It's a funny little place.
Hard to find, and hard to define.
By day, it's part travel agency, part coffee shop.
And if that's not odd enough, by night think East Coast kitchen party meets Canadian Idol.
The Travel Mug is a tiny spot, a nook really, tucked into a strip mall in the shadow of Kenaston's big outlets and box stores. Here, local musical talent finds a special home every Friday night.
One recent Friday, renowned jazz singer and music teacher Helen White regaled a packed house with the classics. ("Cole Porter is my coffee," she gleefully told the crowd, many lifting mugs of java.) For some numbers, Helen was accompanied by Julian Carneiro, one of her star piano students.
Julian later took the stage alone. He's just 17 and brilliant, says his proud teacher who brings students to play at The Travel Mug about once a month. His performance was certainly brilliant that night.
Later on still, guitar player Noah Boucher blew everyone away with a stellar rendition of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah.
And just when it seemed the house had tapped all the talent, waitress Caitlin Wakeman dropped her tray and got up to sing. (Her shy, but proud, dad turned down calls to join her at the mic.)
Yes, it does feel just that cozy, as if you dropped into grandma's house and the cousins were entertaining after dinner -- although perhaps with just a bit more talent than your average cousin.
That Canadian Idol-esque energy is supplied by local musicians. But the kitchen party vibe comes through true and clear from café owners Rick and Cindy Gaudet. Transplanted PEIers -- where there's no party like a kitchen party -- the couple served in the Canadian military and ran a travel agency from their home. When retirement from the military beckoned, they wanted to continue the agency out of their home, but needed another business to share the space.
Look long enough on the 'Net, and you can find pretty much anything. Research turned up a successful travel agency/coffee shop in Australia, et voila, The Travel Mug was born just over a year ago.
So how did they end up in the some-time music business?
Look to the 'Net once again. An ad on Kijiji for performers willing to play for busker-style pay turned up loads of talent. At first, Rick said, they auditioned musicians. But the calibre was so consistently high, they finally figured who were they to judge, and just threw the doors open. Musicians book a Friday night, show up, set up and play. No one's been complaining.
Time was, you couldn't serve liquor in Manitoba unless you had live music in your venue. That created wonderful opportunities for all sorts of musicians, up and down the scale. The province's liquor laws are a bit more sophisticated now (we can even stand up with a drink in our hand, once verboten in our friendly province), but that ended the rich market for musicians. Rick and Cindy offer an outlet for that talent, and their Friday night customers reap the benefit.
Then they're a café and travel agency all week, serving food from early morning to late at night. Check the website -- http://www.travelmugcafe.com/ -- for actual hours.
The menu reflects the travel agency, with sandwiches named for great destinations --Paris, Mexico, Jamaica --as does the beer selection. The café uses lots of local suppliers such as Black Pearl Coffee, Gunn's Bakery and more.
But it's the musical nights that make The Travel Mug truly special and make it one of my favourite places in Winnipeg.
NOTE: The Travel Mug can be a bit of a challenge to find. It's at 5-1727 Kenaston Blvd. but don't follow Google Maps, which puts it in the wrong spot on Kenaston. It's behind the Steinbach Credit Union on the southeast corner of Kenaston and McGillivray, between a Perth's cleaners and Los Chicos Restaurante.
Julie Carl is the Free Press associate editor, reader engagement. She describes herself as colossally unmusical but excels at listening.