The Cameron House is the first bar I ever went to in Toronto. I had just turned 19 and recently reconnected with a cousin of mine who was taking me out for a night in the city. He was roughly five or six years older than me and always kind of a mentor. When I was a small kid he had all the best video games, as a teenager he turned me on to writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and now he was showing me what life was like in big, bad Toronto.
At the time — to a born and raised suburbanite like myself — Queen and Spadina felt like the wild west, like unchartered territory. It felt like violence and sex was lurking in the alleyways, one wrong turn and you'd be faced some thug who would skewer you just for being green and from the suburbs. And while it was a very different place 12 years ago, it was hardly the wicked frontier.
There was a time I suppose when it was considered the outskirts of the city — maybe back when the building first opened its doors as a hotel in the 1920's — but that was long before I ever made the pilgrimage. By the time I got there the urban wave had long since enveloped Queen West and was lapping at the shores of Parkdale .
The Cameron House in its current incarnation was born in 1981 when Anne Marie Ferraro and her brother Paul Sanella took over the aging hotel along with their friend Herb Tookey. This is the Cameron House that fostered the talents of Jane Siberry and Blue Rodeo and all sorts of other artists and musicians over the course of its thirty-odd years in operation.
Today the place is run by Ferraro's son, Cosmo. He took over the business three years ago and has since started a record label — Cameron House Records — along with breathing new life into the famed bar and venue.
Recently, I stopped by on a random weekday evening — I think it was a Tuesday, but the exact day is really inconsequential. My date and I took a seat at the bar, I ordered a Boneshaker ($7.00), she an Oatmeal Stout (also, $7.00). The room was probably 3/4 full and on the small stage across the bar there was a woman introducing the next act: an accomplished, Rootsy folksinger whom I can't remember the name of.
There is live music at the Cameron House seven-nights-a-week and, frankly, that is generally a pretty wretched advertisement in my ears. I hate "Live Music." Live Music is the kind of billing that evokes bad covers of Van Morrison and Spirit of the West, or young bands stumbling though a set of originals, blissfully unaware of their own mediocrity. Don't get me wrong, a live show can be a wonderful thing. I attend plenty, but I go to see specific musicians, I'd never just stumble into a bar for some "Live Music." That is, unless it's the Cameron House.
The Cameron is different. Much like the rotating art installations that adorn the walls of the front room, the ongoing live music is of such high quality, it's among maybe one or two bars in the city ( the Dakota being another) I would show up to simply for Live Music. It has cultivated a rotating roster of the city's finest folksingers and Roots musicians and so, when we stopped in on a rainy night, it didn't much matter who was up next. And it didn't, because she was wonderful and I don't remember her name because I'm a terrible music fan. But the crowd knew; they tapped their feet and swayed to the beat, a couple of people up front danced in front of the stage.
It's a scene common within those walls, and you can bet you'll find something similar any night of the week.