May could be the answer to the rampant gentrification that's been hitting Toronto's urban western corridor between Bathurst and Ossington . While revitalizing a former Vietnamese underworld karaoke bar (formerly Café May, now simply running as May) counts as neighbourhood revitalization, there is still a distinct air of un-pretentiousness to the establishment.
Outside, a worn out sandwich board advertises $9.99 wings and beer from 3-6 pm, and suggests coming in to warm up with a cup of Viet coffee (I haven't tried theirs but it's hard to go wrong with a stiff cup of Trung Nguyen). If you were to peer into the now untinted windows on any given night, you'll see a variety of up and coming bands singing their hearts out to fans and friends on a smallish elevated stage nestled into a corner in the front.
We ordered a pitcher of Amsterdam ($15, or $6 for a pint) and settled into a smallish bar table towards the back to watch a hodgepodge of local and touring bands, brought together by Newfoundland's award-winning sax-driven rock funk band, Bay Town .
Not much has changed yet since the bar has switched over to the new owners. It still has a "quality dive bar" appeal with dim lighting, dirty wood floors, haphazard ceiling lamps with exposed wiring, and off-kilter wall hangings. The air vents that line May's ceiling are a remnant from its underworld days, used not for A/C but to suck out the copious amounts of cigarette smoke from when Vietnamese gangsters would smoke and drink the nights away, and sometimes settle disputes in their own fashion.
Since the bar was just acquired as a 'fixer-upper' with numerous renos scheduled, there's no sense in critiquing too harshly for the jumbled décor or bar set up offering tall cans of Stiegl ($6), Amsterdam beer ($6 pints,) a variety of bar rails ($6.00-$6.50), and premiums like Old Label Premium Gold, Remy Martin, and Crystal Skull Vodka ($10-$20).
Their new owner David, has big plans for May which involve turning it into a community entertainment hub, hoping to host board game nights that would run into the wee hours of the night, with a 24 hour kitchen. As a local hangout space, they are definitely winning with the living room/South East Asian hostel vibe with random plates of chips and candies scattered around the bar.
"We still have Viet customers who come for karaoke, and of course we don't allow smoking anymore, but you can stay until 5 am if you want to. I envision people coming to study here, use our WiFi, dance, watch bands, play board games or play foosball -- I want this to be a public entertainment space, however, we still want to hang on to the notoriety. People have been arrested and shot here. It has history and we think that's kind of cool!"
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