, by the press of the crowd on the dance floor, and someone from the bar is pelting T-shirts into the pulsing, jumping throng.
And dark windows in the Victorian stone buildings on Water Street look on in surprise, though they’ve seen it all before under the orange glow of the sodium arc streetlights. Up above some of the street-front restaurants there are apartments, and you watch while you eat as people reach to put dishes in the cupboard and walk from room to room.
At the Grapevine, a Water Street wine bar, the door opens and the Amazing Kreskin walks in. The famous mentalist is in town a few days early for a set of weekend shows. He is wearing a black suit with a black button-down-collar shirt, the small buttons glowing white. His tie is black; on the bottom is an open hand of playing cards, a royal flush in spades. He’s small and garrulous, his glasses too big for his face.
Big-name performers coming through town find their way into the Grapevine, into the Duke and the Ship Inn, and it’s strange the way no one makes a big deal about it. The Tragically Hip can play pool, and the room whirls around them the way it always does, the gamblers not even looking up from the gently dinging, lights-whirling spide web of the fruit machines. Snatches of conversation blow around like smoke.
Kreskin is taken with the glass-fronted cigarette machine mounted on the wall—“What is that?” he says, pointing at it and walking over to you. The long bar is topped with a sheet of copper, and it shines in the light. “Hi,” he says suddenly, grabbing your hand and shaking it hard until it feels like your arm might come loose. The light in the bar changes as each car swooshes by on the street outside.
“Hi. I’m Kreskin. What do you do?”
And you wonder, fleetingly, whether he really shouldn’t already know that. But you tell him anyway, and soon he’s standing and laughing, like a regular.
Downtown St. John’s has a way of doing that.