I’m big on tradition. Don’t get me wrong, I love experiencing new things; but I also derive a soul-nourishing sense of comfort from reliving the glories of the past. That’s one reason why, when I drive to Montreal every year for the world’s biggest jazz festival, I do nearly everything the same way I did the year before, and the year before that – stay at the same place; eat the same food at the same restaurants; and of course, drink at the same bars.
It’s an approach that’s practical – why mess with a formula that works? – but not without its drawbacks. Case in point – I’m a cocktail writer, and yet when I make an annual trip to a beautiful, cosmopolitan city like Montreal, I drink almost exclusively at a couple of familiar dive bars that ply their trade on cheap beer and drinks that never rise beyond the complexity of a rum punch.
It’s an irony that’s long gnawed at me. Every week I watch talented mixologists in Boston as they revisit classic drink recipes and create new ones with small-batch spirits, hard-to-find ingredients, and house-made mixers. This year it was time to see how that trend’s been playing out in Canada.
So while I still spent time watching the Alouettes over a glass of “sangria” that may or may not have contained wine, and merrily drank $3.50 Captain and Cokes on a divey roof deck, I was fortunate to discover a bar that, like so many in Boston, specializes in modern interpretations of classic drinks in an atmosphere rich in history.
The Dominion Square Tavern has seen more than its share of changes, crises, and identity shifts since it opened as the restaurant of the Dominion Square Hotel in 1927. There was the massive fire that destroyed the hotel – the bar survived. It also managed to keep its doors open during the Great Depression. Subsequent decades saw changes in the bar’s ownership and atmosphere. In the 1970s, it became one of the first gay bars in Montreal. It later morphed into a sports pub that, by most accounts, was pretty seedy.
But through all its various iterations and overhauls, none of the occupants made use of the bar’s living history until 2009, when the current owners took over the lease. After an exhaustive makeover, the present incarnation of Dominion Square Tavern is a celebration of the bar’s 1920s-era heyday.
As the bar’s manager, Leah, explains, the process of capturing the look and feel of the original bar was part excavation, part educated guesswork. The owners found that the tile floor and ceramic walls were intact from the bar’s opening more than eight decades ago, along with 10 wooden plaques, each bearing the coat of arms of Canada’s provinces.
But little other tangible evidence of the original space existed, not even in pictures – the oldest photographs the owners could find only went back as far as the 1950s. So they went about creating a décor that may not be an exact facsimile of the original, but gracefully evokes the charm of a 1920s cocktail bar.
At the center is an impressively long, bronze-topped bar with 20 stools. Chandeliers hang overhead, adding a touch of old-school style. A no-frills dining area is populated by basic wooden tables and chairs, along with a few comfortable booths.
Atop the bar, vintage desk lamps and a rotary phone add a little historical ambiance, as does an antique cash register behind the bar.
When they couldn’t rely on the original infrastructure, the owners brought in fixtures that fit the throwback motif, like wooden cabinetry and the long shelving mounted on the wall behind the bar, displaying the liquor selection in understated fashion. And in some cases, they went out of their way for an added touch. The weathered mirrors behind the bar, for instance, look like they were dug out of an abandoned basement, but they’re not old at all – the staining effect was achieved chemically.
The result is a timeless look, accentuated by a jazz soundtrack and servers decked out in sharp, white, tuxedo-style shirts.
Against such a deliberately composed backdrop, one might expect a cocktail program devoted entirely to time-honored drink recipes – Manhattans, martinis, that sort of thing. The classics certainly have their place here, no doubt. But where Dominion truly pays homage to the golden age of cocktails is in its elegant but straightforward approach to mixology – “very simple, no too many ingredients,” as Leah says. With top-shelf spirits and an array of house-made mixers, it’s a philosophy that elevates even the most fundamental of drinks into something unique.
That’s why the Gin & Tonique, a drink unrivaled in its simplicity, is so prominently displayed at the top of the cocktail menu. What instantly separates it from the average gin and tonic is the bar’s house-made tonic. As the bartender, Laurent-Xavier, explained to me, the unexpected reddish hue emanates from the zest and barks, and it usually gets filtered out of commercially available tonics. But with its natural color and no unnecessary additives, the tonic brings depth, complexity, and bitterness to what is ordinarily a very basic cocktail. I opted for Hendrick’s in mine, and a cucumber spear brought out the cucumber notes in the gin.
Equally simple, and no less surprising, is the Rye Ginger Ale. Enhanced by Dominion’s flavorful house-made ginger syrup, this blend of rye whiskey and soda is like an adult ginger ale – crisp, dry, and highly drinkable.
The bar’s own fresh lemonade is what makes the Pimm’s Cup stand out. Combined with Pimm’s Cup No. 1 and soda, and artfully garnished with apple slices and a cucumber spear, it’s ideal for a sweltering summer night. The apple and cucumber are unexpected additions, but the flavor combination is outstanding; the apple, after soaking in the cocktail, is particularly delicious. And at Laurent-Xavier’s urging, I made it a “deluxe” by adding Prosecco, which contributed effervescence and a little dryness to this bright, refreshing drink.
My ever-helpful bartender friend then insisted I try the Basil and Rye, and I’m glad he did. In terms of flavor and composition, this drink is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Made with rye whiskey, basil leaves, lemon juice, and syrup, it’s a vibrant, full-flavored cocktail with the unmistakable aroma of fresh basil. Laurent-Xavier explained that they shake the drink with basil leaves, which helps impart that rich herbal flavor.
He also recommended the Sazerac, asking my preference for cognac or bourbon. I went the traditional route with cognac, which combined with absinthe, sugar, and Peychaud’s bitters for a faithful rendering of a time-honored classic.
I closed out with another standard, though this one featured a few inventive twists. The Canadian Old Fashioned is gorgeous in its presentation, even eliciting some oohs and ahhs from a few people sitting nearby. Dominion's most popular cocktail combines Canadian rye whiskey, a sugar cube, Angostura bitters, lemon zest, and triple sec, topped with a Morello cherry. A vibrant take on the most traditional of cocktails, it's a bold, spicy drink with just enough sweetness to keep it balanced and smooth.
Laurent-Xavier tells me the Canadian Old Fashioned is sort of their signature drink, and there's a touch of irony in that – despite Dominion's unofficial credo of keeping their drinks simple, this is one of the more complicated cocktails on the menu. Then again, almost every drink I ordered here defied expectations, so I suppose shouldn’t have been surprised.
If Dominion Square Tavern were simply trying to build a replica of the 1920s-era bar that once stood at the same address, it would amount to little more than a gimmick. I’ve been in bars that aggressively try to effect a particular atmosphere or revisit a period of history, and frankly, the novelty wears off pretty quickly. When an establishment narrows its scope too much, it risks becoming the sort of place that customers only go when they’re in a very specific mood.
But instead of trying to recreate the past, Dominion Square Tavern is content to channel its spirit. The historical choreography, while extensive, is fairly restrained, allowing for a classy look that isn’t overembellished.
Similarly, the cocktail program is governed by a philosophy of not forcing too many ingredients into a drink and using fresh, house-made products whenever possible. It's an approach that is employed to tremendous effect in the exquisite Basil and Rye, and in the case of the Gin & Tonique, transforms the simplest cocktail in the book into the most surprising drink on the menu.
While modern mixology knows no limits in its variety of spirits and other ingredients, Dominion Square Tavern favors quality over quantity, resulting in cocktails that are simple in composition but wonderfully complex in flavor.
And that, more than vintage fixtures and historical artifacts, is what’s truly timeless.
Address: 1243 Metcalfe, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
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