It's no secret that The Rex Jazz & Blues Bar is a musical institution in this city. The Rex is simply all about jazz. Its live calendar boasts a staggering lineup of almost twenty shows a week, including two nightly sets and two matinées on weekends. Most of the talent is local, but acts across the country, and from places as far off as Brazil, grace the stage. For jazz lovers, there is no better spot in town to just walk in off the street and try your luck. Since the late '80s, the Rex has been at the forefront of Toronto's thriving local jazz scene, and it's still going strong.
The long bar at The Rex
The night we're there, Kevin Quain is playing. Kevin's a Toronto singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer and award-winning playwright. He's best known as the frontman and songwriter for renowned jazz delinquents The Mad Bastards, who have held down an unprecedented 16-year residency at Toronto's venerable Cameron House performing original music on violins, saxophones, trumpets, musical saws, accordions and junkyard percussion. We're in for a treat. We order a beer, sit back and wait.
Donning a pork-pie hat, Kevin takes the stage and quietly sits down at the piano, belting out the first of two sets of great Jazz and Ragtime standards like Nobody Knows You When You're Down And Out. With a unique personal style and distinctive throaty singing voice that sounds eerily like Tom Waits, described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding "like it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and run over with a car," this guy is a real talent. A multi-talented jazz pianist, it was just a shame that The Rex is so noisy, with diners chatting idly in the background, blissfully unaware of what a great show they were missing. With a steady gig at The Rex every Thursday night, starting at 6:30pm and The Cameron House Wednesday nights with his band The Mad Bastards, Kevin Quain is definitely worth seeing again — and we will.
Kevin Quain takes the stage on piano
The Rex's casual atmosphere, eclectic mix of retro-chic decor makes it a relaxing, comfortable, and remarkably clean place to hang out for a few sets, have a beer and maybe have a bite to eat. Like any classic bar, the Rex menu is mostly traditional bar fare, but unlike so many, the food is actually made from fresh ingredients, and not out of the Loblaw's freezer section. Oh, and it's really cheap. The menu is surprisingly good, like the music, with a selection of starters from Popcorn Shrimp and Vegetarian Spring Rolls to a healthy Middle East Platter with homemade hummus, diced feta, black olives, some sliced pita bread and mixed raw vegetables. Entrées include Fish & Chips, Chicken Wings, some Soup & Salad Combos and a selection of burgers from the grill including a Steak Dinner for $14! We stuck with the hummus, had a few beers and sat back to enjoy the distinctive voice and improvisational piano rhythms of the multi-talented Kevin Quain.
The Rex Burger with sautéed mushrooms and melted swiss cheese
Fish & Chips wides of coleslaw and tartare sauce