Man Voyage V: Ontario & Midwestern US
October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment
August marked year five of Man Voyage, my annual male bonding trip & tour with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade Jared A. Conti. The MV intro has been done to death and I’ve nothing new to add so you can read the full mission statement here if you’re so inclined (the gist: we drive, talk, eat & drink). With the shit show that is our current political climate, we decided to get the hell out of Trump country for a few days and hightail it to Ontario where, if our previous visits have been any indication, we’d be in for a refreshing and much more tolerant change of pace. We struck gold.
Man Voyage rule #2 requires a heavier use of back roads over major highways, and we started our day with a beautiful drive up through rural Pennsylvania and New York, twisting & turning our way through glorious stretches of landscape that would make Ansel Adams blush. Interspersed with melancholic little ghost towns and the eccentric characters who occupy them, it’s poetry in motion: one minute you’re coasting by endless fields of sunflowers, the next you’re admiring a woman walking her dog in nothing but her underwear and a thick winter coat before entering a sleepy tourist town full of chalets, anxious for the ski season to start. The highways are faster but not even half as interesting.
We met our friend, alt-rocker James Martin at Big Ditch Brewing in Buffalo for a quick lunch before crossing the border. It’s a relatively new brewpub, and looks to be a cornerstone for a neighborhood in resurgence. You can see a ton of potential in the empty warehouses lining the surrounding blocks. We lucked into street parking half a block away and immediately spied the brewery’s garage-style doors that opened into a sidewalk patio; we liked the place already. Service was a tad slow for a Thursday afternoon but we probably wouldn’t have even noticed if we weren’t worried about a potential holdup at the border.
I always appreciate a brewpub that offers a smaller size option, for times like these when I wanted to try a few different beers but didn’t want to commit to a whole sampler in case again, potential border holdup. We shared a handful of 5oz pours including some signatures (Hayburner IPA, Excavator rye brown) and seasonals (Squeezer dry-hopped sour kolsch, FC session wheat IPA and Cinnamon Apple amber) with not a bad one in the bunch, and the FC was exceptional. I kept it light with a turkey club while Jared went whole hog with a bacon wrapped meatloaf, which I was grateful for – it gave me an opportunity to mooch a bit. Don’t feel too bad for him; James offered up half of his pastrami sandwich as a parting gift so he made out just fine. Swell guy, Mr. Martin. His material has a distinct 90’s feel so it’s not for everyone but if you’re into bands like The Cult, STP and Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails collaboration phase, James Martin might just tickle your ears.
Crossing the border is always unpredictable but we needn’t have worried: we zipped through in about two minutes. We even got an agent with a sense of humor, ribbing us for going to London (“Listen fellas, I’m not saying there’s nothing there, but basically there’s nothing there”). We resisted the signs for breweries, wineries and distilleries that lined Queen Elizabeth Way and stayed the course all the way to our Airbnb just three blocks from downtown London. It was a flawless first Airbnb experience for both of us. We rented a two-story carriage house with a full bathroom, kitchen and complete privacy. Jared took the loft bedroom upstairs (complete with an outdoor deck) and I crashed on the sectional couch downstairs that was so comfortable it may as well have been a bed. Our host knocked once to tell us we could pull our car up a bit more into the driveway but aside from that it was like we had the run of the place.
En route to the first of our two gigs that evening we stopped to get re-energized at Locomotive Espresso, just up the block from our Airbnb. Truly the heart & soul of any local community, it’s amazing how these independent coffee shops all have their own quirks and special touches, yet offer the same sense of familiar comfort from town to town. Locomotive is no different with its worn-in wooden floors & fixtures, soft pendulum lights, small pastry & sandwich selection, engaging staff and welcoming vibe. Their special touch? An old locomotive hauling bags of coffee beans on a looped track suspended from the ceiling. We’re suckers for a commitment to a theme and the only thing we would’ve liked more was if the train had been running. The barista offered us a choice of two different espresso roasts for our double shots and Jared got a coffee as well. Everything was dark, strong & delightful. We had a gig to get to but two minute walk + the promise of fresh donuts = we’d be back in the morning.
We drove a few blocks south to Grooves Records for a short promotional set in anticipation of gig #2 later in the evening. Like the neighborhood cafe, local record stores always seem to offer a glimpse into the local flavor despite not being terribly different from one another. My younger self was way into the dingy atmosphere of a cluttered underground shop but the older my eyes get, the more they appreciate a bright, organized space like Grooves with the music on the sound system kept to a non-deafening level. They had a great selection of local & regional artists right up front and were spinning Canadian treasures the Tragically Hip periodically during our setup & shopping times. They offer performers a discount on all purchases and I’ll be forever kicking myself in the ass for not abusing that privilege to fill what little empty space we had left in our vehicle to the brim but hey, burgeoning adult here. I responsibly only purchased a few used soul albums and the newest Tom Waits ‘Blue Valentine’ reissue… goddamn, being an adult sucks sometimes.
The staff was friendly and helpful in having the PA set up for us ahead of time so all we had to do was plug in my guitar. The booker warned that a weekday afternoon spot in the summer before the university students came back would be a hard sell for an out-of-town band but if nothing else, we saw it as a chance to get loose and tune up for our evening gig after six hours in the car. It was sparsely attended to say the least, mostly by shoppers who paused to give a quick listen on their way out but we did earn one loyal observer toward the end. He plopped down on the floor directly in front of us and listened intently for the duration of the last song, with a look on his face excited & engaging enough to let us believe our art had truly spoken to this lost soul searching for meaning in this harrowing journey we call life, and that his salvation & solace would be found in the poetry of an Echo & Sway song… then we finished, and he spoke.
Boy, did he speak. It would be impossible to recount everything he said but for several minutes he rambled incessantly about our songs, my guitar, his guitar, Jared’s beard and current trends in facial hair, the fact that my hair is thinning but he liked my hat, other color hats he thinks would work for me, Jared’s shirt, something about chocolate chip cookies, whether or not I’ve ever heard of Johnny Cash, whether or not this store carries Johnny Cash because he’s “not real well known,” garbage and littering, and tattoos, which thankfully brought things to a climax as he declared tattoos OK for men, but not women. We were still trying to process the first thing he said when we heard a loud “WHAT THE FUCK?” from the back of the store. The girl who’d been cataloging stomped up as we were attempting to refute such an offensive remark, but then he made it worse: “Well, I guess they’re OK on women some places, just not on their public real estate.” I can’t even gesture or mime the way he did for maximum effect. She handled it like a champ by sternly growling at him “Is there anything I can help you find sir?” as if she wanted to embed a few records into his head, and we couldn’t blame her. He went on a brief search for albums by the unknown up-and-comer Johnny Cash but sensed the abrupt change in the atmosphere and quickly showed himself out. If there’s some mental illness issues there I hope he gets some help… if he’s just an asshole, I hope he gets hit by a bus. We chatted a bit about Canadian music & culture, she recommended a spot to get a few local beers and we were on our way.
Our continuous search for unique venues wherever we go wielded Taproot, a performance space above the Root Cellar gastropub in the Old East Village neighborhood, just a few blocks from our Airbnb. The venue was forthright from the beginning that their pay scheme wasn’t the most lucrative for touring bands, and we’d likely make bigger bucks elsewhere but they dug the album and offered us a gig, suggesting we secure some local support to help fill some seats. We reached out to folk collective Esther’s Family and in quite the happy accident, they were able to finish their debut EP in time for the gig to double as their album release show.
The space is beautiful. Newly restored wooden floors with matching bar & seating, brick walls and lamps made of repurposed bicycle parts make it feel fresh and weathered all at once. Farm-to-table fare from the Root Cellar and organic beers by the London Brewing Co-op round out the menu and would’ve ensured we took the gig even if we weren’t making any money at all. We ordered one of those trendy charcuterie boards with a slew of delicious meats & cheeses, veggies, breads, nuts and dips our simple palates couldn’t identify but enjoyed thoroughly nonetheless. There’s a larger selection of London Brewing beers downstairs but we were content alternating our way through the Norfolk Red IPA, London Lager and Tolpuddle Porter, careful to pair each properly with their food platter counterparts to emphasize the subtle flavor notes… ha, I’m kidding. We shoveled it in and poured beers on top of it all, finishing it faster than we ought to be proud of. What a damn fine dinner.
EF arranged a sound tech for the evening who had us plugged in and ready to folk ‘n roll in mintues. We eased our way through much of the album (have you heard it yet? Stream it here) before turning the evening over to the band of the hour. I love groups that can’t be simply defined by genre and while it’d be easy to shoehorn them into the folk category, there’s something about EF that gives ’em that little something different. Frontman Lliam Buckley commanded the room with the charismatic charm of a old timey minstral, and the quartet kept pace nicely with bass, keys, cello and drums. They were a bit scattered but still incredibly tight despite limited percussion as the drummer had lost his scuffle with a kitchen knife earlier that day. They filled the silences during tuning & adjustments with jokes and lighthearted stories, and had us fully engaged all the way through their show-stopping medley of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” with “Funky Town.” Their new EP ‘High Fantastical’ is a great mix of poetic lyrics and romantic melodies, and we can’t thank them enough for sharing the evening with us.
We’d passed up the earlier recommendation of Milo’s Craft Beer Emporium because we were uncharacteristically attempting to improve our time management skills before the gig, but the Grooves staff had spoken so highly of it we ventured over for a nite cap and a late bite. In a decent sized town with a university and a college, Milo’s feels like a more of a locals place: many of the patrons looked closer to our age, scattered throughout booths & smaller tables in the main dining room but seemed to be mingling with one another. The vibe was friendly & fun. When we told our waiter the Grooves staff had recommended the place we briefly chatted about records which led to him asking what we’d purchased, and just as we began to peruse the menus we heard ‘Blue Valentine’ begin to play over the sound system… he may have just been negotiating a big tip but shit, he was going to get one. We ordered up a few lighter Ontario beers (a pilsner & a sour from breweries I wish I could remember) and some sort of boneless curried chicken from the late night snack menu we were in no way prepared to enjoy as much as we did. I can’t speak for anything else but this was far from standard pub fare, and if we’d been hungrier I would’ve ordered a few other things to try.
We retreated to our pool house for a fantastic nights’ sleep. Our host communicated quickly in the morning to coordinate a check out time, and within an hour of our leaving she’d left several kind remarks about us in a review on my profile. We’d love to return to London for another go-around with EF and I can’t imagine staying anywhere else. We nabbed our morning caffeine and some homemade donuts at Locomotive before heading west toward Sarnia to cross the border into Michigan.
Rt 402 might’ve saved us 20 minutes but we drifted a bit slower on the farm road alongside, enjoying some breathtaking views of dozens of wind turbines in the distance. We stopped at Refined Fool Brewing Company in Sarnia for lunch and hopefully a few to-go beers, as we hadn’t yet purchased anything to bring home. Refined Fool is a large industrial loft-style space, with nearly an entire wall open to outdoor seating and colorful murals throughout. The bartender welcomed us immediately, gave us the run down on beer tasting options and directed us across the room to order food from Burger Rebellion. She apologized several times for the multi-line food court setup, as their #1 complaint is people having to place two different orders but hell, there are burgers & beers in the end… the dumb shit people complain about. We were still waking up so the Uprising breakfast burger (fried egg, bacon, hash brown, ketchup & maple syrup) with two tasting flights (four 5oz beers) hit the spot.
We constructed our flights based primarily on the beer titles. We wanted a good mix of styles but of the four IPAs on, chose “And Then Bernice Flipped the Canasta Table” because well, an absurd amount of effort devoted to nonsensical titles is a hell of a lot more interesting than the IBU count… further proof that while we enjoy good beer, we could never be referred to as “snobs.” Much of the draft selection was available to go in bombers so we filled a few boxes and headed for the border. As always, Canada bats a thousand and if the winters weren’t so cold, I’d move here in a heartbeat.
The Blue Water Bridge crossing was only a slightly longer wait than the day before. Our agent didn’t have quite the sense of humor as his New York counterpart but let us through quickly and though I’d looked up a few potential beer stops along the way, we made a beeline for Ann Arbor to get settled and try as many of their five breweries as we could squeeze in. All the highway travel was necessary but damn was it getting old fast. We lucked into a parking spot right in front of our evening gig so we took a few minutes to scope things out; it’s one of the few we’ve booked over the years that required a signed agreement and though probably harmless, we wanted to make sure we weren’t getting in over our heads… turns out it’s just a nice space in a well preserved building and they want to keep it that way by weeding out the riffraff. We ventured off to celebrate our subsided fears by drinking beer.
My wife and I have long enjoyed bottles of assorted Belgian styles from Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery and with Jared’s ever expanding palate allowing him a new appreciation for sours, we hit there first. Grabbing two seats at the bar in the main room we immediately noticed the fulfillment of three requirements for every nice but ordinary brewpub in America: dark wood, dim lighting & classic rock (henceforth to be known as the brewpub three), though the chandeliers made of old kitchen utensils were a nice touch. The plain atmosphere was more than made up for by our charismatic bartender who, from the moment she handed us our beer menus, playfully ribbed Jared without abandon when he casually muttered to me that he wished the print were larger. Now I understand it’s a college town but she was way more amused by this than she ought to have been but even Jared loved every moment of her shameless laughing: “Larger print? How old even ARE you?!” She proceeded to giggle a bit each time she walked by as we sipped our Bam Biere and Oro de Calabaza, and injected the the experience with that little something extra we’re always looking for. We tipped her well and passed on the bottle selection since we didn’t see anything we can’t get at home. While any beer is better on draft we were hoping for a few brewpub exclusives but hey, can’t win ’em all.
We walked a few blocks to the Beer Grotto, hoping for some fresh pints from other regional breweries we wouldn’t have time to visit. Their website mission statement describes them as “meddlers and experimenters, beer geeks and craft cocktail purveyors, friendly faces with discerning palettes. We’ve been thrilled for some time to offer a great selection of craft beer from all over. But we have a larger mission these days: to be much more than just a cozy taproom to imbibe at. We’ve truly become obsessed with fostering an approachable environment that celebrates progressive ideas, friendship, and of course, tasty drinks of all kinds” … we found them to be slightly above grumpy, begrudgingly pouring beers whilst attempting to communicate as little as possible and avoid all eye contact, though that’s based on one quick visit and all we wanted was to drink beers outside so we didn’t really give a shit.
We ordered up a few IPAs by Michigan’s Eternity and Avron breweries at the cafeteria-style counter, were granted permission to take them outside before being immediately met by a sign on the patio that instructed all glassware must be handled by a server. We were confused and while I’m sure we could’ve crept to a table unnoticed we didn’t want to be disrespectful so we waited a few minutes for a highly trained purveyor of the serving arts to gracefully deliver our glass vessels of alcoholic nectar so as not to disturb the delicate balance of the established directives (READ: our awkward college-aged waiter spills 1/3 of my beer while clumsily dropping them on the table, barely apologizes and tells us if we want anything else we have to go back in because we’re outside of some designated patio area and table service isn’t offered). The beers were tasty and the ivy-covered brick walls are very pretty but the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth. Onward.
Jared went to browse comics at Vault of Midnight while I, with the hostess’ permission but still a vague aura of annoyance, grabbed an outdoor table at Grizzly Peak Brewing Company (am I missing something? Why doesn’t anyone want you to sit outside in this town?) I probably didn’t need a third microbrew within an hour but I had been cheated out of 1/3 of my previous beer after all. I’m loving the trendy beer of the moment; the New England style hazy IPA that everyone’s brewing these days and GP’s was exceptional. I ducked in to use the bathroom and sure enough the brewpub three were satisfied. Sometimes you can set your watch by this stuff.
I’d been looking forward to Frita Batidos from the moment I read about it on a Michigan food blog. Fast-casual Cuban inspired food & cocktails sounded like a can’t-lose situation. We ordered up two chorizo burgers topped with shoestring fries, sweet chili mayo, avocado spread, muenster cheese and egg (another trend sweeping the nation I’m more than happy to partake in at every opportunity) and some crisped plantains with cilantro-lime salsa to go, and ate on the back porch of our B&B. It was a gloriously delicious mess I would seriously consider having shipped to my house if anyone in Ann Arbor would be willing. Cuba’s been on my list for a long time and Frita Batidos helped move it up a bit, especially with new regulations that make visiting easier.
Speaking of our B&B, we checked in quickly so we could eat before our food got cold. The Cadgwith Too is located a few blocks from downtown, unassumingly on the corner of Third & Mosley. We tried the B&B thing a few years back in Sackets Harbor and found the lower price & inclusion of breakfast most appealing, if slightly awkward: I’m guessing many B&B owners are used to guests being older, able to swap stories about grandchildren, etc. The Sackets Harbor folks were sweet but didn’t have much to say to the tattooed troubadour and bearded poet. I was hesitant about this place only because I could find very little about it online – reviews, listings, praise and criticism were all scarce, as if it existed in name only. We took a chance because the price was right, and hoped it was just a case of the place being modestly old fashioned. We arranged the date promptly through email, sent a deposit check and couldn’t have been happier with the accommodations. Comfortable twin beds in a private room with shared bath (though to my knowledge we were the only guests), complete privacy, peace & quiet with a spacious back patio overlooking a park where we could slop down our Frita Batidos. If we’d had more time before the gig I would’ve taken a nap in the hammock.
When I emailed Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room in February I was just looking to get a feel for the place and see if we’d be a good fit, so I was surprised when Michelle replied and said they were booked through 2018 and started into 2019. Damn, this must be a highly sought after gig – who books that far ahead? I started looking elsewhere until she contacted me again a week later, saying she’d listened to the album, thought we’d fit in well and had spoken to the local guy who had the date we were after – he was willing to move his show to fill a cancellation she had later in the year, and that freed up this evening for us. Class act, that one. Between the booking fiasco and aforementioned performance contract with more than a dozen caveats we were cautiously optimistic but needn’t have worried.
The tea room is a cozy, bright space on the second floor overlooking the main drag, and Michelle greeted us warmly upon arrival to get us set up and couldn’t have been more helpful or nice. We intentionally planned this stop before the fall arrival of MU students, as I imagine they’re every bit as fervent as our Penn State crowds in PA, which bode very well for our leisure time but not so much for the gig – Michelle had warned how thin the summer crowds could be, especially on nice nights and this one was damn near perfect. Still, while not packed to the rafters we had a few folks who stayed for the majority & chatted during the set break, and we sold a few CDs. Michelle offered to have us again anytime we’re willing to make the trip, which will give us a great excuse to go back for more Frita Batidos. Overall a superb time where our only real inconvenience was supplying our own PA. A gig as established as this one could probably benefit from having an in-house sound system but we had enough fun we’d lug ours back again.
The coffee was delicious but more beers were needed to quench our thirsts after a two hour set. Unfortunately we chose Arbor Brewing just around the corner and regretted it almost immediately when for the third time, our simple desire to sit outside and drink a few beers in the summer air came rife with unnecessary complications. For fuck’s sake, most of the restaurants in town offer outdoor seating, so why did it so often seem like they didn’t want us to sit there? I understand maybe they want to save the tables for diners, afraid they won’t make much on a check of just a few beers but it was late, peak dining hours had passed and three of the four tables outside were open. The hostess resentfully complied, and when we asked our waitress if anything less than a full pint was an option, she treated it as an imposition on par with asking for one of her kidneys. The kicker through all of it was the one IPA was actually really good, and we wanted to take some home. We’d seen a cooler just inside with six packs but that particular beer wasn’t in it, so we inquired about a growler: “I’m sorry but we don’t fill growlers with our higher alcohol beers.” We doubled checked the ABV on the menu, and it was a little over 8%. I’ve no idea what they found so offensive about two middle aged dudes who just wanted to sit quietly, drink beer and chat but it seemed they were actively working to get rid of us. Fuck this place.
Since Arbor made it clear they had no interest in feeding us, we followed the light a few blocks up the street toward a large TAPAS sign, calling out to us like a beacon: Eat! Share! Have a drink, outside on our patio without judgment! Aventura is a bit upscale and it wouldn’t surprise me if their clientele is comprised largely of well-to-do professors and UM staff with too much money to spend but it’s got an authentic European feel and friendly staff WHO DIDN’T FUCKING COMPLAIN WHEN WE ASKED TO SIT OUTSIDE. We practically had the patio to ourselves under the partial roof & string lights, and ordered up another cheese/cracker/jam/bread/vegetable menagerie, a few Spanish lagers and a glass of red wine, which our waitress brought in its own little carafe and poured into a glass at the table… again, the kind of elegant touch some stuffy conservative probably feels all self-important over but us salt of the earth types see as an extra dish that’s gonna need washed. Nevertheless, a perfect late night snack and excellent way to end the evening.
After a fantastic nights’ sleep we enjoyed a heap of scrambled eggs, bacon & toast courtesy of Jeff at the Cadgwith Too. He checked to make sure we didn’t need anything but gave us privacy and left us to check out at our leisure. We’d have preferred to forego one of the more uninteresting drives in the country across Ohio on I-80 but I was hoping to make it home in time to catch the last baseball game of the season with my family in State College, and there were a few easy beer stops just off the highway. Back in 2011 we stopped in Toledo en route to a wedding in South Dakota for lunch & beers at the Maumee Bay Brewpub, and our collective memories placed Toledo somewhere in the “filthy shithole” category. Searching for the Black Cloister Brewery though, we found the downtown to have a weary, welcoming charm with new murals adorning the sides of historic buildings still bearing old storefront signs.
We arrived just as they were opening the doors (sorry to have been those guys; we really do try to avoid it whenever we can) and were welcomed into a large Abbey-style hall with sweeping arches and minimalist decor. There was classic rock playing but the atmosphere easily evades the monotony of the brewpub 3 thanks to a few key touches in its large medieval style chandeliers and sprawling mural depicting historic war scenes interspersed with little pop culture blips like the Death Star. We ordered up a Helles Angel lager & Pale Rider IPA and couldn’t even sit to drink them; the building dates back to the late 1800’s, it’s got soul in every nook & cranny and we couldn’t help but wander. Tasty beers as well, this place is too cool. Sometimes beers before noon are the best beers, especially on a rainy morning.
*Side Note* A guy from Toledo wrote to call me an asshole when I referred to his city as a cesspool after our 2011 visit… dude, I divided my time growing up between a ghetto in central Baltimore and a rural PA farm town where the locals went apeshit and offered thousands of dollars in reward money to apprehend some hooligans who tipped over Santa’s hut in our town square…. no actual vandalism was done, they just tipped it over. I’ve still got a great deal of pride about both, yet I can’t help but laugh when someone makes a comment like “you grew up in Baltimore in the 80’s, how did you make it out alive?!” The point: it’s obviously hard to pass judgement based on these little pocket stops, and rest assured any insulting words are more comedic effect than serious slander.
I remember an old joke from the Drew Carey Show where he responded to someone’s insulting of Cleveland with “looks like somebody needs a trip to Youngstown for some perspective.” Like much of the rust belt, time hasn’t been kind to Youngstown. The burden is everywhere, in the burned out buildings, littered highways and lost, desperate looking souls wandering the side streets. It looks a lot like our town. There’s nothing like a visit to church to lift one’s spirits, however, and much like Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, Noble Creature Cask House has taken the religion out of an old house of worship and replaced it with food & drink, something I find much easier to put my faith in (side note: Jared is quite devoted to his faith, and I’d never want anyone who finds their way to his blog from here to think otherwise… my heathen ways are my own). Noble Creature is much smaller and more intimate than CBW, with lots of light coming in the stained glass windows and some pew seating in addition to long high top tables and traditional bar at the head of the room where the altar would’ve been (fitting, yes?).
They had a good selection of eight or nine beer styles & a few sandwiches listed on a chalkboard and since we weren’t in Ann Arbor anymore, we were welcomed to sit outside where they gladly delivered our muffaletta & Cuban sandwiches each with a healthy handful of chips. The bartender even smiled while doing it! I’ll be damned. Food was simple but damn tasty, and the Bohemian Pilsener, IPA and saison were all flavorful & seasoned enough you’d never know they were a newer brewery. Posters advertised live original music, DJs spinning punk, ska & new wave and bring-your-own-vinyl nights. Do they have a scene here? Shit. We were hoping to chat with the bartender a bit about it but they were getting busy. They have a nice stage at Black Cloister too; looks like a few shows over a long weekend in Ohio is something we should look into.
That, my friends, is all she wrote. We did a three hour haul back to State College, where Jared dropped me off at Medlar Field at Lubrano park where I reunited with my family, we gorged ourselves on much sausage & beer and watched the State College Spikes lose the fourth home game we attended this season. Post-game fireworks over the stadium while “Born to Run” played over the loudspeaker… perfect end to a perfect weekend.
A few photos by Jared. More to come.