‘Back in the day, you couldn’t pay me enough to get me to walk down these alleys at this time of night,’ I say, almost to myself, while my fiancée, Liz, and I turn from Queen Street onto Halls Lane in downtown Kitchener. Yet here we are, on foot, exploring that once-threatening landscape in search of tasty eats and great drinks. I shake my head in disbelief, thinking: ‘It’s crazy how, over these past couple decades, the DTK has turned things around.’ 

Several yards up the laneway we hear the sounds of laughter and camaraderie echoing off the alley walls. Light emanates from a covered alcove off to the side of the backstreet passageway ahead of us. Temporary metal fencing draped with artificial turf playfully dotted with miniature plastic pink flamingos frames the improvised space to create a perfect (and perfectly-hidden) patio oasis. ‘I think we’re here,’ says Liz – excitement rising in her voice. As if on cue, Ellie, our nine-month-old agouti husky, lets out a signature howl. Liz shortens Ellie’s leash and reminds her to behave. Good luck with that, I think to myself as we are greeted by the hostess of AOK Craft Beer + Arcade, who invites us to grab any open table.

Liz and I choose a four-seater against the turfed fence and look around. The space is a perfect mixture of grit and games. A few feet from us, positioned against a fire escape stairway and crumbling brick wall, is a table stacked with board games and merch. Above us the local pigeons, nestled into open spaces between sheet metal and brick, seem oblivious to the plethora of plastic flamingos just below. Most of the tables (socially-distanced, of course) are occupied with couples on dates and larger groups of friends, their hands wrapped around pints and grub, their attention directed towards each other. 

One table over, a couple with a dog strike up a conversation with us. While Ellie and their pooch – a Costa Rican rescue with the most glam pink collar and leash – play between the tables, Liz and I learn that the couple’s visiting from Toronto to check out the local scene. ‘We’re staying at The Walper for night,’ one of them tells us, ‘before heading back in the morning.’ Inherently curious, I wonder aloud why folks from the big smoke travel this way for fun, and she lets us know: ‘We use TOQUE Magazine as a guide for our explorations outside the city.’ 

I can die happy now. And I let her know it.

For the next hour or so, the dogs (amazingly) entertain each other while Liz and I share a fantastic plate of ‘Super Smash Nachos’ (double layer of cheddar, jalapenos, black olives, fresh pico de gallo, salsa, sour cream) and a ‘Classic Arcade Dog’ (ketchup, mustard, diced onions). I enjoy the ‘Nerdgroni’ (gin, cacao-infused Campari, sweet vermouth) while Liz polishes off a Great Lakes ‘Thrust’ IPA. Satisfied, but with room to spare, we pay up and hit the next spot on this downtown alleyway barhop: Grand Trunk Saloon.

We’re on a particular mission, you see: to hit up a smattering of downtown Kitchener’s pop-up patios funded by the Business Improvement Area (BIA), in their initiative to help restaurants and other businesses recover from the impacts of this ongoing pandemic. Because there are so many patios – around twenty altogether – Liz and I are focusing our efforts on a handful in and around Halls Lane. On another day we’ll do another patch of this eclectic tapestry of outdoor terraces and courtyards.

We meander up the lane from AOK to Grand Trunk Saloon, taking time to check out the eye-catching graffiti and other striking murals along the way. (Bruno Smoky’s massive wraparound piece is especially striking.) In a couple minutes we’re seated on the saloon’s cozy secluded patio. When the last bits of evening light fade, the seven-table setting announces itself as the perfect spot for date-night cocktails. The patio, built up on a wooden platform protected – by fine netting above our heads – from the sun (by day) and light rain (this night), is lit by strings of bulbs and a vintage marquee-style lit sign. The perfect setting for a photo, I think, sweetly augmented by the cute couple sharing drinks (and seeming fledgling romance) in the fanciful light.

Grand Trunk Saloon is an unrivaled local destination for southern classics – from mezcal-based drinks to comfort food like chicken ‘n waffles, cheddar biscuits, hush puppies, and jambalaya. We share the ‘Soft Shell Crab’ (crispy fried crab, hominy frites, arugula pesto, grana Padano), and Liz orders the feature cocktail: a pineapple margarita. I choose the virgin ‘Floral Curtains’ (lemon, fresh melon, jasmine riesling syrup, bitters). Our server, so gracious and attentive, brings us also, as a treat, ‘A Daisy at Tommy’s’ (casamigos reposado tequila, fortified wine, amaro, fennel, orange, raspberry, lime, citrus, fennel salt). ‘Because I think it’ll look good in your photos,’ she posits. I don’t disagree. Liz and I polish off our food and drinks and make our way to our last stop: the Sugar Run patio. 

As an indoor speakeasy, Sugar Run has always kept its location secret. As a pop-up patio, though, it’s big and bold and out in the open. Located along Halls Lane past Queen Street in what’s usually a parking lot, the expansive space – animated by rows of picnic tables, large planters, an outdoor bar, and strings of twinkly lights – offers the perfect remedy for pandemic blues. And the terrific drinks and food seal the deal. Liz orders a ‘Darling Nicky’ (dubonnet, aperol, lemon, ginger, prosecco, CO2) while I sip on a ‘Rhythm Section’ (tequila, lime, strawberry, amaro, mint, aquafava, NO2). We share a board of oysters (lemon, horseradish, habanero hot sauce), and immerse ourselves in these new DTK vibes. 

This is definitely not the downtown of my youth, I think. And, I think to myself, this is a very good thing.