After the 2016 election made a lot of Americans rethink their passports, Canada became the object of serious obsession. In fact, as polls closed on Election Night and early reports indicated a Donald Trump presidency, some Americans were so intent on relocation that they crashed the government-run immigration website belonging to their northern neighbor.
“I was like, wow, everyone really likes Canada right now. Maybe this is the time for the bar,” says Amanda Cohen, the Canadian chef-owner of New York’s inventive, vegetable-focused restaurant, Dirt Candy. Born in Ottawa and raised in Toronto, Cohen had been considering opening a Canadian-themed bar since at least 2014, when she and her husband were on the hunt for a place to eat nachos and watch hockey. (“Turns out, it’s impossible to find a hockey bar in New York City,” says Cohen.)
The bar idea percolated, but it took a back seat as Cohen focused on relocating Dirt Candy from its original East Village digs to a much larger space on the Lower East Side. But, as the election ushered in a tense political climate, Cohen began considering a pop-up bar within the restaurant: “For all those people who were saying they wanted to move to Canada—I wasn’t sure they even knew what that meant,” she explains.
She began work on a concept that would offer Canadian bar food, whisky, beer and, of course, hockey. From there, all that was left to do was string up some Canadian flag pennants, hang a picture of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and wheel in a few big screens to play an unending loop of Hockey Night in Canada. By early January 2017, The Great Canadian Beer Hall, an ongoing, Monday-night pop-up, was open for business.
In addition to Canadian classics—like poutine, chocolatey Nanaimo bars and nachos modeled after those at Toronto dive bar, Sneaky Dee’s—there’s the Bloody Caesar, a beloved Canadian twist on the Bloody Mary (which calls on Clamato juice instead of pure tomato). In addition, Cohen sourced 12 Canadian beers from across the country, with everything from White Bark Witbier from Vancouver’s Driftwood Brewery to Canadian hockey game staples like Molson and Labatt. She claims it’s the only all-Canadian beer program in New York City, and has made the full list available at Dirt Candy during the rest of the week.
It’s on the drinks menu, too, that you’ll find tongue-in-cheek references to Canadian stereotypes, like the apparently national need to say “sorry” a lot: While you can get a Molson at Dirt Candy every day, on Mondays that can of Molson is served with Canadian Club whisky in an $8 beer-and-a-shot combo called “An Apology.” (Two more bucks will get you an added shot of Crown Royal, or, “A Really Sincere Apology.”) For those who still have Canada on the brain after a few rounds, an immigration form is printed on the back of every menu.
“We wanted the bar to be fun, with a sense of humor,” says Cohen. “There was a huge conversation at the beginning about striking the right balance of kitsch and reality.”
Mostly, though, Cohen created a bar where she wanted to drink. But The Great Canadian Beer Hall has become something much more for a city still reeling from the election: An alternate—and vastly more Canadian—reality.
“I think people walk in and go, I’m not in Kansas anymore,” she says. “That’s the feeling we want them to have—Ah, cheap Canadian beer. That tastes like home.”