SUGAR RUN: FINDING ADVENTURE IN THE EVERYDAY
WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN
I know these city blocks like the back of my hand, I murmur to myself as I turn down another alleyway – furtively searching for an undercover entrance to an underground world. After all, I grew up in this town. I was raised here, went to school here, and found drama and delight on these very downtown streets. And yet, on this chilly November evening in Kitchener’s core, I’m struggling to locate what I’ve come searching for. Sugar Run. A yesteryear speakeasy for today’s professional set.
Eventually I spot it – the hidden entrance that, even in our day, offers something of the excitement of discovery. The giveaway: a plain (albeit elegantly-designed) logo positioned above a nondescript metal door in one of the core’s back alleys. A gaggle of smartly-dressed thirty-somethings standing around the entryway further cements my suspicion that this must be the place. I rap on the sturdy door. Wait a few seconds. It opens a crack and I awkwardly mumble a password I tracked down on social media. And I escape inside. In a manner of speaking, I get away, disappear, shake off all that lies outside that robust portal. After all, the aura such a secretive hideout projects is meant to give patrons the semblance of disconnection from the outside world. Avoidance. Diversion from the humdrum of the commonplace.
‘As grown-ups, how often do we really get to enjoy a sprinkle of adventure in our day?’, asks Sugar Run co-owner Justin Vail once I’ve settled in at the long bar. The place is dark. Moody. Perfect. ‘And yet,’ he continues, seemingly responding to his own rhetorical question, ‘we crave it. Excitement. Wonderment. An escape from the norm. What we are trying to do here is to add some delight, some element of surprise, to the mundane of everyday life. So far,’ Justin continues, ‘lots of folks seem to get the speakeasy concept. And maybe some don’t. And that’s totally fine by us.’
I nod, and then survey the space. It certainly has the feel of a Prohibition-era watering hole. The woodwork. Leather-appointed booths. The old school lamps and fans, low ceiling, and exposed pillars that bear the weight of this basement underworld. ‘We built the place from scratch,’ notes Justin’s business partner (and Sugar Run co-owner) Kypp Saunders above the energized hubbub of conversation, laughter, and – on this night – live brass band. He continues: ‘It was nothing but a bare basement when we first got our hands on it.’ Certainly not anymore, I think to myself, momentarily distracted by the band leader’s dive into a lengthy solo riff on his clarinet – bandmates in hot pursuit.
I know Kypp – or, rather, I remember him – from my tenure a couple decades back when we were both devoted patrons at Uptown’s Jane Bond Café. He’s been a staple of the local bar scene ever since – most recently (before Sugar Run) helping to open White Rabbit in Waterloo. He understands well our region’s scene, and can’t be happier setting up this new place in the city’s core. After all, Kitchener is booming. Indeed, even a cursory glance at the downtown landscape reveals visual clues of a prosperous town bursting at the seams. Soaring condo towers. Repurposed heritage buildings. Cranes punctuating the sky. An LRT that snakes its way through buildings and redefines city blocks. With such economic success comes cultural evolution – including the emergence of a thriving downtown cocktail scene.
There’s The Grand Trunk Saloon, of course – a popular destination for soul food and cocktails. And Lokal – The Walper’s minimalist, elegantly-appointed second-floor hotel bar. The Rich Uncle Tavern – with its chic upstairs library bar. And a plethora of other distinctive watering holes on these blocks. When I ask about what it’s like to have Sugar Run operate among such good company, Kypp answers confidently: ‘We’re happy to be part of this thriving milieu. After all, great neighbourhoods are built on solid communities – of restaurants, shops, bars, and such.’ He adds: ‘Our clientele frequents all the downtown bars. And the bars refer customers to each other.’
Justin fixes me a drink while we sit and chat. It’s bound to be a treat. Sugar Run’s ‘The Kraken.’ Built in a martini glass with Islay Peat Mist, Kraken Spiced Rum, Amaro Nonino, Benedictine, Vanilla Rye Bitters and St. Jacobs’ EcoCafe Nitro Cold Brew. Its dark chocolatey hue, frothy head, and rolling cascades of foam from the nitro are nothing less than captivating. ‘A Dan Collins creation,’ Justin notes of the cocktail, alluding to one of Sugar Run’s lead bartenders. In fact, Dan has crafted Sugar Run’s entire cocktail menu. I lift the drink to my mouth and take a sip – decadently smooth. I can’t help wondering what other concoctions of subtle beauty might be offered in the drinks menu.
It’s a marvelous read. There’s a classic ‘Sugar Run N Coke’ with Luxardo Cherry, Dark Rum, Amaro, House Cola, and Zest. The ‘Captain OG,’ with Sailor Jerry Spiced, Smoked Pineapple Jam, Sea Water, and Angostura. ‘The Rum Collins Affair’ featuring Honey Tincture, Havana Club 3, Citrus, Honey, Egg Whites, Coconut Cacao Nib Foam, and Seltzer. ‘Cute and Crushable,’ made up with Luxardo, Bacardi White, Clarified Pink Citrus, Edible Sparkles, Island Fruit Drops, and Seltzer. And more.
‘Our focus is rum,’ Justin tells me. ‘My mom is Guyanese, so I grew up around the stuff. It’s delicious – and also helps differentiate us from the region’s other cocktail joints.’ Before long, a sampling of dishes arrives from Sugar Run’s kitchen. A couple – like the jerk tofu skewers and Cuban sandwich – are ostensibly inspired by the South American vibe of Sugar Run’s drinks menu. And others – including a seafood charcuterie board with fresh oysters – pay homage to the the joint’s Big Band-era speakeasy roots.
As I settle in to enjoy these exotic offerings, I cannot help but note the courage and ambition it must have taken to build this place. These terrific dishes, of course, and the impressive cocktail menu. The regular live entertainment (Sugar Run schedules rotating nights featuring swing and jazz bands, burlesque, comedy, funk and break music, and more) and the wonderfully designed space. And, of course, the speakeasy concept itself. A spot that deliberately remains concealed for its patrons’ pleasure – located somewhere amongst the shadows – and offers, as Justin notes, ‘a sprinkle of adventure.’ .