I have a confession to make: this past Friday night was my first trip to the Ceili Cottage. A number of people have raved about it, calling it their favourite bar in Toronto and the closest thing to an Irish pub outside of Ireland. (Sorry to disappoint you, but any bar containing the word Firkin or Bloom is not a traditional Irish pub, regardless of the kick-ass St. Patrick’s Day party they through when you were in undergrad.) And these weren’t just random people off the street or in the pub, but people I trust when it comes to all matters bar-related. The Ceili has been open for over a year now and the only excuse I can muster is that life rarely takes me beyond Yonge St, with a trip across the Don River even less likely. Growing up in Etobicoke has ingrained the west-end lifestyle, making me fearful of the laid-back vibe found on the Danforth, in Leslieville and in the The Beach(es). It turned out that Grimes from Beer With Me TO had also never been to the Ceili, so we made plans to head out and try to objectively judge the bar.
The first surprise occurred before we entered the bar when there was a small lineup to get in as the Ceili was at their 60 person capacity at 8pm (the large patio was closed). If we needed anymore confirmation about the popularity and quality of the Ceili before entering, this was all the proof I needed. Luckily we got in really quickly, grabbing a couple seats near the bar and away from the action in the larger cottage room. The bar had a classy rustic feel to me with lots of worn, dark wood and the feeling that people had been coming to drink here for decades. It is one of those bars that can change depending on your mood and the occasion, able to accommodate after-work drinks, date night or drinks with friends.
The tap list is equally split with local craft beer and ales from the Isles (not hard to guess where Murphy’s and O’Hara’s dry stouts hail from). There is always a cask ale available (Durham ESB on Friday, a nice example of how diacetyl can compliment British ales) and rotating taps from breweries like Unibroue and Denison’s (the Dunkel was on tap this night, probably the aged version). A good list but not a standout one, which is a good time to bring up the fact that the Ceili is not known for being a great beer bar. Instead it has a reputation of being a great bar, one that is cozy, friendly and brings the community together. This isn’t the kind of bar you make tasting notes at, but enjoy sessionable pints with friends old and new, catching up and telling stories. The stories told about the Ceili often deal with the extra effort the bar puts in to provide a great experience, such as turning their patio into a skating/curling rink during the last winter. (I’m hoping they repeat this so I can fulfill my lifelong wish of drinking and curling at the same time.) Hopefully this won’t ruin the surprise for anyone, but their Hallowe’en decor includes a spider and plastic hand that descend from the ceiling in the attempt at scaring unsuspecting patrons. This worked spectacularly on one person, though I assume it was rather horrific and/or embarrassing for her.
While the packed pub gave a true feel for the atmosphere of the Ceili on a typical night, is it hard to judge an establishment on their service when the staff are running around and doing their best to keep up with everyone. Getting our first pint was a bit of an effort, but that is what happens sometimes when you go to the cool place at the block. The service picked up after a slow start, the hospitality making me feel like a regular rather than someone going there for the first time. We didn’t sample any of the food, but oysters were a staple at the Ceili and were coming out at an astonishing rate. The other specialty is a nightly roast special, ranging from curry to a full roast dinner. Some traditional sides, like pickled eggs and pickled sausages, help round out the menu.
Was the Ceili as great as I had been told? No, but it was impossible for the bar to live up to expectations. The Ceili was exactly what was advertised, fully deserving the reputation of a local with a great atmosphere and friendly service. The beer geek seeking out specialties and rarities won’t be thrilled, but everyone else should be. Go early and plan to stay there a while, which will be strategy when I go back soon.