The summer after my first year at McMaster, I didn’t get to spend much time in Hamilton. I caught glimpses here and there — a walk downtown one evening or a dinner in Dundas — but I was still pretty new to the city, and I was grateful to have made some upper-year friends who could pass on their favourite spots to me.
While their recommendations and dinner invites ultimately shaped much of the last four years for me, their collective influence is best encapsulated by a small, dark bar on James Street North: the Brain.
I first ended up outside the Brain during the May Art Crawl that first summer.
My older friends were in the process of a prolonged Hamilton farewell tour, about to embark on a variety of new programs and jobs in the coming months and wanted to stop by the bar for some drinks and conversation.
But, since it was both Art Crawl and one of the first lovely, warm spring nights, the place was packed and we couldn’t get in. (We ended up at Vasco de Gama, where the regulars sang “Happy Birthday” to my friend in Portuguese and we all got free brandies.)
My curiosity was piqued, however, and over the course of the summer I made a point of stopping by the Brain when it was less busy.
Fast forward to now, my last semester of undergrad, and the mysterious, dimly-lit bar is like a second home to me.
While I’m sure my parents aren’t necessarily thrilled that I’ve got a regular bar at age 21, there are so many reasons to love the Brain beyond its constantly-rotating tap list, creative cocktails and pie slice offerings.
When you first walk through the door, you are greeted by a shelf of mini savoury pies and a selection of two or three dessert slices.
To your left is a chalkboard that spans the entire wall; it’s covered by the tap and standard cocktail list, decorated by an artist I like to imagine was a regular themselves at one point — it’s entirely likely they still are. They also serve a range of teas and drip coffee if you prefer non-alcoholic beverages.
Before you find a seat, take a peek at what the bartender has selected as the soundtrack for the evening.
Sometimes it’s mystical-sounding ambient music, sometimes it’s oddly cheery soundtracks to mid-century Italian erotica.
It’s almost never the same, and it’s almost never anything you’ve heard before.
You can then squeeze through the narrowest part of the bar to find the majority of the seating, which is just beyond an unusual-looking wide, rounded doorway.
The mélange of chairs and tables combine differing styles, heights and aesthetics.
There are church pews, tables made from reclaimed doors and antique dining room set chairs. Salt lamp-style candles appear on most tables once darkness falls.
There’s a threadbare tapestry on one wall next to a more recently added Nosferatu painting.
If you want to twiddle your fingers, there are board games and chess sets at the back of the seating area.
In the summer, there are an additional three tables on the tiniest back patio I’ve ever seen. The patio is strung with twinkle lights, and on a warm evening, the breeze floats through the air in a way that makes you feel as though there is absolutely nowhere else you ought to be.
It’s that feeling, that belongingness, that keeps me coming back to the Brain, week after week, year after year.
It’s a place that inspires deep thought and rousing conversation.
I have solidified friendships sitting at the table in the very back corner, hunched over the same half pint for hours or joked with friends about a previous evening’s outing.
I’ve shed the odd tear, laughed until my sides hurt and nearly fallen asleep in the comfort of the Brain’s cozy interior.
None of the friends who introduced me to the Brain are at McMaster any longer. None of them even live in Hamilton anymore.
But they showed me a perfect hideaway from the world on James Street North, one that still feels like a home nearly four years later.