Blender drinks, burlesque dancing and figure skating: How one Ossington bar is keeping things interesting during Covid
In pre-Covid times the Painted Lady was a gathering place for local performers. Live music (along with live theatre, photography, belly dancing, burlesque and clowning) has been the Ossington bar’s trademark since it opened back in 2008. When the pandemic struck, co-owners Nicky Potter and Sam Papatragiannis had to cancel a fully booked calendar. Now they’ve gotten creative to bring sunny vibes back to one of the city’s hippest strips. We spoke to Nicky and her sister Jess Potter (an on-again-off-again Painted Lady employee) about the steps involved in making the pivot.
Step 1: Bring the vacay vibes
The bar had been closed for three months when Nicky and Jess went in to take stock in early June. “I remember looking up and down the street and everything was so silent—it just felt so depressing. We thought, okay, our mission is to bring some sunshine back to this street. We wanted people to feel like they were on vacation when they were here,” says Nicky. Transforming their tiny patch of patio space into the Lady’s Juice Joint (“It’s not a tiki bar. I’ve read about how that whole concept is built on cultural appropriation,” says Nicky) meant a lot of long hours. Jess built the grass thatch awning using palm leaves from Mexico and wood from the Ossington lumber yard. “We started blasting reggae from our outdoor speaker while we were working, and people would start moving differently when they walked by. We thought, Oh yay, this is working!”
Step 2: Blender drinks and cocktails to go
The Painted Lady was an evenings-only establishment, but Nicky decided to open up the Juice Joint much earlier in the day. “We joked that the Lady got a day job,” she says. They developed a new drink menu featuring a mix of smoothies, fresh-pressed juices and signature cocktails available for takeout in one-litre mason jars. Everything is made from 100 per cent organic ingredients, fair trade when possible. “I gave both my brothers juicers for Christmas and it turned out they never really used them, so I got those back. Then I just scoured online for second-hand Vitamixes,” says Nicky, whose skill set now includes cracking a coconut with her bare hands. “We came up with a smoothie called Loco for Coco and then realized we had no idea how to crack a coconut. We watched a lot of YouTube videos. The secret is piercing the three holes at the top before you use the hammer.”
Step 3: Make it pretty (and pandemic-friendly)
Jess has worked on and off at the Painted Lady since it opened. A fine arts grad and sculptor, she channelled her Covid-induced anxiety into redesigning aspects of the bar. She came up with something that’s half modern art installation, half pandemic protocol. “So much of what’s happening now is restrictive. My goal was to create something that looked like we did it because we wanted to, not because we had to,” says Jess of the six-foot-by-four-foot vinyl partitions that now divide the bar into four separate stations. Her work was inspired by ’90s club kids (hence the neon colour palette) and the Dutch abstract painter Mondrian, who’s famous for his cube shapes. Customers can come in, order takeout and throw back a quick shot while they’re waiting. “We’ve always been a place where strangers become friends. We know of five couples who met at the Lady and are now married. So we wanted to make sure that even if you can’t physically reach out to a stranger for now, you can still kind of have a drink with them,” says Jess.
Step 4: The show must go on
Nicky had originally planned to open the Painted Lady in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where she was living in the mid-aughts. Then Katrina hit, and she came home to Toronto to regroup. “The burlesque dancers have always been our thing. We knew we wanted to be a home for local artists—not just musicians, but also live theatre, photographers, belly dancers, clowns.” It’s been heartbreaking, she says, to see the Toronto arts community get clobbered by Covid. Hence the recently launched “Shop and Show” series, currently running Friday nights between 8 and 10 p.m. Customers who enter to order takeout can watch live performances while they wait. That includes burlesque dancer Svetlana Konswallow, who does her thing in the front pod. “We’re serious about safety,” says Nicky, noting that performers are totally sectioned off from customers. What’s it like performing in a mask? “I’ve done my act wearing a horse head,” says Svetlana. “This is nothing!”
Step 5: Ice, ice, lady
Rosie Mae is another one of the Lady’s regular performers, whose day job is figure skating. “We have a lot more space to work with now,” she says of the bar’s back area, which is normally a packed dance floor. “I have a portable practice rink made from detachable squares, so I brought them in.” DJ Adverb spins while Rosie Mae skates.
Step 6: Patio season
As part of the recently launched CafeTO program, the Painted Lady is now permitted to operate a small sidewalk patio as an extension of the Juice Joint. “We decided to keep the holiday vibe going, so we repainted all our tables and chairs in bright colours,” says Potter. Plus, now they can add booze to those blender drinks. (Loco for Coco goes great with rum.)
Step 7: Don’t work too hard
Rosie Mae (left), DJ Adverb and Svetlana take a break to snack on the bar’s signature Trash Nachos.