Ch-Ch-Ch-ChangesFri Nov 9, 2012 Miss Vicky
So by now you have all heard that the owners of The Whalesbone will be taking over the Elmdale on January 1. The revelation caused a bit of a kerfuffle on Elmdale owner's Facebook page, where she broke the news. Word spread quickly on Twitter (I confess, my tweet of "nooooooooo!" may have added to the furor), and before long both Nat and Whalesbone owner Josh Bishop were doing serious damage control.
Not really the way Bishop wanted to announce his new business venture, I'm sure. Apparently he had wanted to break the news at the Food and Wine show this weekend (which leads me to think he might not understand this neighbourhood all that well - or at least, the folks who patron the Elmdale).
The news jumped right on it, of course, and headed down to the 'dale to get more details. They could only get so much info from the bartender, though, which didn't help too much. He could confirm the sale of the business but not much more.
Nat did post a clarification to her page after a rather spirited discussion on the first post:
Just to be clear regarding the change in ownership of the Elmdale, the owners of the Whalesbone bought the business but the Elmdale is not becoming a Whalesbone. They are adding a kitchen and will continue to have live music, just not as much. Josh tried to buy the Elmdale same time we did 5 years ago, so he's wanted this for a long time. He lives The Elmdale, loves Hintonburg and loves live music. You're all in for a treat, just give them a chance to tell you their vision! This all just happened in the last few days....I know they'll do us all proud!
We ran into Nat on the weekend and she reiterated some of this. She said that other than adding the kitchen they don't plan to make major changes - the tables and chairs will stay, as will the pickled eggs. The food is apparently supposed to be a lower price point - oysters yes, but sandwiches and smaller fare. Live music three nights a week. She seemed pretty positive about the change.
Bishop's case was helped a couple of days later with this story. I guess it helped clear up a few things, although some of this left me a little cold. I'm not sure what he expected of a neighbourhood that is gentrifying at such a rapid pace - a neighbourhood that is losing the eclectic mixed-income feel with every new restaurant or condo announcement. Of course people are going to be worried about the loss of a treasured institution.
In many ways, it's a testament to what Nat and Bruce have built since they took over the Elmdale five years ago. They took a tavern with a fairly bad reputation and made it accessible to everyone in the neighbourhood while retaining much of its regular clientele. I remember the first time the Webgeek and I went in there - well, the second time, because the first time we had Wee G in tow and we were politely informed that the tavern license did not allow us to bring in children. But that's another story. This time, we enjoyed our beer while listening to some of the regulars swap tips about making and canning sauerkraut. It was one of those awesome Hintonburg moments and we knew then that we were home.
Much of the coverage of the Elmdale's shift has focused on it as a live music venue. And that is one of its special qualities, but it is so much more than that. It has become a real community gathering place, where "old" Hintonburg and "new" Hintonburg meet. It's been host to countless community events, fundraisers, birthday parties, tweetups - heck, we've even held a potluck there. We've had two parties for The Webgeek - a costume bash where the assembled dressed as their "inner geek", and of course his 40th birthday where we brought improv to the Elmdale. That was such a success, Crush Improv started holding monthly Improv bouts and play to a packed house every time.
If you had a suggestion or a request, Nat was usually up for it. When the neighbourhood kids' band, Hey Buster, started growing in popularity, Nat opened up Sunday afternoons as a all-ages period and we brought our kids to dance up a storm while we enjoyed a Beau's. Now our kids treasure the Elmdale as much as we do, even though they're not allowed in most of the time.
So my mixed feelings about the sale - all without really knowing the details of Bishop's plans for the place - have to do with grieving the loss of what has really become a special place for us and for the neighbourhood. Even if the Whalesbone guys are as open to holding events and fundraisers, the addition of a kitchen does offer less flexibility and I'm not sure it will feel as welcoming to the lower-income folk in the 'hood. I hope my worries turn out to be unwarranted, I really do. I just wish we could hear more from Bishop directly, not filtered through a columnist.