The Royal Tavern in downtown Kingston has a history. Sure, there are lots of old 19th Century buildings in the city. But the Royal is significant historically for a couple of reasons. First, it’s supposedly the oldest continuously operated bar in the city. Second, the building was once owned by Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister.
Note that there’s no bronze plaque outside the bar noting the fact that Sir John A. drank here. Someone said that if there were a bar in the States once owned and frequented by George Washington, there’d be a line of tour buses waiting outside today. But here in Canada, we tend not to confer mythical hero status to our founding fathers. There are plenty of sites in Kingston related to Sir John A., such as his law office, grave site, and home. But apart from the latter, we don’t make too big a deal of them.
But getting back to the Royal, in addition to its historical significance, it has a bit of a reputation as a rough bar. The owner is trying to reverse that reputation, with success. And now, the bar is establishing itself as a good place for live music. Take Thursday nights for example, when there’s an open mic or open jam. Between songs by the great house band, usually blues or jazz inspired, others can take the stage. And yesterday, I was one of those, banjo-ukulele in hand.
What’s it like going up on stage at the Royal? The place is noisy. Although it’s a few block from the university, most people here are middle-aged. It’s a place to drink, talk, and generally have a good time. Few people actually pay direct attention to the musicians, but still show their appreciation of the music at the end of each song. I’m usually nervous on stage, however I found the environment pretty comfortable, probably due to the fact that there weren’t forty pairs of eyeballs staring at me. And afterwards, a number of people asked me questions about my banjo-uke, something few if any had actually seen or heard close up.
To borrow a 1960’s cliche, on Thursday nights, this is a “happening place”. And it seems to have gotten this way without much in the way of publicity. Or much in the way of choice in beer. There’s one beer on tap, Canadian, plus a modest selection of bottled brew. But considering the ambiance and the music, I don’t mind the limited choice. If anything, that’s part of the character of the place.