Underground joint offers tasteful alternative

It started on the sly — a  little piece of Toronto’s Queen Street West snuck into Whitehorse and nestled into the basement of a…

It started on the sly — a  little piece of Toronto’s Queen Street West snuck into Whitehorse and nestled into the basement of a local hotel.

With raw wood lattices hanging on the walls and overstuffed throw pillows dotting plush couches, YXY is an iconoclastic joint in this northern town.

Months ago it was a rumour whispered from ear to ear.

And since YXY first opened its door at the foot of an out-of-the-way staircase in Main Street’s Gold Rush Inn during the Canada Games, the cozy bar has relied mostly on that word-of-mouth for advertising.

Ask manager Ranj Pillai to describe the bar and he uses words like “safe,” “comfortable” and “mature.

“There are many people in Whitehorse that don’t have a place where they feel comfortable to go out in the evening,” said Pillai. “This venue has filled that void. People are excited that it exists.”

Pillai, who’s spent years working bars around the city and across the country, has a plan to avoid some of the common pitfalls facing some other lounges in the Yukon.

He’s working to keep the drugs, the fights and the minors out of YXY using music, pricing and experienced staff as his weapons of choice.

In fact, after four months in operation the basement bar has become a hangout for some local RCMP and corrections officers.

They were waiting for this venue, said Pillai. In other bars they would constantly bump into people they dealt with at work making a night out an uncomfortable experience.

The city’s smoking bylaw, which banned patrons from lighting up in bars and restaurants in 2005, also pushed the lounge into being, said co-owner and designer Jack Kobayashi.

“I don’t think we would have opened up if you were still allowed to smoke,” he said.

“Whitehorse has a lot of people leading healthy lives who just want one drink once and a while and they would never go into a smoky environment.”

Kobayashi and partner Tony Zedda first discovered the underground room when they was searching out a spot to host a long-overdue office party.

“It was an unused bar from the past with terrible furniture and really ratty carpet, T-bar ceiling — it was just awful,” he said.

If Kobayashi’s firm dealt with accounting or publishing they may have kept on looking for a more suitable space, but because they are architects and designers they went to work fixing up the room.

They ripped out and replaced the old benches and trashed the carpet.

“Before we knew it, we were talking about thousands and thousands of dollars in renovations for this party,” said Kobayashi with a laugh.

So the partners decided to go all the way.

With a few throw pillows and some $25 light fixtures, the dynamic architectural duo transformed a basement meeting room into a martini bar.

The team was looking to prove that design doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant to be elegant.

“It’s no frills,” said Kobayashi. “There’s really nothing in the design. We’re looking for the people to animate the room.”

The bar is striving to become a new community centre by involving local artists and designers in its creation and evolution.

Yukon photographer Jen Williams shot the washed-out timeless photos of downtown that hang on the bar’s back wall. A local woodworker is crafting menu holders and, in the future, the bar hopes to partner with the Yukon Film Society to show local shorts on its big-screen TV.

“It’s organic and it will keep changing over time,” said Kobayashi.

YXY also grabbed a recent opportunity to pay tribute to a Yukon bartending legend.

When Joe English’s famous free pour closed without warning in March, YXY decided to give him a proper sendoff.

“There were lots of people in the community who had a relationship with Joe and nothing was being done to pay tribute to all the years he was in the business,” said Pillai.

“He had to shut down so quickly that he didn’t have time to thank anybody, so we thought we’d provide him the venue for that,” said Kobayashi, who also used Joe’s joint as a model for YXY.

“He was definitely an inspirational force behind the creation of this bar,” said Kobayashi. “It’s a place that you can go after work and it’s not glitzy.”

Despite the community involvement, Kobayashi is quick to admit that opening YXY was a completely self-serving venture.

He was looking for a place to go out and have a drink and wasn’t satisfied with the city’s existing options.

“I’ve always looked for a place to go after Georgio’s or G&P and there wasn’t really anything that was obvious,” he said.

So far, the bar has been filling that void, and Pillai is working to keep it that way.

“We know that as this catches on the level of calmness will decrease. It’ll be busier and we’ll have to deal with that as we go along,” he said. “We’re learning as we go.”