I don’t like trends because, by definition, they pass. If they’re good trends, they bring with them good things, but they eventually take them away (which is why I don’t want Cherry’s “kimchi is the new bacon” proclamation to come true!). A glorious afternoon spent away from the cold and inside the warm and inviting ground floor of Snakes and Lagers put board game bars firmly on my “please Allah, let this be more than a trend” list.
While it is true that many pubs and taverns across the world have a dusty shelf stacked with fraying boxes full of tiles, cards, characters and dice (think the epic Manx Pub in Ottawa), not many have made games their focus. Fewer still have succeeded in making games their focus while serving high-quality, innovative food and drink. Snakes and Lagers is one of these places.
Snakes and Lagers is right smack bang in the middle of a hugely vibrant area of Toronto – a mere pint-glass toss away from Little Italy, Kensington Market and Queen West (don’t toss a pint glass – someone might get it in the eye). Its two-storey College and Markham location used to house a Smokeless Joe’s. The new tenant is a welcome change in my books.
When you walk into the ground floor space, you immediately feel the warmth of the exposed brick walls and wood-beam ceilings. Toss in a fireplace and you have my dream living room! The friendly staff keep that warmth alive as they gleefully explain the extensive beer and cocktail selection. That selection is indeed extensive, as evidenced by their huge chalkboard mural of beer. I appreciated their balanced and well thought out choice – there were a number of local items from microbreweries such as Kensington and Bellwoods as well as a raft of Quebec beers inspired by the Trappists of Belgium and the Netherlands. Fewer bars in Toronto are showcasing brews from the land of poutine and potholes, as local outfits rise in prominence (and quality). This makes a marginally more balanced beer list refreshing to see. Also, a soul-warming 9% dubbel is just the thing to ward off polar vortex-itis.
Once I was ensconced in a booth with Cherry and a couple of other friends, we found Carcassonne, an excellent Catan-esque game and started to play. The bartender astutely recommended Beau’s excellent Burnt Rock Vanilla Porter to go with the cold weather and comfy surroundings and, as I sipped the gloriously dark brew, I turned my mind to the other most important thing about a board game bar … the food. We decided to do what we do best, and eat everything.
After several rounds of ordering, we managed to sample every single item under the “Sliders” section of the menu, and many other things as well. Describing all of them in minute details would take an age, so I’ve chosen a few that really hit the spot. The spiced duck fat popcorn ($4) was immediately recommended by Cherry, because she had inhaled an entire portion herself when she was waiting for the booth. It did not disappoint – the spice was a hearty and earthy blend of smoked paprika, brown sugar, Sichuan pepper and salt. Together with the luxurious note of the duck fat, it was the foie gras of popcorn.
The sliders ($6 each) were equally delightful – the Petit Mac nailed the flavours of the processed original using real ingredients, while the crab cake screamed crab from the rooftops. The chef made the right choice in using dark meat in the fried chicken slider – the moist, plump meat stood on its own without needing a slathering of sauce.
The fried brussel sprouts ($4.50) were a hit around the table. The little green balls of glory were fried in a light dusting of batter and plated in a cast iron skillet with a generous portion of sweet chili soy reduction, which we discovered as we devoured our way to the bottom of the pan.
The proverbial icing on the cake came in the form of a warm Proodfoot cookie, which was recommended by the chef himself when he came to describe the dessert items. The words “bacon” and “butterscotch” had barely left the tip of his tongue before I ordered one cookie and immediately regretted not ordering 23. When it arrived, it was all that I had hoped for and much more. There were strips – STRIPS – of bacon laced through the soft, warm dough. The sweet butterscotch mated well with the bacon’s smokey flavour, and the salty finish of the bacon rounded out every perfect bite. Take that, kimchi!
Snakes and Lagers officially opened on February 1st, but our great experience before the official opening is a good sign that they’ve got their operation sorted. I hope this place stays open long enough so that we can call it a mainstay of the neighbourhood rather than a trendy interloper at the east end of the Little Italy strip.