The type of street-front businesses that fan east and west of Queen and Broadview alternate predictably with near-mathematical precision: dilapidated-corporate-artisanal, crumbling-chain-chic. Repeat.
The busy corner, presided over by the window women of Jilly’s, links Riverdale and Leslieville. Both areas are changing, pulling in just-marrieds and young families, but at a comfortable pace – this is no Ossington Avenue.
It’s an unlikely spot for Nav Sangha, the DJ-turned-proprietor of Parkdale’s bête noir, Wrongbar, to open a new establishment, but at 39, Mr. Sangha is a practiced gentrifier. He is also a reliable man both in family and business.
“I’m a dad now. I’ve got to roll a little different,” says Mr. Sangha, who opened a new venture, the Riverside Public House, with business partner Mike Homewood this past Thursday. “Being able to hang out with my family and have them around where I work is important to me.”
Located just a few doors west of the Opera House, the Riverside is a local pub with food as the focus, says Mr. Sangha, who also co-owns the Great Hall on Queen Street West at Dovercourt. “We want this to be a multi-generational place. We’re not trying to cater to the party, late-night crowd.”
That’s in sharp contrast to the Wrongbar brand. Since 2007 the bar, just west of Queen and Brock, has hosted some of this city’s most innovative, and raucous, parties spanning electronica, hip-hop and hardcore. It is a hub, well-deserving of its institutional status.
Like Wrongbar, the Riverside’s façade is flat black with checkerboard tiles leading to the front doors. Inside, it’s dark and cavernous with skylights illuminating the middle dining area. Save for a small stage – a remnant of former occupant, the Blue Moon Pub – the back third is cleared out for regular, no-cover live-music nights.
In the kitchen, former Top Chef Canada competitor Dustin Gallagher (Susur, Grace) plates up elegant comfort food. There are high chairs, too. At this local, even the tiniest denizens on the block can hang.
Though the space was scouted by Mr. Homewood, who lives in the area and also owns Baby Huey’s and The Curzon, Mr. Sangha was already familiar with it: as DJ Nasty Nav, he’s been throwing parties around the city for over 10 years.
Scenes became his thing, but business wasn’t part of his plans. “I never, ever aspired to be anyone’s boss,” he says. “I was a punk rock kid with a political opinion at a pretty young age. I was more interested in social-justice work.”
As a teenage music nerd growing up in Mississauga, every Saturday he’d hitch a ride downtown with Mom. She owned a fashion retail space in the Holt Renfrew Centre, and Mr. Sangha would sneak off to trawl the city for vinyl: Records On Wheels, the Record Peddler, Driftwood Music. These stores, and the hardcore parties he’d attend at night, helped him discover the city.
“When I first met him 20 years ago, he was this really keen, jerky – in a good way – punk rock kid,” says Mr. Sangha’s former boss, Rotate This owner Pierre Hallett. “And he liked working with kids, so being around kids who shop in record stores was an interesting outlet for him, I think.”
In 2000, he bought into Yonge-Dundas stalwart Play De Record with friend and fellow DJ Jason Palma. A customer since the early nineties, he would spend every break from his job – as a youth worker at nearby Covenant House – at the shop.
In the mid-2000s, he noticed a collision between indie music and DJ/electronic culture. “People from different scenes were hanging out together at bars like The Queenshead, drinking pints and listening to music on distorted sound systems,” he says, citing this as the inspiration for Wrongbar.
It opened in 2007, literally on the wrong side of the tracks at Queen and Dufferin. The bridge was daunting, he says, but Mr. Sangha had his eye on the space for a while and knew the neighbourhood was about to blow.
Wrongbar became a destination venue, buoyed by Nasty Nav’s party prowess, relevant bookings and the westerly encroachment of young things looking for newer, cooler places to hang out. But the noise and crowds caused public tension, culminating in a 2010 hearing protesting Wrongbar’s application for a capacity increase. They’ve since addressed those concerns, and won the expansion. Mr. Sangha now speaks happily of participating in this year’s neighbourhood block party.
“The thing about Nav is that he doesn’t want anyone to be inconvenienced,” says Mr. Homewood. “I don’t know one other bar owner that would’ve insulated all their neighbours’ properties on their own, with their own money, just so he wouldn’t bother them. They would’ve said, ‘Screw you’ and turned it up louder.”
Venturing east of the Don is new business terrain for Mr. Sangha, and though he helped redefine Queen West, Riverside seems poised to enhance, rather than conquer, Queen East. After all, he doesn't want to get pushed out either: “I used to joke that I’m doing all this stuff so that I can be the dirty old man at the disco one day. I don’t want to get kicked out.”