Toad In the Hole reflections, Volume 5: Where everybody knows your name

patti dawn swansson
patti dawn swansson

In celebration of the Toad In the Hole Pub & Eatery’s 25th anniversary on Oct. 3, I salute some of the characters and good times I shared at my favorite watering hole in Winnipeg’s eclectic Osborne Village…

I often thought of the Toad In the Hole Pub & Eatery as my home away from home for three plus years.

Upon further review, however, perhaps the Toad was my home and where I slept at night and awoke on the morrow was actually my home away from home.

Whatever the case might be, my Toad baptism took place on a sweltering summer day in August 1996 and, over time, it put me in colleague with a most engaging and endearing array of characters, foremost among them being Des McLoughlin, the garden gnome of a barman with the impish smile and Scottish charm. In the supporting roles were the likes of the Whining Wallaby, Fly Boy, the Ol’ Turnkey, Heather, Michael One Hand, Phone Bra Boy, Transcona Sid, Stan and Shannon, Irish Jimmy, Muscle Rick, Renee, Big Bill, Mick, Hey Jude, the Toad Diva, the Bug-Eyed Barman, Pinball Johnnie, the Sea Captain, Robert and Johnny Canoe.

It wasn’t the beer that kept luring me back to the Toad, because Osborne Village had a favourable menu of watering holes from which to choose. And it most certainly wasn’t the quality of service. Des was so slow he made a funeral procession seem like a high-speed chase, while Phil, the Bug-Eyed Barman, was an unmitigated disaster behind the bar.

The Toad was much like a dish of salted peanuts: You know you should stop eating them, but you just can’t resist. And why was that? Simple: the people. It was the locals. The regulars. The everyday folks who kept the place propped up. You had doctors and lawyers, actors and journalists, construction workers and social workers, cooks and meter readers, retail clerks and criminals, mosquito foggers and paramedics, pilots and politicians, Christians and atheists, gays and straights…all on equal footing (until the pints kicked in, of course; then the footing was somewhat iffy for the mosquito fogger). Going to the Toad was a journey of discovery, as the nooks and crannies of the sundry personalities were unearthed and exposed, sometimes to embrace and others to ridicule.

toad sign2For me, the Toad was, among other things, very much a giggle chamber, because I knew that I’d have myself both a belly full of beer and a belly full of laughs by the time I left. There were nights (like when ’50s/’60s heartthrob Bobby Curtola dropped by to sing karaoke) that I laughed so hard medics were required to perform emergency surgery on my face. It wasn’t that these people were trying to be funny, understand. They couldn’t help themselves. They were funny. Period.

I don’t recall with any clarity the moment I met the original proprietor, Heather, but it must have been a favorable occasion because I habor nothing but the warmest thoughts and memories of her. An unthin and extremely unshy woman (her red hair matched her fiery personality), she was the chain-smoking Mother Figure of the Toad. Heather carried on with a no-nonsense, don’t-mess-with-me tone, but, in reality, that was so much window dressing. Pierce the armour of bruskness, and you found a sensitive, loving, caring person. I adored that woman. Still do, as a matter of fact.

Oh, and did I mention that Heather’s taste buds were connected to her ears? Yes, the more Drambuie that tickled that lady’s tongue, the more she wanted to hear Willie Nelson croon.

Mick!” Heather would bark at her late-night barman, “put on Willie! Now!”

Mick, a musician whose leanings were toward hard rock rather than country, would wince ever so slightly, but play Willie he did.

This would be going on about an hour, or so, before last call and we called them Willie Nights, whereby there’d be nothing but the Red Headed Stranger’s music until closing and, on occasion, beyond. Heather and I would dance in the cramped quarters between the bar and the Booth from Hell, and we cared not if we were to get in anyone’s way. A handful of us would sometimes still be there to greet the sunrise, no longer drinking but unwinding with good thoughts and growing memories.

I’ll always feel a strong kinship with Heather, as I will with others such as sweet Jude, Robert, Stan, the sanest person in the place, and Shannon, a lovely lass predisposed to picking lame and orphaned horses to win the Kentucky Derby.

You’ll still find a lot of them in the Toad during after-work hours, but not Heather. She sold the pub to Michael Monk, a welcoming young man with big ideas, big brass and a big heart. He’s a worthy successor to the throne. He’s made a boatload of changes to the place, but when I was there in May it felt very much like the Toad that I knew as my home away from home.

It felt good to be home again. Well done, Michael. And, as Willie Nelson might say, thank you…you’re all too kind.


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