Photos by Andre Gagne
Jake, it's Chinatown, Thursday night before the Easter long weekend, and a steady crowd is streaming into Bar Robo where DJ Sweet Cheeks currently spins a track that perfectly emulates the atmosphere.
“I'm just hanging out with my friends,” repeats a voice between beats and scratches while those doing just that sip wine, beer and the intermittent cup of java. I’m opting for the coffee though I admit, later on, when the real vibe started flowing, I wish I had chosen more intoxicating libations.
Though this place has become known for its live music, tonight we're all here to listen to a record. Well, not just any record. It's the anniversary spin of Radiohead's OK Computer but the fact that the place is packed for this albums 20th birthday is still pretty damn impressive.
Impressive, yes. Unexpected, no. At least not from those running the place, anyway.
“Don't forget to come early, folks! We don't want anyone to be let down,” reads a post on the event Facebook listing going on to say that patrons would be let in on a one-in, one-out basis once capacity was reached so “don't go climbing up the walls to get in!”
The crowd is of the younger set. I appear to be the only person in the joint with graying hair old enough to have picked up the groundbreaking album on release day from a downtown Toronto record store that no longer exists. Somewhere, Sam, those giant neon records still spin. *sigh*
My first thought is how do people get to the bathroom through this kind of crowd which, a regular tells me, is actually on the lighter side. My second thought is that the faux white brick finish on the bar / countertop really makes me want to listen to Pink Floyd's The Wall but OK Computer isn't a bad second spot on the seminal rock album podium.
After a few tries attempting to guess what the WIFI password could be (Robo, Bender and Wall-E are too easy, I guess), I snag it from the friendly staffer who poured my coffee. He's mixing a drink now, one of the cocktails that are making this place a year-round hot spot. Considering Bar Robo is just shy of turning one, the place didn’t take long to catch on.
For those who can imagine the kitschy decor once in the spot of those generic tables and chairs, you'll know that Bar Robo had some pretty cherished shoes to fill when it opened a few months after Raw Sugar closed. Standing by the Chinatown Gate, that coffee shop was a hub away from the ludicrous amount of Pho restaurants lining the strip, a great place to chillax and study and, if you’re like me, one of the crannies of a literary lovers world where books can be exchanged by simply walking up to a cluttered corner shelf. To make matters worse, another popular java joint down the road, Daily Grind, went up in a blaze leaving a gutted, decaffeinated hole in the Somerset coffee shop social scene.
It was a sorrowful time. China Doll could have very well sung the hipster coffee crowd’s tearful dirge in the nearby Shanghai. Many were left to wonder what might go up in the vacated corner on Somerset and Cambridge Street North. Good God, not another noodle house! A Quickie store? It was only a matter of time, I guess. Maybe a Tim Hortons or, worse, a Micky Dees. Hey, if the Glebe got one nothing was out of the question, right?
And then, at its nail biting peak (though that could have been due to the lack of caffeine), the answers came in the form of a disembodied robot head, snazzy cocktails and a concept that would merge the morning to dusk coffee crowd with one graceful motion into a licensed evening performance space. Yup, this robot was a Transformer and, like those beloved toys my mother gave to the Sally Ann the second I went off to college, things at Bar Robo are very much more than meets the eye.
“We always wanted to offer Ottawa something familiar with a fresh take. So rather than coffee shop trying to be a bar at night, we started with the premise of a night venue offering cool cocktails and snacks that also opens at 8AM to serve fresh roasted coffee and in-house baked goods,” explains owner Scott May on making this “subtle but important distinction".
Before the robot came into their lives, May and partner Ali Fuentes were avid supporters of local arts. Music is a big part of their lives. His first job was working for Treble Clef Music shops and she’s involved with the Ottawa Children’s Choir. When Raw Sugar closed up, they saw a chance to take the once popular hub for local arts and culture and put their own gloss onto a scene they didn’t want to see vanish from the area.
At first glance, Bar Robo may look pretty plain. Ok, yeah, there's a huge chunk gutting out the wall near the entrance exposing some innards like wiring and sound equipment, but there's nothing like the antique furniture and bric-a-brac that used to reside here. The walls are adorned with a few pieces of art, generic furnishings and some dim lighting but take a glance over by the stage. The first indication of venue's intention resides there in form of a rescued sign.
Once glowing bright and yellow at 837 Somerset, a beacon for those looking to pick up produce and cigarettes back in the 70s, the old Lisbon Grocery and Smoke Shop sign hadn't seen luminance in years. To May and his growing crew, they saw the sign as an important way to link their new business venture to the historical side of the community they were moving into. They called their attempt at snagging it Operate Liberate Lisbon, a mission not so impossible it would turn out as it is now restored to its former lit up state inside the Bar Robo.
“The day we brought in the Lisbon sign was pretty memorable,” recalls May of the day they got permission to remove the sign from where it lay dark on Sang Video.
“You don't always appreciate the scale of things like that when they're up on a building, but when it first landed on our stage it had a lot of impact. The overall design for the space was quite a departure from what had been there before, so seeing it all come together was enormously satisfying.”
By the sign now DJ Sweet Cheeks has stepped away from the turntable. For the next 53 minutes and 21 seconds the crowd becomes a bit more muted, the vibe shifts and a single vinyl record will spin. All the lights, including Lisbon's, go dark. It's like we've all gathered for a hipster communal blackout. The guitar grinds and Thom Yorke tells all of us there in the dark: “I am born again”.
Losing the use of one of my senses makes transitioning into the amped up use another a perfect time to comment on the venues stunning acoustics. Every beautiful beat, each fret squeak of this album is as clear as the waters of the Cala Macarelleta. The guitar solo on “Paranoid Android” is so pristine it's like I'm hearing it for the first time. The bass sends waves of vibration through me. It's like Colin Greenwood is playing inside my rib cage.
Top sound quality was also an obvious must for the venue. It's the kind of setup you'd want to replicate if you didn't have neighbours who might complain over the repeated shattering dishes in their pantry.
May says the nightly move from chilled out coffee shop to music venue had to factor in multiple styles and genres from jazz nights to DJs. For these shifts it was important that they be prepared.
“The idea was to have a space that was constantly evolving, providing a different experience to customers depending on the time of day. It's been great to see that vision come to life. The atmosphere can be that of a relaxed coffee shop at noon, and a wild dance party at midnight and they both work in the space.”
Despite being a small facility, May says one of the hardest things he has to do is keep up with the demand for bookings. Bar Robo has had a packed schedule since day one with something going on nearly every night. Great for music fans, true, but not the easiest thing to accomplish for a place that also strives to bring in the cocktail and conversation crowd. I notice this myself watching people file out as the music got louder.
“Most small venues aren't exclusively venues, and you have to find a balance between hosting great events and the other side of your business – whether that's a bar, restaurant or record store,” explains May.
Some of that burden is eased by the daytime crowd streaming in for their coffee fix or a soup, sandwich and salad lunch. Chef Mike Frank, formerly of Mellos Diner, collaborated with May and Bar Robo and bartender Aryn Pepper to develop a menu of “haute concession food” like the hearty and healthy Robo Veggie Breakfast and a tasty kale, chickpea & coconut salad. There’s also a variety of baked goods for those of you on the go or, like me tonight, looking to have something to dip into your coffee whilst you relive your college years.
Before opening last year, the menu was explained as something you could imagine getting at a hockey rink but with a lot more high-brow pizzazz. For example, you don’t just get chips; you get queso and chips. The hot dogs are gourmet with mucho toppings and the mushroom Reuben sandwich is all kinds of scrumptious.
Then there’s that cocktail menu.
I find anything I can’t pronounce slightly intimidating but exceptionally intriguing, so my bucks were shilled out for the Kalimotxo. Not just a bad collection of letters while playing Scrabble, this drink contains red wine, cola and cherry vanilla bitters. Other bevies include the curiously named Worst Behaviour, the frighteningly named Big Mama Thang and the fragrantly named Florals for Spring. Sample a few Sunday and Monday after 10 for just seven bucks.
May says a lot of Bar Robo’s quick rise on the city scene has stemmed from allowing the customers to decide what the space means to them as well as hiring a cool collective to work behind the counter.
“The staff is a key component of our success. Most are heavily involved in community culture. They are friendly and curious, with an easygoing and offbeat personality,” says May. “It's continually evolving. We just need to keep it clean and stay out of the way.”
Ok Computer’s final track, "The Tourist", plays out and the audience applauds. One guy is even giving the album a standing ovation.
As the music grooves back to the DJ, most remain to order up another drink while a few stagger out the door having had one too many. It’s a good thing Bar Robo is open in the morning to snag a much needed midnight black java to help quell that hangover.