St. James Village is a great place for urban adventurers to go mining for unusual shops, great food, spa services -- and dancing!
Look up for the big red PIANOS sign on the roof at Portage Avenue and Parkview Street and you'll land smack in the middle of this strip. With at least 25 businesses to check out, here are highlights to get you started.
Begin with the long mural on Parkview called St. James Village. It depicts the area as it might have appeared in former years -- and includes a small separate mural of the last streetcar to trundle down Portage Avenue into the St. James municipality on Sept. 19, 1955.
St. James Branch Legion
1755 Portage Ave.
This was once the biggest legion in Canada. The two-storey chocolate-brown edifice looks like a '70s nightclub from the outside, and it's busy day and night. It still boasts the highest membership in Winnipeg.
As you descend the stairs to the friendly bar and the stage with requisite flags and smiling Queen Elizabeth portrait, you'll note the emerald-green tables to the right, glowing under lights in a large billiards room. But this legion isn't just about pool games and beer. The membership is mostly middle-aged and up, but the place is jumping with music most nights of the week. It offers line dancing and Zumba classes, with free ballroom dancing on Thursday nights.
The popular bar opens at 9 a.m. Just sayin'.
The Captain's Table
1833-1835 Portage Ave.
This place is rumoured to have the best fish 'n' chips in Winnipeg. Owners Gary and Tania Swain say the secret is the batter, which is lacy, crisp and homemade, not thick and crusty and out of a package. Plus, their fries come from red-skinned potatoes, peeled and cut up fresh on-site.
"There's only three weeks a year we can't get red potatoes," says Gary.
Do they wrap their fish 'n' chips up in newspaper for takeout, like in the old days?
"Nope. I don't think that's allowed anymore," says Tania. So much for added ink flavouring and tasty reading material! Tania says they have lots of additional taste factors. "We make our own fresh tartar sauce and seafood sauces."
Part of the charm of the Captain's Table is the decor. It started out with a few marine objects, such as a statue of a captain and nets, on the walls.
"Then customers started bringing us all kinds of stuff," says Tania. You can now see model sailboats and ships' wheels and lifebuoys. But the capper is an old-fashioned TV cabinet with a live fish tank where the screen used to be -- kind of startling when you're eating fish on your plate. This is a likely place to hear a British accent, and customers seem to know each other.
"We have lots of regulars -- some people come here every Friday night," says Gary. "And many of our customers are older," adds Tania. "So if we don't see them around for a few weeks, we start asking questions."
The Stagger Inn Bar & Grill: Owned by the same couple that runs the Captain's Table, this place has quite the name. "The Liquor Commission thought it was a great name," says Gary, smiling. But to appease the folks who might complain, there's a huge stag's head coming out of the wall with a very sweet expression, as if to say, "Oh dear, I've lost my back end somewhere. Has anyone seen it?"
The Stagger Inn is a big gathering place for neighbourhood types who are retired or having a day off and come in to visit almost every day. Then there's a birthday club of younger folks -- about 30 of them -- who celebrate most of their birthdays at the Stagger Inn. By the way, the problem is never staggering in; it's staggering out (which, of course, NO ONE DOES).
Underworld Scuba and Sport
1841� Portage Ave.
People walking out of the scuba store carrying colourful tanks and gear are an adventurous lot. They learn to suit up and deep-sea-dive at all stages in Tessa Diack's store. Its Discover Scuba course allows curiosity-seekers to learn how to gear up and get under the water at a nearby pool for $45. If they like it, they can sign up for a series of lessons to get prepared for the necessary four dives to complete their qualification.
"It's not a physically demanding sport. Once you get in the water, you're practically weightless," says Tony Doucet. "Lots of people come to us for the lessons before going on a holiday."
If you discover you really love to glub-glub-glub, you can take much more challenging courses. Attached to the store is dive instructor Dave Alderson, who teaches courses that involve deep diving or search and rescue. Like other dive stores, Underworld arranges diving trips for groups.
"They can get complicated. Lots of couples want to go," explains Doucet. "And we have to be careful to find destinations that have things for the spouses to do if they don't want to spend their time diving."
1835 Portage Ave.
The stately-looking salon and spa with the big red PIANOS sign on its roof used to be the Moir Pianos store. Owner Darlene Caci says the sign is part of the history of the area, so it's staying. The main floor is a full-service hair-styling salon and the downstairs spa is all about relaxing. Little music-lesson rooms are now private hideaways for massage and beauty treatments. She and her daughter, Melissa, took up the salon reins from husband and father Sam Caci after he died. He'd had several popular shops before settling at his dream location on Portage Avenue.
Darlene perches for a moment at a shiny black piano near the door. "I bought this piano here when it was a music store, so we still have it and sometimes customers sit and play for us.
"We just love all the customers and we've known them so long. We get caught up on their lives and we often get big hugs when they go. I just love the warmth around here."
Raven Toys, Comics & Games
1839 Portage Ave.
Shane Rodzinski is in his element, manning the counter at Raven, surrounded by toys, cards, videos, records and all manner of cool collectibles. "I've been buying and selling antiques and collectibles and other stuff since I was 15," he says.
The front window of the shop, owned by Mike Paille, is well-known by commuters. Big Bang Theory cardboard cutouts -- Penny, Leonard and the gang -- are looking right out the big front window.
Older collectors often pick up vintage records. "We have mostly rock, like we have the Beatles' and Stones' first albums, plus '80s music and punk."
What's new in the store? "Comics are at the forefront of the culture right now, and we've got the ones that inspired TV shows like the Walking Dead, Iron Fist and Power Man."