The Dakota Tavern
By David McPherson

From Dundas Dive Bar to The Dakota Tavern

In 2004, Shawn Creamer moved to Toronto from London, Ontario to play music. “I wasn’t able to make a living at it, so I had to get my first real job,” recalls the owner of The Dakota Tavern. “I got a gig at the Canadian Musical Reproduction Rights Agency and it ate my soul.” Every morning, Shawn took public transit to this dead-end job he loathed, catching the bus in front of a dive bar called the Trin Port. One day, while waiting for the TTC, a For Rent sign on the building caught his eye.

“It was just like out of a movie,” Shawn says. “I ripped down the sign, went home, called and quit my job, and rented the building. Then I sold my house in London and rolled the dice.”

There are a lot of terrible bands that can attract 100 people, but they don’t do anything for the story of your venue. We always treated The Dakota like it was a story. - Shawn Creamer, owner

My Barn, My Rules

That was 2006. The Dakota Tavern has since become one of the most renowned music bars in the city, hosting live music performances every night of the week. On weekends, it’s also home to Bluegrass Brunch, a family-friendly all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet served with a side of bluegrass tunes from a live band.

The basement watering hole is decorated with wood-panelled walls and a rustic, Western-themed décor. The walls are adorned with a steer head and a velvet painting of Willie Nelson and promotional posters of country legends like Buck Owens and Bill Monroe.

At the bar, patrons sit in barrel swivel chairs and choose from more than a dozen varieties of craft brews, house-made cocktails and plenty of whisky. The small kitchen serves southern pub fare and comfort foods such as Bison burgers, fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese.

Dakota Tavern, Toronto, Bar, LIve Music,

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

So what inspired Shawn to roll the dice and take a gamble on the Dundas West bar all those years ago? “The barrel chairs were pretty cool,” he jokes. The real reason: he wanted a hangout for his friends and a venue for rising roots-rockers to play. “My musician friends and I would always go back to someone’s house after a night of drinking and sit around playing old Hank Williams’ and Lightnin’ Hopkins tunes,” he says. “In the living room with me sat all these great songwriters like Serena Ryder and Ron Sexsmith. I wanted to open a bar where this could happen.”

One of the first acts booked was Shawn’s band The Beauties. The musician admits he wasn’t sure anyone would come. “The first 10 Beauties shows you could have shot a cannonball through here, but because so many musicians lived in this neighborhood, it quickly became their bar. I would like to take credit for being a marketing genius, but the bar’s success really just happened around me.”

To encourage the local community to visit, The Dakota Tavern didn’t charge a cover fee for the first six months. “My contract with the neighborhood was this: You may not know the name of the band, but I promise you they don’t suck! There are a lot of terrible bands that can attract 100 people, but they don’t do anything for the story of your venue. We always treated The Dakota like it was a story.”

So, what’s the story behind the name? “It’s actually a tribute to John Lennon because he lived and died at The Dakota,” Shawn says. “Also, the word Dakota didn’t pigeonhole the place…it doesn’t just say country, even though it’s a country-sounding word.”

Dakota Tavern, Toronto, Bar, LIve Music,
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