If you've ever wandered the streets late at night between The Gladstone and The Drake, you may have glanced at this neon blue place and wondered, "Why is there a convenience store open at this time? And why?" The reason is really very simple: it's not just a convenience store but a restaurant and bar as well! If you want Skittles, sure, grab a bag. But if you want a well-made cocktail or a late night nibble on a burger, walk on through the storefront and you've landed in the right spot.
A relative newcomer to the recent throwback theme in Toronto, Convenience Resto Bar seems perfectly primed to do well in the West Queen West/Parkdale area that is growing up as its primary millennial residents move into their 30s. There's nothing we like more than throwbacks to our childhoods in the 80s and early 90s and just like that Becker's or family-owned corner store you used to frequent to buy sour keys or Bubble Jug (Oh, Bubble Jug!), this place is bound to give any millennial a nostalgic flashback.
But this place isn't just about kitschy retro reminiscing for the good old days (Has it really been 25 years already?); it also wants you to eat and drink well all night long.
Atmosphere & Decor
Like many Toronto restaurants of its ilk, Convenience has its sights set squarely on the 25 to 35-year-olds that remember the 80s cartoons best. You walk into the "store" part of the venue first, and much like Figures in Yorkville, it is a working shop that is open when the restaurant is. It comes off as a somewhat bare 7-11 but it makes its point loud and clear, especially at night when the floor to ceiling windows glow light blue brightly onto the street.
The restaurant itself is large, spacious, and covered with carefully considered design in the style of Space Invaders. Lines are crisp and colours bright and despite the thematic choices for decor, it still feels fresh and modern. You're not stuck in your weird cousin's basement. It's a space you want to visit and hang out in, with a full bar and solid bartenders to boot.
While the ample sunny patio lacks the same video game feel as the interior, even the downstairs follows the retro motif with He-Man and She-Ra washrooms complete with blacklight, after walking down past videos of robberies gone wrong and stacks of old VHS tapes. The most popular aspect of the bar is clearly the very, very pink common space outside the washrooms where 4 telephones connect you to a "party line". It is absolutely perfect for every hipster's selfie photoshoot and if you've ever looked up Convenience on Instagram, you'll notice the neon wave of patrons posing with these phones.
There is something very friendly and relaxed about the atmosphere here. Unlike some of its competition in Toronto, it doesn't feel forced or exclusionary. And it's bright enough too in late afternoon with the large windows. The music is not likely to evoke any troubling memories of awkward middle school dances as it's current enough not to drown you with preteen nostalgia.
There's very little point in using the menu on their website as a reference point for what they actually have on offer as the real menu has been pared down to essentials and favourites now. It's still snack-focused: mostly familiar plates with a new twist. Gone are many of the more curious options on the website menu such as Jolly Rancher-infused salad dressings, Pop Rocks on olives, or Goldfish crackers with cheese. Instead, there's a slight Korean-fushion edge to many of the items.
Starters, or sharing plates, are full of variety. 8 items run from $6 to $14, with hand-cut fries being the cheapest option and Convenience Fried Chicken at the most expensive end of the scale. If you like either chicken or carbs (or both!), you'll like this portion of the menu. Mac and Cheese (with Doritos), and Pogo Sticks are likely to stick out as affordable and memorable at $8 each. A plate of olives, or Blistered Shishitos, will set you back only $9.50. Yuca Tots, Korean Fried Cauliflower, and Karaage Wings are all between $12-13 and are quite large servings considering their place on the menu. The aforementioned Convenience Fried Chicken comes with the option of either Nashville Hot or Colonel's Original flavour and comes with the ubiquitous macaroni salad and sweet pickles.
Next up is the healthy section of green salads all for a reasonable $14 each. All of them sound like refreshing choices for a summer patio session, especially the Watermelon Salad with mint, lime, and radish. There is the common Caesar Salad, slightly elevated, as well as a Beet and Quinoa salad with beet puree, candy cane beets, and watermelon radishes. Grilled chicken can be added for $5 and tofu for $4.
If you're in the mood for something a little more substantial, the "Get Comfortable" section has 4 choices of dinners. Burger Queen is the tribute to not the (in)famous Big Mac but rather the Burger King Whopper and at $14 for the burger, the fixings, and fries, it's just as good a deal, and probably a lot healthier (and better for the local community!). Second option is Fried Chicken with Mac and Cheese, again with the choice between Nashville Hot or Colonel's Original. Following up with another Korean offering is the Boom Boom Bap at $20 and although it only comes with tofu, it's easy to add chicken for an extra $5. Rounding off the mains is Steak Frites with a tri-tip 8 oz and fries for $22.
There are only two desserts on the menu but both seem really good to soothe a sweet tooth, both for $6. They're a steal. The Ice Cream Sandwhich consists of 2 sandwiches of homemade chocolate chip cookie with ice-cream filling. That's 4 cookies like Mom used to make. The Strawberry Shortcake, probably named after the 80s cartoon character even more than the real dessert, sounds delicious with amaretto whipped cream and fresh strawberries on vanilla cake. These desserts are a steal for that price.
Even with the wide range of choices for starters, I easily narrowed it down to a toss up between Yuca Tots and Korean Cauliflower. Eventually the Yuca Tots won out for two reasons: my love of yucca and the idea of Tater Tots, a snack I haven't had for over a decade. Now, they were tots. Perfectly sized cubes of yucca, or as you may also know it, cassava. It's a tuber native to countries much further south so if you've travelled around South or Central America and eaten locally, you likely have enjoyed yuca the right way. Unfortunately, I have yet to run into yuca on a menu in Canada that treats it properly. Or perhaps, I'm just spoiled by being treated to the tastiest homemade cassava on a farm in Belize. It's always hard to stand up to the real thing.
Convenience's Yuca Tots are fun, and look great, but there's something bland about them, even with the delicious toppings provided. There's an art to cooking yuca and perhaps it just doesn't work this way. However, the Yuca Tots are a lot of people's favourite so if you're a fan of the tuber, it's worth a shot to give the dish a try yourself.
The temperature in Toronto was balmy so what could be better than a sizzling skillet of Korean bibimbap? I opted for the Boom Boom Bap and it was a tasty choice, and a massive portion. For those unfamiliar with Korean food, this is a rice dish topped with an assortment of vegetables, mushrooms, and tofu, as well as the delicious kimchi—although in my opinion there wasn't enough of it.
It's not a dish you would expect to be particularly good at some 80s-themed West Queen West bar but it was cooked and served authentically in a stone bowl, with pickled vegetables, egg, grilled tofu, sauteed mushrooms, and the best part of a a good bibimbap: noo roong ji. If your bibimbap doesn't have this delicious, crunchy, beautiful crust of well-cooked rice at the bottom of the dish, also known as socarrat in Spanish paella, you're not doing it right. It was a pleasant surprise to see this in my dish. The soy enoki caught me a little by surprise as well, thinking they were just regular raw enoki mushrooms, each bite was full of that salty soy flavour. When mixed all together, as it should be, the dish was actually quite good. In future, I probably would have ordered the extra chicken with it, especially since beef was not offered. It needed a bit more protein but overall, a well done dish.
I had come to Convenience with the idea I would order the Twinkie dessert. Much to my disappointment, it's no longer on the menu. However, considering the heat of a late afternoon sun beating down on me as well as a tummy full of sizzling rice and veggies, the ice cream didn't seem like a bad idea at all. And, as it turns out, it wasn't. Nothing feels better to end a hot meal than a smooth, sweet, cold treat like I haven't had since I lived at home and still used phrases like, "I can't. I have detention." 4 homemade cookies and two dollops of Oreo cookies'n'cream ice-cream went down easily and happily.
The biggest draw of Convenience is the sign outside that advertises "$5 Cocktails!". For a city with a growing craft cocktail scene, where most hover around the $12-$14 mark, a $5 cocktail on Queen West seems like highway robbery. Not only that, but these are all on tap, pre-mixed and touted as being just like a freshly shaken libation. The options are the Negroni, Pina Colada, Cosmopolitan, and Paper Plane with 2oz of booze in every drink. I can't speak to the authenticity of them, but I did notice many other patrons putting them back, especially Paper Planes.
For double that price, you have a choice of old school classics such as an Old Fashioned, The Last Word, Sazerac, or Dark & Stormy. They have a full bar and can accommodate basically any classic you throw at them. For me, I was looking for something light, fizzy, refreshing and my server brought out very well-balanced Moscow Mule, complete with copper mug. Even better than that was the price of $8. There's something to be said about finishing off a tasty meal on a warm west end patio with spicy ginger beer and lime. Oh, and of course the vodka too. Honestly, if I'm going to have a cocktail out of a metal cup, the mule will win over the julep every time. Kudos to my server for innately knowing that about me.
Like every decent bar, they have their own signature cocktail menu as well, or in this case, the New School Cocktails. Again, for only $10 we have 2 oz creations inspired by Toronto neighbourhoods. First up is the Greektown hailing to the east end of the old city, featuring brandy and citrus. Cabbagetown is an homage to another east-of-Yonge neighbourhood with a spirit-forward mix of Irish whiskey, Chartreuse Green, and sweet vermouth. Then comes Parkdale, a slighty spicy and fruity tequila creation. Finally is the Way West which is a light and fizzy gin and elderflower cocktail.
For only $1 more are the drinks you wish you had back when you were sitting in your friend's basement watching her Jurassic Park VHS. Aptly named "From the Candyshop" these are all cocktails inspired by sugary treats we all enjoyed. Peaches and Cream is basically as the name implies, and Creamsicle is a melting of rum, Malibu and orange juice. Coffee Crisp is a chocolatey treat reminiscent of the candy bar, with sprinkling of its namesake on top. My Little Lassy is for the whiskey drinkers. I personally couldn't help myself when I saw Bubblegum Sour on the menu. While sours are amongst my favourite type of cocktails, this one sounded less sour and more like something I could picture myself drinking a pitcher of on a beach. The idea of pisco was also intriguing as I've never made a cocktail at home using pisco that's turned out well but it's a liquor that others seem to really understand and make shine. And I have to say, the Bubblegum Sour is absolutely delicious. And, yes, it tastes like bubblegum. Although lacking in the pale pink colour I expected it to have, it did come with a strip of Bubble Tape as garnish! I found the nicest thing about it was even as it warmed out there in the sun as I slowly enjoyed it, the flavour never changed with the rise in temperature. A perfect patio cocktail.
Convenience also is known for its bombs. I'm sure everyone has heard of a Jager bomb, or a sake bomb. This bar gives you even more options right there on the menu, all of which taste like a specific candy or soft drink. Chances are that if you've been to university, you're familiar with at least one, if not all of these. The Skittle Bomb, Fuzzy Peach, Tic Tac, Dr. Pepper, and Creamsicle are go for an easy $8. Bar rail is $6.
If beer is more your style, they've got a selection of 5 beers on draught which change with the season, all for $8 whether it's a Guinness, Blue Moon, or Coors. There are 8 tall boys available from brewers such as Tecate, Amsterdam and Glutenburg, again for $8 as well as Thornbury Cider. On the off chance you can't find a single cocktail to whet your appetite, they have wine on tap for 94 cents per ounce. There isn't a big selection: one red, one white, and one rose, but they get the job done if wine is how you want to roll.
Throughout my meal I had the pleasure of speaking with 3 lovely servers/managers. Everybody there was friendly, outgoing, and very knowledgeable about the entire menu and drinks. They really help put the patrons at ease with their casual attire and easy-going banter. While I find it rare to ever run into rude or incompetent staff in Toronto, some are more friendly than others and Convenience gives off the vibe of hanging out at your friend's house rather than some trendy bar. Furthermore, the servers seemed to know a few of the patrons and the fact that locals come around says a lot for the return potential of the venue. I could definitely see myself stopping in for a casual drink or two if I lived in the area.
It felt like a comfortable place to spend an hour or two, and the drinks were tasty and the decor fun but subtle enough not to be overpowering the experience. The yuca tots weren't the best they could be but the nice surprise of the Boom Boom Bap and especially the drinks and dessert made up for it. I left with a bag of leftovers, a full stomach, and what turned out to be a rather small bill for the amount I ordered. This is a place that definitely caters not only to us ageing millennials but also anyone who is looking for solid drinks, entertaining atmosphere, and decent bites at a really reasonable price point.
So come for the blast of childhood nostalgia and stay for the tasty cocktails. You won't be disappointed. Plus, you never know who will call you up on the Party Line.