Most Unusual Restaurants in Toronto: SPiN
Basically a gym, but with beer; That's what the sign at the front door reads when entering SPiN Toronto, one of the only ping pong nightclubs in the city. The brainchild of two American men and Susan Sarandon (yes, that Susan Sarandon!), SPiN is popular in multiple locations throughout the United States including New York and San Francisco. It was brought to the great white north by Ryan Fisher as a response to the over-saturated, over-styled, pretentious club vibe of King Street West.
Down an alley that some may recognise from its old days as an underground techno club and hidden behind the bustling nightspot Brassaii, it's a bit like finding that secret frat party your friends were talking about. With beer, cocktails, and munchies, SPiN is anti-highstyle. First and foremost, SPiN is a ping pong lounge, like a really huge rec room. That's it. Just ping pong. No pinball, no pool tables, no foosball, no Dance Dance Revolution. Just bouncing balls and beer. Unlike many trendy King West hip spots, there's no dress code here, no pretending. It's casual and loud and everyone is clearly there just to have a good time.
Atmosphere & Decor
Down a dark stairwell leads to a small foyer where you can hear the pounding music, loud voices laughing, and the constant tap-tap of ping pong balls against every surface. You can check in for your reserved table—ping pong, not dining. There is no dining area and they do not take reservations for food or drinks. There are options for membership, or one-off reservations in advance, and they do walk-ins as well. Since we were there only to check out the space and grab a few drinks, we were told to just wander in and sit anywhere.
There is a nicely-sized bar in the centre of the two large rooms, and more ping pong tables than you would have guessed could fit in some underground spot on King West. There's also a special sideroom for reserved groups. Seating is fairly sparse and consists of picnic tables, a few high tables with stools, spots at the bar, and a bunch of cubes for taking a break between rounds of pong. It's colourful, if a bit dark, and the music is ridiculously loud. Even sitting right across from my friends, we had to yell at each other to be heard, which is expected in nightclubs and some bars, but seemed a bit too much for a glorified rec room. And it only seemed to grow louder and louder as the night continued on.
Despite the deafening 80s pop remixes, everybody seemed relaxed and happy. There were no overly-competitive meatheads or sore losers to be seen. In fact, it didn't seem like anybody there could actually play ping pong at all and were just there to hang out in a unique space with a group of chilled out friends or work colleagues. Don't expect to see Olympic-level play here, and nobody takes it seriously enough to call it "table tennis". You're more likely to find a small orange ball plopped in your cocktail than glimpse the next Timo Boll or Meng Chen.
This is not a restaurant and as such the menu is limited to a few pub grub bites and some platters for groups. You order at the bar and the food is brought out to wherever you happen to be sitting. In all honesty, this is not a dining destination. Nobody is coming here for the food. The majority of people were merely drinking, with a few group platters scattered around various tables.
At the top of the menu are the small snacks for one with modest prices for pub fare with a twist. Starting at $7 for devilled eggs or roasted peppers, it moves to $9 for an empanada, $12 for Nashville hot cauliflower or potato rosti with salad, and finally to falafel bowl or shrimp bao for $15 at the top of the range. They then have 2 sandwiches, a peameal bacon offering that is always on the menu, and the changing "Spin Burger" which can be anything, and on the day of our visit it was a beef burger.
The biggest draw are the Team Platters ranging from $20 for pita and hummus to $100 for a 38oz tomahawk steak and fries. In between is the regular grilled cheese platter for $35, Hogtown grilled cheese for $40, Spin Chalet whole roast chicken for $50, and the lamb sausage for $40. Finishing off the limited menu is the only dessert: a house-made "Pop Tart" for $7.
There is nothing here that screams gourmet or must-eat. It exists solely for the purpose of feeding excited, hungry pong players between swats at a ball. It's snack food but with a strange, "elevated" twist that I personally felt was a little unnecessary. But on the positive side, all the food uses local, sustainable ingredients with the meats and poultry naturally raised and the seafood sustainably harvested. As a nice bonus, they avoid putting straws in drinks to cut down on waste but if one is needed, they are biodegradable.
Appetizers & Entrees
As previously stated, there aren't really any appetizers and entrees. So I started with the Panko-crusted devilled eggs which sounded good on paper. I love eggs and panko-crusted anything. What came out was a bit curious. Firstly, there were three halves. Not two, or four. An odd number considering there has to be an extra half egg floating around somewhere else.
And they did not look great. A friend mentioned that they looked like snails that had accidentally lost their shells and were trying to squish back into new ones. The colours clashed and appeared unappetizing. And the taste wasn't much better. Incredibly salty devilled yolks with added pickles is not a nice mix. I found the egg whites nice enough but really overpowered by the yolk and pickles. I gave one to a friend and she said:
They look weird and they taste weird.
And that about sums it up. I can see that they were trying to up the standard bar snacks to something more in line with King West, but really? It's a ping pong parlour. Regular old devilled eggs would be just as good I'm sure. There is simply no need for the fancy dressing up of a bar staple. And lose the excessive salt.
For a bit more of a substantial snack, I opted for the potato rosti. It was a giant pile of arugula, salad greens and raw chili peppers piled high on an incredibly thin and oily rosti, or potato pancake as some know it as. Underneath the forest of lush healthiness were hidden cherry tomatoes and a surprise pile of unmelted grated cheese that I wasn't expecting and found unwelcome. If you didn't know the potato was there, you'd just assume it was a salad with no dressing. The rosti, although skimpy, was well-cooked and tasty enough. There's nothing particularly exciting about it that would cause me to order it again, or recommend it to anyone else. Again, this is a simple dish that is beloved enough in its traditional form. A thicker patty served with a side of applesauce or sour cream, and a small helping of leafy greens, and you'd have a much better dish, especially for that price.
People aren't coming in for the food. For a place as unpretentious in all other ways, I found the food a strange juxtaposition to everything else about the venue. Leave the food art and up-market cuisine tricks to the pros in fine dining. There's no fooling anybody about where they are when they're eating a fancy devilled egg at a picnic table in a basement while being hit the head with ping pong balls.
I can't lie: I was really excited for the dessert. Having grown up a while ago and now rarely giving into the so-called breakfast snack of diabetes-in-a-box, also known as Pop Tarts™, I couldn't wait for this! It looked great on Instagram and I thought that the sweet treat would be a good contrast to the very salty apps. It looked promising on the plate, and it was well presented. My mouth watered a little.
And then I cut into it only to find thick, slightly undercooked pastry with the thinnest layer of jam. I found it surprisingly tasteless, although my tastebuds may have taken a hit from the salt of the previous snacks and the boozy cocktails that followed them. I kept going hoping that my tongue would kick in and give me that sweet rush I was seeking. Nothing really materialized and I felt a little let down by it. I can't tell however if it was me or the dish itself. I found the bursting flavours of the drinks to be too strong for a subtly sugary dessert.
Now, this is where the night shines for me since we weren't there for the pong. I'm not sure anybody would come here for the drinks alone, but I don't think it should be discounted because there are great bartenders with a pretty decent cocktail list. It's not the most well-stocked bar to be seen in Toronto but it has all you need for a good drink of SPiN's creation or one of your old standbys. They do both. And there's beer as well, of course.
They've got all the Toronto craft staples from the big name brewers like Amsterdam, Waterloo, and Sweetgrass amongst other big names. In cans, both tall boys and not, there is quite a well-rounded selection ranging in price from $7-8. They've got lagers, ales, ciders, IPAs, and a rotating selection from Left Field Brewery. On draught, they've got 2 lagers and 2 ales, all for $8 a pint. Other draught options include imports like Heineken, Sapporo and Guinness as well as Canadian options such as Creemore, Okanagan, and two from Unibroue. All come in at a nice $8.50. It's a good cross-section of brews for chilling out with your friends.
For something on tap that isn't hoppy or malty, SPiN also offers two draught cocktails! One is sangria in a rotating selection of white, red, or rose mixes for warmer months. The other tap gives you something called The All Inclusive which is a riff on a Long Island Iced Tea in that it combines multiple liquors into a drink that tastes nothing like booze at all but can really do a number on your sobriety. My friend ordered it and found it a bit too fruity and weak for her taste but it did come in a cool SPiN solo cup.
There is a cocktail list for a reason. Although it seems most people stick to the everyday rum & cokes and G&T's, it wouldn't be a bad idea to take a chance on the cocktails. There are 6 to choose from and will run you anything from $12 to $16, and some are better than others. Although we didn't get to try them all, 4 out of 6 isn't bad. First up was Trust Issues ($14) and Build Em Up, Break Em Down ($12), the former being a vodka, Fernet, and Galliano mix and the latter a gin and Campari creation. At first taste, they both seemed rather weak but the flavours in the Trust Issues were nicely defined and it had a smooth mouthfeel. One of my companions mentioned that it reminded her a lot of the green healthy juice found at Loblaws. And, in all honesty, it looks like it too. Build Em Up was like a watered-down watermelon juice and not much to write home about. I can see it being refreshing however if you've built up a sweat banging balls for an hour.
We also decided to go for the Two Car Garage and Brain Candy, both for $14. The Two Car Garage is a bourbon and Aperol creation—as SPiN's cocktail designers certainly seem to enjoy Italian amaros. I give full points to SPiN for attempting to make it a little more interesting by freezing the raspberries within the king cube, although there is little chance of you hanging onto the drink long enough for it to melt at all. It's a bit of a wasted effort due to that but a nice touch all the same, and a tasty little drink on the whole. The star of the 5 drinks we tried was the Brain Candy, a lovely blend of sherry and rum with coconut and lime. Sure, sherry may not seem like the sort of drink young professionals or amped up table tennis players would order, but don't let its reputation as a staple of the elderly aristocrats on Downton Abbey turn you off. You'd be missing out. It was perfectly balanced and a very pleasant drinking experience.
As there are no dining tables, there is no table service. A few runners will drop food off if you're not at the bar, but otherwise the only people that you're likely to encounter are the bartenders. Despite all the issues we had with the food, there is nothing we could ever say against the staff. Both bartenders were super-friendly, knowledgeable, and helpful with a solid grasp of all the drinks on offer. Again, this speaks to the fact this venue is more of a bar than a restaurant. The ladies at the reception desks were also incredibly friendly and overall all the staff were wonderful.
It's not fair to review this place as a restaurant. Although there are snacks available, this is an entertainment space with a pretty solid bar, not a place known for its food nor will it ever be. As a restaurant, it would be a huge disappointment but as a ping pong lounge, it's a success. We didn't engage in any of the games but from the looks of it, it seems fairly impossible to have a bad time. Absolutely everyone was smiling and laughing, even deep into a game. I can see no downside to coming here with a group, or even a friend or date, to hit the balls around for a while and take in some neat cocktails. After work or even late at night, it seems to be bustling with the pitter-patter of tiny balls no matter the time.
We walked out a bit hungry but happy with the drinks. For sure, any return visit will be with the intention of playing a few games of pong as well. Otherwise I'd be missing out on the reason this place exists.