The Rivoli is one of Toronto's not-so-hidden gems. It stands amidst the sea of chain stores that has become Queen West and offers refuge to anyone with an appetite for food, pool, live music, comedy, or just a quick drink.
What's distinct about the Rivoli is how well it uses space. The patio out front is always buzzing, especially in the warmer months; the restaurant offers seclusion from the rush of the bar, with a large dividing wall; the back room offers an intimate (though by no means small) live music/comedy venue, also with its own bar; and of course, the pool hall is upstairs for anyone who wants to hit a few balls around.
On a recent visit, I find the patio is almost full (go figure...it's one of the first warm days of the year) and I grab a seat at one of the remaining tables. In less than a minute, I have a menu and a glass of water in front of me, and I start to people watch - one of the best things about this particular patio. I peruse the menu and decide to order my usual: the spring rolls to start, the pad thai to finish, and a Stella whenever you have a minute.
Inside, the Rivoli is quaint and casual. The Side Bar serves the restaurant and patio, but also provides a few stools for anyone who wants to have a quick drink. The seating area in the restaurant is spacious but cozy. Dim hanging lights give the room a calm atmosphere, and it's surprisingly quiet in there, even though so much is going on around it. Those dining seem pleased - I think some people are still surprised by how genuinely good the food is. They expect it to be typical pub fare, but it's so much more.
The Back Room is the lifeblood of the Riv. It's one of Toronto's best live music venues, and it hosts a lot of great comedy and spoken word performances. The bands and sound technicians are just arriving, setting up the stage for sound checking, but as I watch them, I remember the countless great nights I've spent in this room. The music still lives in the walls. It's the perfect venue. There are no barriers between the stage and the crowd. Everyone is in it together, unified in the room's simplicity. Some sit along the wall, but I tend to stand for easy access to the bar in the corner and for a great view of the stage.
I walk out of the Back Room, out into the fading sunlight. I settle my bill and prepare to leave, asking the friendly bartender a few more questions. I learn that Feist once worked at the bar and that so many amazing stars (both rock and otherwise) have graced the Rivoli with their presence. It's a true Canadian landmark.
It opened in 1982, and in its 27 years, it has grown to become a local favourite.
Writing by Andrew Hanna