Kim Bates recommends Keogh’s Irish Pub at 141 Danforth Avenue Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
You couldn’t ask for better hosts than John Maxwell and Dora Koegh, of Dora Keogh’s Irish Pub. Both John and Dora make community building seem effortless, and have built the relatively new (circa 1997) pub into a hub for celebrating Irish culture in North America. The bar and its patrons are friendly, and some of the session night regulars appear to be stalwarts of the local Irish music scene. This is no age ghetto either — regulars range from pensioners to young, and often easy on the eyes, patrons in their 20s. The decor is tasteful and simple, not too dark, and the fireplace and kitchen add a bit of warmth, while the snug creates a spot for quiet conversation.
Dora’s hosts a variety of special events, from sessions to poetry storytelling and recitation by members of the Toronto Irish Players. It’s also the sort of place where you are lured to events such as the Chris Langan Weekend, held annually in honor of a local uillean pipe instructor; or benefits put on by the local Irish community to support, for example, education for children in Bombay. Both events were priceless, and as a new immigrant in reserved Canada, I doubt if I would have found either on my own.
Special events at the bar span the seasons and the generations. I generally stay in on St. Patrick’s Day — like New Year’s it is “Amateur Drinkers Night” — but I’m told that the music and the crowds at Dora’s were great. The Wren Boys (and girls) visit on St. Stephen’s Day (Dec. 26), charming a standing room only audience that ranges from the elderly to preschoolers. Dora’s & Allen’s sponsors a Galway-in-Toronto Oyster Festival, held to coincide with the World Championship Oyster Shucking contest in Galway — sibling pub Allen’s is famous for its oysters, so this a good bet. Bloomsday (June 26) and Michael Collins’ birthday (October 26) are also occasions for musical and literary celebrations.
Dora’s is usually packed on session nights, and the Sunday session (from 6:30 PM – my observation) often includes younger players — sometimes as young as early teens out with their parents. The Thursday session begins around 9:30 PM, and goes to whenever the musicians get tired. It’s a good idea to get there early for the sessions, as this is the old-school, meaning no amplification. It’s best to get a seat at the bar, near the fire place, or on the low copper tables near the back, because when the crowd fills in, it’s hard to hear the music in the snug or near the front. The sessions include some fine players, as well as poets and female vocalists. The website boast that visiting Irish musicians often do after-the-show sessions is true; what’s not said is that some of the session players, such as flautist Daithi Connaughton, are also invited to perform with the visiting dignitaries. I knew this was the local for me when I went to see the Chieftains holiday show shortly after moving to Toronto, and one of the guys in the crowd outside the hall looked familiar — it was Daithi, who was there to perform as one of their guests.
Dora’s kitchen cooks a great, if limited, menu. The soups and soda bread are quite nice, as is the smoked salmon and a variety of sandwiches. The kitchen can be reserved for parties, and the view from outside suggests they are quite congenial. If only I had been able to find food like this on that summer trip to Dublin! On the occasions when Dora’s kitchen isn’t open, it’s sometimes possible to order from the sibling pub next door, Allen’s. I highly recommend Allen’s fries, and the steak & salad (that’s tenderloin of beef paillard on baby greens on the menu). Allen’s removes some booths and also hosts music on a regular basis, but doesn’t have sessions — the Allen’s schedule is on the website, and can also be found at www.toronto.com.
If you live here or are visiting Toronto, I highly recommend putting Dora’s on your list of must-see places, particularly for session nights. The bar is about a block from the Broadview Subway Station on “the Danforth” as it’s known locally. It’s quite safe to walk to and from the station and the bar, a pleasant surprise the stateside types like myself. You can phone them at (416) 778-1804.