It was last call at Allen’s, the classic neighbourhood bar on the Danforth in Toronto’s east end. And not just any last call. The last call before the city went into the deepest lockdown since the start of the pandemic last spring. The last call before the Christmas season. The last call, perhaps, of the miserable excuse for a year called 2020.
The morning’s wet snow had turned to a cold steady rain that fell with a rat-a-tat-tat on the newly installed plastic roof of Allen’s legendary patio. Like hundreds of bars and restaurants around Toronto, Allen’s had been told to close its doors as of one minute past midnight, the official start of a lockdown that is shuttering everything from gyms to nail bars to museums.
For at least the next 28 days, no patrons will be allowed to sit on the patio, with its massive willow tree and chalkboard beer menu. Allen’s will offer takeout and bottle service, that’s it. So, by all rights, this should have been a dismal evening.
In a corner of the patio, three Allen’s loyalists – Toni Weber, 33; Chris White, 34; and Tyler Fick, 34 – sat having a final drink before bar service ended at 9 p.m. – last call. All of them have been coming to Allen’s for years. Mr. Fick has been coming since he was 6.
What was happening to Allen’s was sad and frustrating, they agreed. They weren’t happy about how the lockdown was being rolled out, even though it was the right thing to do. Why, they wondered, were Wal-Mart and Costco staying open while small businesses such as Allen’s are forced to turn people away? Why weren’t authorities giving more help to struggling restaurant workers and owners?
But they weren’t at Allen’s to gripe. They were there to talk, laugh, support a place they love and enjoy the Manhattans made by bartender Nolan Crampsie – the best Manhattans, they insisted, in the known world. Joints like Allen’s, Mr. Fick said, are worth preserving in a world of chain stores and fast food. Allen’s “is a beautiful thing,” the sort of place that “exists until it’s gone.”
As the evening wore on, owner Amalan Vijeyaratnam, 30, came over to join them. He gave up a job in finance to run the place after his father, an immigrant from Sri Lanka who is the long-time Allen’s chef, bought it from the previous owner a few years ago.
It was, and still is, a Danforth institution. With its dark wood floors, checkered tablecloths, 340 kinds of whisky and 140 brands of beer, it often drew 200 customers a night during pre-COVID times. It had 40 staff then. Only about a quarter of them remain. Mr. Vijeyaratnam paid a pretty penny to build the roof over his patio, only to see it made redundant, at least for now, when the government halted even patio dining.
But Allen’s is better prepared for lockdown than it was the last time around, he said. Lockdown is painful, but this time everyone seems to be saying, “It’s something we have to do and we’ll see you on the other side.”
That attitude seemed to be pretty widespread in Toronto as it went into lockdown. Shoppers crowded into malls to do holiday shopping and lined up outside supermarkets to stock up on food over the weekend. Hairdressers were taking final customers right into Sunday evening. There was sadness at the prospect of reduced social contact and a much reduced holiday season, but little sign of panic or despair. “It is what it is,” said Mr. Crampsie, closing up the bar for the last time. His girlfriend, Nadaa Hyder, said the months of pandemic “taught us to roll with the punches.”
As his 10 p.m. closing time approached, Mr. Vijeyaratnam started shutting down the propane patio heaters. Despite everything, the night hadn’t been so dismal after all. He preferred to think of it as “a joyous last hurrah” before better times return.
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