Serbian-Canadian Dušan Varga’s Rakia Bar cannot be easily pigeonholed as an ethnic bar. Sure, you may hear Goran Bregović playing in the background, but then again, you may also hear Ella Fitzgerald or even a little CanCon. “We’re not looking to be defined as Serbian,” says Varga, who explains the concept behind the semi-subterranean retreat as “Balkan tradition packed in a contemporary urban space.” Varga’s concept of tradition is fairly loose: it revolves around artisanal fruit brandies (rakias), good food and taking one’s time, which means proper pacing. “I want people to sit back and sip the rakias, to really enjoy them and take their time,” says Varga—which is why he opted to set up his bar on the more laid-back Queen East strip rather than on fast-paced Queen West.
There are no vodkas, whiskies, bourbons or ryes on offer, only rakias, fruit liqueurs, beer and wine (with a list split between Croatia and Ontario). Until recently, rakia was basically considered a grandfather’s drink in the Balkans, but it has undergone something of a renaissance lately (due in small part to Varga’s growing Rakia Bar empire—he has four in Serbia and is hoping to expand into Austria). The bar’s current liquor stable sits at about 40 bottles, nine of which are part of Varga and his partner Branko Nešić’s line of house rakias, travericas (herb-infused fruit brandies) and liqueurs, which they import from their Serbian distillery. (The LCBO has picked up 80 cases of their mint-infused plum brandy.) Proper rakia etiquette can present a bit of a learning curve to the novice, but Varga is more than happy to share his knowledge and even plans to offer tutored tastings in the near future. He also commits the tasty sacrilege of mixing his rakias in a Slavic cocktail menu with drinks named after famous Eastern European authors and literary characters. “My grandfather would kill me if he saw this,” says mixologist David Guylas (Spoke Club) while making a Petőfi (cherry brandy, cloves, cinnamon and house-made cherry syrup, $11).
Rakia is traditionally paired with food, so even those dropping by for a small post-work indulgence will receive a small mezes designed to complement the quaff. “I didn’t want a chef with set notions of Balkan cuisine,” says Varga, who managed to charm Brook Kavanagh into splitting his time between La Palette and Rakia Bar (which serves lunch, brunch, dinner and snacks). Varga, along with his wife, mother and mother-in-law, spent two weeks cooking up dishes in an effort to introduce Kavanagh to Balkan cuisine. Once the cooking baptism was over, they let Kavanagh’s imagination run wild, resulting in a menu of modernized Balkan dishes founded on traditional southern Eastern European ingredients, like deconstructed ćevapčići ($15) and a ballottine-like take on Dalmation calamari ($15). As with the rakia cocktails, Balkan grandfathers may not approve—but that hardly seems the point.
Rakia Bar, 1402 Queen Street E, 416-778-8800, rakiabar.com