The Rockpile Nighclub's exterior is the first thing to throw me off. Set at the tail-end of an immense (but mostly empty) parking lot, it looks a bit like a worn dining establishment. Step inside and you'll find an all-ages prison-themed space filled with a haphazard mix of faux barbed wire above the secondary bar, a jokey execution chair, and a mugshot panel. Gamers rejoice: there's a Big Buck Hunter arcade game. A poster of the Big Bop's final show sits pretty, but strangely-placed, at the entrance to the washrooms, which dubs girls birds and men cons. Why Big Bop? Because the Rockpile is the brainchild of former Bop owner, Dominic Tassielli.
Let's start with some gold stars: service is prompt and attentive, especially on slow nights, and the acoustics are good. The drinks are not outlandishly priced by downtown Toronto standards, but Etobicokeans, feel free to pitch in. There's also an ingenious room with a big-screen TV intended for parents who want to relax while their kids go nuts, and earplugs on sale.
As a long-time Toronto resident without a car, I don't often find myself in Etobicoke . Make that never. That said, I grew up in Toronto's northern suburbs, so I'm familiar with Rockpile's concept: fully-licensed, all-ages venues that endeavor to provide live entertainment seven nights a week. The live music mostly steers towards hard rock, but on a Tuesday, the nightclub moniker is a total misnomer with the scene being decidedly Canadian Idol-esque. Ridiculously talented teens perform on a stage backed by colored fluorescent lights to a mixed audience of aging drinkers, hoodie-sporting twenty-somethings, and proud parents. An absurdly large mirror ball casts pinpricks of light over the seated crowd.
Behind the bar, you'll find the requisite makings for rail drinks. I ask the bartender to recommend a cocktail, and she assumes I mean "fruity." I take it in stride, and suggest something sour. She makes me a Pornstar ($6.75): blue curacao, Sour Puss and soda. It tastes diluted, but I can't really fault a all-ages club for going light on the hooch. My partner-in-crime orders a pint of Canadian, also $6.75. Domestics like Coors Light and Molson Export are $5.25 while standard imports such as Heineken or Corona will cost you a hefty $7.50.
Does the Rockpile do justice to the Big Bop? No. When the beloved Big Bop closed its doors in 2010, fans of the all-ages music venue were outraged. Like me, they'd seen many a hard rock act in the dim, dingy, and ruefully un-decorated space during their formative years, and it had left its mark. The Rockpile has some interesting decor choices, such as the wall filled with famed mugshots of actors and musicians, and I can picture a rowdier, more robust crowd in front of a solid rock act, but I'm nowhere near the all-ages club's target audience. And I hate to prove Tassielli's claim that certain sectors of Toronto aren't willing to make the long trek to Etobicoke, but if you're relying on public transit, it takes a good chunk out of your night.
Tassielli admits that the first year of running the Rockpile was hard, and I can see why. The crowd doesn't grow over the course of the night. Still, there were moments--a teenaged girl singing Celine Dion a cappella brought rapt silence to the room. The pre-teens near the stage were starry-eyed, and that's really the goal of an all-ages club. Tassielli points out that some of the touring acts that used to frequent the Big Bop are coming over to Etobicoke, but even so, he's looking to expand "back into town." We'll be waiting.