Requiem for the Hard Rock Cafe

by Nicholas Tristan, Features Editor

Though I am not as young as I once was, I have always had the propensity to rock, and rock hard. I didn’t think that there would be anywhere that accepted people like me, who rocked consistently on the higher end of the spectrum. And, after May of 2017, there won’t be. At least not in Toronto.


Yes, the Hard Rock Cafe, the place you go when you’re in Key West and the line at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville is too long. Toronto’s Hard Rock Cafe, nestled in the city’s heart at Yonge and Dundas, is only “iconic” so much as most people know that it exists. When the announcement was made earlier in March that the Hard Rock was not renewing its lease, most reacted with either half-hearted disappointment that another Toronto music venue was closing, or cold-hearted glee.


I had never been to this Hard Rock Cafe, or indeed any Hard Rock Cafe. So, in the interest of journalistic integrity, I decided I needed to see what the lack of fuss is all about. Enter: Toronto’s Hard Rock Cafe.


The Ambiance


For those who aren’t aware, the Hard Rock Cafe is a “rock and roll” themed restaurant full of rock paraphernalia. For the Toronto locale, there is a focus on Canadian artists: Joni Mitchell’s guitars! Geddy Lee’s bass! Justin Bieber’s world famous skateboard! Drake’s yarmulke!


No, Drake’s yarmulke isn’t there. In addition to Canadian legends, the focus is on assorted accessories: Elton’s John’s hat, a Roland keyboard from Depeche Mode, that sort of thing. It’s sort of interesting, I guess!


I met two of my very patient friends for a midday lunch at the Yonge-Dundas location. David Lane is one of my oldest and dearest friends, and I know owe him for this. Matt Warry-Smith is my professional partner (writing and podcasting), and a dear friend in his own right, but he attended the lunch to atone for some of his own sins. So the three of us were ready to rock, baby!


Theme restaurants are always surrounded by a subtle aura of despair, but a 12:30 weekday lunch at a Hard Rock Cafe that is about to close is removes any trace of subtlety. While the restaurant sprawls out in several gargantuan sections, only one barely-filled room was available for lunch. We were seated directly under the Depeche Mode keyboard.


Rating: 2.5 guitars out of 5


The Drinks


Of course, we weren’t going to order beers at the Hardest Rockin’ Cafe around! One of the best things about chain restaurants is their truly reprehensible cocktail menus, and the assumption would be that the Hard Rock Cafe would be exception. Certainly th--

Collectible mason jars? Hot diggity!


Upon looking at the bizarre, neon-glowing concoctions on the menu, it seemed unlikely that I wouldn’t be drinking something sweet as hell. Virtually every lurid drink on the menu contains at least one sugary liquer and truly baffling amounts of 7 UP, also known as the drink of kings. I don’t really know what my expectation of a chain restaurant cocktail menu -- was I expecting to be greeted with authentically reproduced Negronis, Sidecars, and Brandys Alexander? Has life jaded me to the point where I can no longer enjoy a drink in a collectible, Hard Rock Cafe-branded mason jar? Was the addition of 7 UP to these drinks a cardinal sin I could not see past?


With a renewed, charitable spirit, we selected our drinks. I picked the Electric Blue, made from rum, gin, vodka, blue curacao, and topped up with delicious 7 UP! David and Matt were feeling a southern theme, and went with the Southern Jam and the Southern Rock respectively.

Let’s get this out of the way: they were utterly disgusting. David’s Southern Jam, which contained actual blackberries as a chilling reminder that organic matter contributed to creating these drinks, was probably the most drinkable by default. Matt’s Southern Rock was characterized by overbearing, unbalanced Jack Daniel’s taste that rubbed up against unpleasantly against Chambord and Polar Ice vodka. My Electric Blue was no treat either, but it at least managed to be pretty bland and drinkable. Worth the 10 dollars? No. Not at all.


Final Rating: 1 guitar out of 5


The Food:

Bolstered by the truly disgusting drinks, we moved onto ordering an appetizer. Being a trio of fellows that know how to rock, we landed on ordering the wings, Heavy Metal style. Our server confirmed that these are the spiciest wings on the menu, and also the most metal.

The wings were fine -- standard jumbo wings, a little rubbery, not terribly spicy. As we ate them, we began considering the possibility that perhaps the wings were not as metal as we were led to believe.


From here, we moved on to our entrees. I got some sort of pulled pork sandwich, which was surprisingly unpalatable. It takes a real maniac to fuck up pulled pork, which is one of the nobler things a cook can do to pork. It also doesn’t require a lot of finesse - cook, season, pull. We’re not talking Jiro Dreams of Sushi level difficulty, here.


Matt and David both ordered some manner of mushy, unappetizing burger. Here’s the thing about chain restaurants: while they’re rarely exceptional, you can usually rely on them for not making something actively disgusting. To say that the Hard Rock Cafe failed on this front would understatement. By the end of day, all three of us confirmed that we were in intense gastrointestinal distress.


Final Rating: 1 and a half guitars out of 5




Look, it’s easy to snark on the Hard Rock Cafe. Case in point: I have just done so, exerting little to no effort. But what does it all mean? Is the Hard Rock Cafe a symbol of something? Is Toronto a poorer city for losing it?


Real talk? No. It’s fine if Toronto doesn’t have one of the most obnoxious, hideously overpriced chains around. It’s fine if the building it currently inhabits becomes yet another Shopper’s Drug Mart, not because we need or even want another Shopper’s, but because the Hard Rock Cafe is so odious, so dull, that an empty lot would be an improvement.


Cool guitars, though.


Nicholas Tristan is a Toronto-based writer, producer, composer, and podcaster. He is the Board Chair for Over Easy Airwaves, a digital broadcasting networking specializing in the weird and the wacky.