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What Really Grinds My Gears: Kid-friendly bars

Kathy Shaidle of Five Feet of Fury links to a report of an interesting phenomenon: Gen X and Millenial parents feel comfortable enough to drag their stroller-bound young ‘uns to bars:

Millennial and Gen X parents are changing child-rearing expectations to remain as close to pre-kid life as possible — so much so that meeting up with friends for drinks is low-key enough to bring the kids (NYTimes.com 2.10.08).

This is the sheerest sort of lunacy.  Let us all remind ourselves of what happens in bars.

  • People drink alcohol and eat food.
  • Sometimes they also listen loud music and play games.
  • In a drunken haze, people also try to solve the problems of the world and/or pick up somebody of the opposite sex.
  • With enough alcohol, some people can get loud, uncoordinated, belligerent, horny, or all of the above.

Parents considering dragging their kids to a bar should carefully consider the following questions:

  • Name one seemingly insurmountable problem facing the world that you solemnly swear your child will undertake to solve after said child has consumed no less than three pints of beer.  If the kid can’t hold their beer you may substitute three drams of single-malt scotch.
  • What is the maximum number of cuss words—and at what volume—your child will be permitted to hear before the bar ceases to be appropriate?
  • What is the maximum number (or nature) of sexual exploits—and at what volume—your child will be permitted to hear before the bar ceases to be appropriate?
  • What is the maximum number of poorly aimed darts, errant cue balls, or spilled drinks your child will be permitted to endure before the bar ceases to be appropriate?
  • How many times are you willing to get kicked in the nads by other patrons by telling them to “watch their language” or “pipe down” or “don’t launch the cue ball off the table” because your child is present—against all logic and reason—in the bar.  Where adults congregate.  And talk about adult things.  At adult volume.  Drinking things only adults are permitted to be served.

You get the basic idea.

Look, there is a place where adults and kids can gather together and the adults can enjoy a drink in a fully-controlled environment where the kid will not overhear undesired swear words, sexual content, or have any contact with random non-conscientious strangers.  It’s called Your Own Damn Living Room with Treehouse on the TV.  Learn to love it.

A few years ago I toured Spadina House, a grand old Edwardian mansion next door to Casa Loma.  The original owners, the Austin family, had some fairly strict rules about certain areas of the house.  Children and women were not permitted in the billiard room, because that is where the adult males smoked, cussed, consumed alcohol and—presumably—acted with typical lack of good judgment and graces, as men can do when they get sufficiently liquored up.  The one day the whole family was allowed in was Christmas morning, when dad would get all decked out in the Father Christmas outfit and distribute presents.

I tend to think that in some ways they got it right.  While this is not necessarily a good template for our gender-equal times, there is something to be said for keeping adult activities and child activities separated.  For most sensible people, never the twain shall meet, and wanting to mash the two together just seems absurd and pointless.

Porter Airlines

Random observations from the flight:

No surly flight attendants.  Air Canada, take note.  Also, dig those pillbox hats.

It’s quiet. On the DH4 (Dash 8-Q400), I would estimate there’s about a 60-70% reduction in engine / airflow noise compared to the original DH1 (Dash 8-100).  You can actually carry on a conversation at normal volume, which would be unthinkable in its predecessors.  The only downside is that if there are crying/screaming brats on your flight, you will be able to hear them quite clearly, too.

Stupid BlackBerry tricks: I have no idea why the BlackBerry’s camera is trying to tell me that the aircraft is a many-tentacled Japanese manga monster.  Contrary to the image (below, on the left), the fuselage is not spontaneously growing another set of propeller blades and those are not prop-tentacles snaking their way out into the slipstream.

Beside it (below, on the right) is the six-bladed composite Dowty propeller as seen via a real camera, with absolutely no tentacle-porn content.

img00007 dsc_0006

Incidentally, Dowty Propellers has a long and honourable history as a British manufacturer of prop blades and parts.  It is now a component of GE Aviation.

Porter’s in-flight meal box. Contains one turkey-and-swiss sandwich on whole-wheat submarine-style bread, one roundel of Mini Babybel cheese, one piece of Melba toast, and one double chocolate chip cookie.  Libation options include soft drinks, water, or wine.  Note that drinks are served in actual glasses, not disposable plastic cups.

Contrast that with Air Canada Jazz’ usual snack option of stale pretzels, a soft drink, and no booze and no cheese.

dsc_0007 img00010

What the hell is all this white stuff doing on the ground already?  When I left Toronto, it was the beginning of our rainy season and indigenous beachcombers had just finished harvesting mangoes from the tropical rainforests along the Don River.

Trip time: about 45 minutes.

Not Lovin’ It

Somehow I went to sleep last night and woke up inside the movie Demolition Man.  Or at least the part of the movie where Sandra Bullock and Sylvester Stallone enjoy a swanky night out at five-star Taco Bell, because it was the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars.

High-End McDonald’s
mickey_ds(Image shamelessly poached from the Toronto Star .)

The management of McDonald’s Restaurants of Canada, Ltd. are attempting a quantum shift in the marketing and branding of their fast-food outlets.  There’s going to be a high-traffic area for the people who just want to eat their food and split, and another where groups of people can sit and be cozy for longer periods of time.  Oh, and there will be wi-fi in some locations, too.

Instead of the golden arches’ traditional fluorescent lighting, bright wall colours, and hard glass fibre chairs, customers will now find accented lights, cushioned booths and plasma televisions.

“With customer expectations changing, they are consistently demanding more and more from the services they are getting, whether it’s buying clothes or going to restaurants,” said Barry Desclouds, vice-president in charge of national restaurant development at McDonald’s Canada. “One thing we want to make sure we are doing is that we are maintaining relevance.”

— Thulasi Srikanthan, “McDonald’s outlets getting comfy look“. Toronto Star, September 13th, 2007.

I have a feeling that the senior brass at McDonald’s Canada have forgotten who their primary demographic is.  So here’s a brief reminder:

  1. Kids
  2. Kids with ketchup in their hair
  3. Rambunctious kids with ketchup in their hair and bladder control problems
  4. Parents of 1), 2) and 3).

The reason the Starbucks approach works so well for that franchise is because their demographic target is a little different.  If you walk into a Starbucks you can be reasonably sure that you will be shamefully overcharged for coffee and subjected to the staff’s horrible musical taste, but you’ll have the opportunity to take up their comfortable seating for an hour and surf the web on your laptop, without any interference from the McDonald’s demographic.

I’m trying to imagine sitting in a leather club chair at Mickey D’s, watching ESPN on the plasma and surfing the wi-fi web.  While in the background, the deep fryer beeps away madly and inattentive parents are more focused on chatting with each other than on surpervising their offspring.   Kids are playing tag throughout the restaurant, running and laughing as they bump into and hide behind other patrons.  Yep, that sounds like a winning formula to me.

Well, it’s a winning formula to someone.

Desclouds said the success of the redesigned outlets has prompted a “very aggressive strategy” to redesign the rest.

“We have absolutely seen increased traffic in all those restaurants and one of the things that really excites us is we are seeing more repeat visits.”

Generally I’m supportive of a restaurant’s efforts to drag itself into greater profitability, but let’s be realistic here.  A decor makeover will only get you so far.  The primary purpose of a restaurant is to make money by serving food.  Morton’s or Ruth’s Chris Steak House can put you in wing-backed leather chairs and oak-panelled walls because you’re going to drop 300 bucks on a superb meal for two, easily.   But no matter how lovely the McDonald’s—even if it were a private-beach seaside resort in Bermuda—at the end of the day you’re getting low-rent mass-produced junk food.  Surrounded by an audience a fraction of your age.

If McD’s dumped the fast-food menu along with the uncomfortable chairs (and posted sentries in the “adult” section to keep the minors out), I might be inclined to visit more often.  Start serving good steaks and scotch.  Put in a cigar lounge.  Eject the minors that use it as their personal playground.  Ah hell, just tear down the whole joint and replace it with a Barberians.

Good luck with the restaurant makeover, fellas.  I’m sure those club chairs and cushioned booths are going to look (and smell) just stellar after a year or two.

Spirit of Toronto 2005

First published 10 November 2005.

On Saturday night, my wife and I attended the city’s annual whisky expo, the Spirit of Toronto.  The event is a sort of large-scale scotch nosing, featuring a wide variety of single malt whisky, bourbon and other spirits from around the world.  We were there primarily for the opportunity to try over a hundred different varieties of whisky, which (at bar prices) would cost you far more than the $95 advance ticket price.

Like many industries, hobbies and enthusiasms, whisky has its own jargon, which may seem impenetrable to the novice.  Let’s get a few of them out of the way right now, so that we’re all on the same page:

  • Whisky: An alcoholic beverage distilled from a fermented mash of grains such as barley, rye or corn.  Irish and American spirits use an “e” in the spelling — “whiskey”, while Scottish and Canadian spirits use the older form, “whisky”.  By law, whisky is distilled at a strength lower than 94.8%, matured for a minimum of 3 years in an oak cask (whose capacity should not exceed 700 litres), and bottled at a strength of not less than 40% abv (alcohol by volume).
  • Rye: Whisky distilled from a mash of rye, or a combination of rye and malt.  ExampleCanadian Club 6yo.
  • Bourbon: Whiskey distilled from a mash of corn, malt and rye.  ExampleMaker’s Mark.
  • Single malt: Whisky made in only one distillery, that has not been blended with any other whisky from another distillery.  ExampleMacallan Sherry Oak 18yo.
  • Blended whisky: Whisky made from the products of more than one distillery, blended with grain whisky or neutral spirits to achieve a consistent flavour and appearance.  ExampleChivas Regal 18yo.
  • Scotch: Blended or single malt whisky distilled in Scotland.

One of the best features of the Spirit of Toronto is its Masterclass tastings.  These are smaller, more intimate nosings for 30-40 people, usually presided over by an executive (or even the chief distiller) from one of the major whisky distilleries.  We attended the Masterclass titled “A Dram (or Two) Around Scotland”, hosted by Mr. Michael Urquhart of Gordon & MacPhail.  Michael Urquhart is the grandson of Mr. John Urquhart, one of Gordon & MacPhail’s first employees who (in 1915) became a partner in the firm, and later (by 1920) owner/operator of the distillery.
Scotland_whisky_regionsAs the title alludes to, the class was an interesting lecture about the various whisky regions of Scotland, and the differing characteristics of the whiskies distilled in each region.  I do not recall which four examples were used, but I’ll do my best to approximate it, substituting whiskies I have tried and which are, more importantly, relatively affordable and commonly available around Toronto.

The Lowlands: This area tends to produce very gentle, soft whiskies with no overbearing peatiness or coastal brine.  Lowland malts are very similar in character to sweeter Irish whiskies and make an excellent introduction to scotch for beginners.

  • ExampleAuchentoshan 10yo, Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd.  LCBO price CDN $48.30.

The Highlands: Whiskies of the western Highlands tend to have a dry character with some peatiness.  Peat is basically grass and plant matter scavenged from swamps and bogs, and some distilleries use it to dry their malt barley prior to distilling.  That’s where the smoky-peaty smell and flavour come from.  The northern Highlands can produce spicier malts.

  • ExampleDalwhinnie 15yo, James Buchanan & Co. Ltd. LCBO price CDN $65.45.

Speyside: Although technically located within the Highlands, the Speyside region alone is home to more than half of Scotland’s whisky distilleries, and as a result it is regarded as a region in its own right.  Speyside malts are a kind of fusion between the Lowland and Highland styles.  They are not usually peaty, but they do have some widely varied and delicate complexity of flavour (typically sherry and fruit notes) while retaining a high degree of smoothness.

  • ExampleThe Macallan 18yo, The Macallan-Glenlivet Distillery.  LCBO price CDN $249.95.

Islay: Pronounced EYE-lah, Islay malts have become extremely popular in recent years and presently have the best “snob appeal” of all the regions.  Because of its soggy island nature, the tiny 25-mile-long Islay breeds malts that are invariably smoky and peaty in the extreme.

  • ExampleLagavulin 16yo (pronounced LAG-ah-VOO-lin), White Horse Distillers Ltd.  LCBO price CDN $91.95.
  • ExampleLaphroaig 15yo (pronounced LAH-frayg), Allied Distilleries Ltd.  LCBO price CDN $50.95

The key though, as in all things scotch, is to find the one you like — whether it’s got snob appeal or not.

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