Make mine a short one

The author at the Chandos, Trafalgar Square, with a junior

Pubs: good for beer, craic, arranging wooden farm animals, and playing Go Fish with your children

Don’t quite know how I missed this news–okay, I do know: I am living a third of the world away from BC right now–but the BC provincial government has endorsed recommendations to liberalise its liquor laws, including new freedoms for children to enter pubs. About time, says I. The law seemed incredibly fussy and highly inconvenient for me personally on more than one occasion.

I’m no legal historian, but I can imagine the laws were set up to protect the morality of kids–keep them out of the path of alcohol that leads to sin and dissolution. Away from the example of sad alcoholics tottering over their pint glasses, falling off their stools, shouting embarrassing things. So what–keep them in restaurants, where you can’t see that sort of thing? Except your Boston Pizza can serve the kids a cartful of pizza and Mum and Dad are welcome to order a beer alongside. If limits are to be enforced, your server can and should tell you you’ve had enough regardless of where you are.

I can also imagine, though, that these laws were made not to protect the children from the patrons but the patrons from the children. This led to the curious phenomenon in cities where I grew up out west of the “bar and grill”–a family restaurant with a separate salon to the side where minors were not allowed. This seemed so strange to me: you can have a drink here, so why do you need to go over there? And why can’t I come, too? Some people like to get up to a bit of mischief, especially after a drink or two, and it’s a bit of a downer to get shouty at your mates, fumble a grope, or even get in a punch-up when there’s a pint-sized audience. Or, more benignly, it’s less fun to stroke your beards and plan a revolution or rail against the crimes against art known as today’s novels/films/television over a pint of warm, dark beer when some kid’s chanting nursery rhymes and turning her plastic unicorn into a spaceship at the next table. I get it: sometimes the world’s too real.

But that reality that comes of the social mix is, for me, the best part of the pub. The true local has the spectrum of that locality in its walls, quaffing its bitter, sipping its white wine, or slurping its blackcurrant-and-soda through a neon plastic straw. We might want to ask ourselves why we’re disinclined to expose children (or adults) to certain parts of society.

I still remember arriving in the Netherlands as a boy, visiting my Opa and my dad’s family. Our first day in Breda, we went down to the pub for a drink and a snack in the afternoon. My Oom Paul chuckled at this saucer-eyed nearly-11-year-old nephew of his, tentatively walking through the door into this dim, wood-and-green-leather chamber. At the bar, a man drank a pilsener whilst his dog lay at the foot of his stool. I looked up inquiringly at the adults with me–not just “Am I allowed?” but “Is the dog allowed?” I grabbed a stool and proudly ordered a Chocomel. It became liturgical: Michael’s pew whilst on holiday.

Europe has since seemed to me the height of sophistication, so it’s no surprise that it is Europe being invoked as BC legislators work this set of laws through. Living in Scotland as I do, I can take the rose tint off of that impression–this nation has a public and complicated history with drink–but at least it has matured with it. This binary view is perhaps unfair, though, to Canada. Once our first child was born, she often joined us at The Manx, the corner basement pub in our neighbourhood which I taught her to call The Best Place in the World.  This pub has toys, kids’ books, and board games on a shelf near the loos. It also has the hipster accessory of chalk boards in the loos, and I have read some anonymous messages railing against all the kids about. The silent response in my head is, Grow up. We used to bring her to my gigs–asleep in her car seat next to my wife whilst I sang and strummed, or else quietly cooing in the corner. Like anything in parenting, you have to know your kid. And like anything in parenting, if you get them used to your patterns early, they often catch on.

But in BC, where I grew up and where my parents still live, no such liberties were in place. We made the classic mistake in a most unfortunate way, heading to a pub with a musician friend and his wife to play an open stage during a Christmas visit when my daughter was six months old. I’m not trying to shame anyone with names, but this was Nanaimo, and you need to take a wee ferry to get there. So in we go, baby asleep and close to her mum’s chest in a baby sling, and the server at the bar (once she notices there’s a baby in there) tells us we can’t come in with her. We’d be welcome to sit in the restaurant “section,” but this is through a set of doors and around the corner, far away from the music. (To reiterate the ridiculousness of it, there’s the same menu. Honestly, legislators, what did you think was happening on one side that couldn’t, wouldn’t, or shouldn’t on the other side?)

We kind of laughed, said we’re from Ontario, where it’s allowed, and asked if she was sure this was the case for sleeping babies of six months old. “It’s just the law,” she said.

A patron enjoying her meal and drink at a table felt at liberty to add, in a big voice, “I’m from Toronto, and you’d never be able to do THAT.” Readers who are not from Canada may not know that much is communicated in the phrase “I’m from Toronto” that is meaningful to Canadians who are not from Toronto. This, I hasten to add, was 2006, back when Toronto was still the paragon of prissy virtue. Toronto the Good.

My daughter, 3 months, getting changed on a pub table in Toronto.

Baby on Toronto pub table c. 2006

At any rate, the woman was lying, because the evidence before you shows that same daughter, here aged three months, getting changed on the table at Ein-stein on College Street in Toronto. We were impressed with the witty name, the German beer available, the friendly staff, and the convenient downtown location. Though, really, the reason to go there seemed at the time to be the fried pickles.

Fried pickles at Ein-Stein

Fried pickles at Ein-Stein.

I digress. Emboldened by this good Torontonian’s intervention, the server said, “Well, you wouldn’t take her to the Queen’s, would you?” (This is a rough divey bar and gig venue downtown.) Answer: well, no. You see, that would be a bad judgement call. Whereas the Dinghy Dock Pub seemed like the kind of place we would totally want to bring our children. Parents can sort this kind of thing out themselves. Here in Scotland, pubs apply for different licenses depending on how kid-friendly they are (or want themselves to be). This can still be inconvenient, as you have to keep a mental map in your head of where you can go with the bairns; but the practice hasn’t corrupted the kiddos so far and proves the lie that there is something distinctive about a pub that serves food versus a restaurant that serves alcohol. There is in fact no distinction: go where you’re comfy, parent your kids responsibly, and leave the prissy morality to… well, Toronto, I guess. Perhaps the city could use it.


Wife and baby took a hit for the team that night and got on the next ferry back to the “mainland” (sharing the cozy ferry cabin with the diners from Toronto; you can imagine how friendly that was) whilst we grimly got on with drinking responsibly and playing music. My parents picked her up at the other end and had a good chuckle, finishing, as the chuckle died, with, “Well, I wondered if you were going to be successful with that.” Thanks, Mom, for not intervening back when we were making our plans. “Well, I thought you guys would know best.”

2 thoughts on “Make mine a short one

  1. Heh.. the Queen’s.. mmm good rebuke from the waitress at least.. But have to agree that I prefer it over here ( be it UK or even Turkey! ) where the separation of drink vs food is ignored at the best of times. Especially when you find that the pubs in these parts ( Lower England ) have better food than most proper restaurants!

    • Truth, Kyle! Though right now, the best meal in lower England is the one eaten above water. Curious – you’d know better than I, but my brief experience in Turkey suggested that while it was officially it was welcome, on the ground there were/are a lot of taboos to be negotiated. Outside of, say, Beyoglu and Izmir (and one street I remember well in Eskisehir) how did your family and others work out the issue of alcohol in public?

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