Walking into the lounge at the Royal Albert Arms Hotel doesn’t feel much different than it did a few years ago when it closed. The big, old wooden bar is still near the entrance and the big, old wooden posts are still covered with stickers advertising bands who have rolled through over the years.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 13/6/2019 (741 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Walking into the lounge at the Royal Albert Arms Hotel doesn’t feel much different than it did a few years ago when it closed. The big, old wooden bar is still near the entrance and the big, old wooden posts are still covered with stickers advertising bands who have rolled through over the years.

Owners of the Albert

The Royal Albert Arms Hotel at 48 Albert St. has had numerous owners in its 106-year history.

The architect of the four-storey, 54-room, European-style hotel was Edgar D. McGuire, and the first owners were entrepreneurs J. Patrick Grogan and Angelo Ferrari.

From there, things get a little murky: soon after the Royal Albert opened, Winnipeg went through a recession, exacerbated by the First World War.

The Royal Albert Arms Hotel at 48 Albert St. has had numerous owners in its 106-year history.

The architect of the four-storey, 54-room, European-style hotel was Edgar D. McGuire, and the first owners were entrepreneurs J. Patrick Grogan and Angelo Ferrari.

From there, things get a little murky: soon after the Royal Albert opened, Winnipeg went through a recession, exacerbated by the First World War. Room prices were cut and the hotel garnered a reputation for being a little rough around the edges, becoming a hub for illegal liquor transactions, sex workers and fighting.

Around 1920, Daniel Whalen took over operations, and things changed hands again when the Reidle Brewery took over the space in the mid-1930s.

In the 1960s, the Royal Albert was bought by Gordon Hotels (the same folks who owned the still-operating Curtis Gordon Motor Hotel on Henderson Highway), and, according to a Free Press article from September 1981, acquired new ownership in '70, '71, '74 and again in 1979, when Bob Axworthy (former MP Lloyd Axworthy's brother) took co-ownership of the building for around a year, until it went into voluntary bankruptcy.

At some point during the '80s, the Royal Albert also became a live-music venue.

The '90s were all about the venue making a name for itself in the expanding local punk and rock scenes, and with touring musicians who stopped by the then-infamous bar to play a show.

In 2007, Internet pharmacy pioneer Daren Jorgenson bought the building; he had planned an extensive renovation that never came to fruition. In 2011, a water-main break flooded the basement and shut things down for nearly two years. It opened again very briefly in 2013, but closed after a bizarre (and well-documented) series of events, including in-fighting between Jorgenson and then co-owner Ray Rybachuk, and an incident in which all the restaurant staff was fired.

Neil Soorsma now owns the building, which he bought at a mortgage auction in December 2017 for $1.35 million. In the 18 months he's had the property, he's put in a ton of work to bring it back to its original glory, including upgrading the fire systems and getting the restaurant back into working condition.

Soorsma says his main goal was always to get the hotel up and running (rooms are currently available to rent). He wasn't in a hurry to launch the venue and bar again, but he's optimistic it will be a positive step toward the full resurrection of the building.

"We want to stabilize it, continue renovations… we’re going through it and rectifying anything we find that’s wrong. Rooms repainting, redoing. Eventually we’ll start on the outside," Soorsma says of his short-term plans.

"I hope it’ll be a trendy place to be for people, I'm hoping the bar and lounge will be popular and I’m hoping it’ll run itself a bit more," he adds with a laugh.

There is one noticeable change, however — the Albert is a lot less dingy now.

"We haven’t changed much; just lots and lots of cleaning," Colleen Swifte says, laughing. Swifte has taken on the job of running the bar and venue, which reopens to the public Friday night as the Royal Albert Bar & Grill with a rock show featuring an all-Manitoba lineup of the Bloodshots, the Love Tongues and Snarky Remarkable.

Swifte is also the owner of Alycia’s, the Ukrainian restaurant that moved into the main floor of the Albert last year. She says many of the folks who visited for some perogies and kielbasa also wanted to take a peek at their former haunt, often expressing a "keen interest" in getting the venue up and running again.

That interest was an indicator to Swifte — who does not have previous experience running a venue — that it was worth looking into reopening the bar, which has been closed since 2013.

The big, old wooden bar inside the Royal Albert Hotel hasn't changed much.</p>

The big, old wooden bar inside the Royal Albert Hotel hasn't changed much.

"I thought, ‘You know what, I think this place is more about the bar than it is about a restaurant,’" Swifte says. "All you can do is try, forge ahead. I wouldn’t have considered it if I didn’t feel the interest was there. And I’ve got a good staff and I feel that it’s something that could really succeed."

In order to get the ball rolling, Swifte accepted help and guidance from both the Exchange District Biz and Ryan Sorensen, a local musician and the creator of Toba Rock Fest, who is now the booker for the venue.

FAQs about the RAB&G

Click to Expand

When is the bar/restaurant open?
As of now, the Royal Albert Bar & Grill opens at noon Wednesday to Friday, and at 2 p.m. on Saturday. Closing times have not yet been set.

Where can I find out about upcoming shows?
Any information about upcoming shows, as well as the new menu, can be found on the public Facebook group page the Royal Albert Bar & Grill.

My band wants to play here!
That's not really a question, but any musicians looking for a chance to play on the iconic stage can email Ryan Sorensen at bookingtheroyalalbert@ gmail.com.

Is my sticker from 1995 still on the post by the stage?
Yes.

"I was very excited when (Colleen) reached out to let me know they were thinking of opening the bar. Her initial question was if we’d be OK with it, and of course we were more than OK with it," says David Pensato, executive director of the Exchange District Biz.

"She was willing to accept some help from us and we just helped her get in touch with some of the right people to help her figure out the pieces... What I’ve found as I’ve reached out to people is that there’s so much good will towards that space and so many people who want to see it succeed. They have been generous with their time, and doing things even without pay a little bit, or paid a lot less than they normally would, just because they want to see this work."

Sorensen is very aware of the venue’s importance to the music community in Winnipeg and its storied past, which includes visits from acts such as Green Day, Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) and Nickleback before they made it big, as well as being ground zero for iconic Winnipeg acts such as Propagandhi and the Weakerthans, among many, many others in the local punk and rock scene.

All that history was taken into consideration as Sorensen and Swifte fleshed out the upcoming performance calendar.

Colleen Swifte is a tenant of the Royal Albert Hotel and owns the restaurant on the main floor. She is now taking over operations of the bar and music venue.

Colleen Swifte is a tenant of the Royal Albert Hotel and owns the restaurant on the main floor. She is now taking over operations of the bar and music venue.

"Certainly we want to honour the tradition of the Albert and have a venue for some of the more alternative artists, like the punk bands, metal bands; however, the Albert also needs to adapt to the times, so it’s going to be more of a multi-genre venue as well," Sorensen says. "It will be catering to different musical tastes that I don’t think are as well-represented in the city, so we have ideas to do jazz and blues as well as more traditional rock music."

Right now, the venue is hosting bands and events on Fridays and Saturdays, with a plan to expand in the coming months (Sorensen says they’ve already booked acts through the fall). Locked in for this weekend, in addition to Friday’s grand-opening gig, is the first of a regular blues afternoon on Saturdays with the Billy Joe Green Band starting at 4 p.m. and a preview event for the MEME festival Saturday night.

On the food-and-drink side of things, Alycia’s and the Albert’s bar and lounge are no longer separate entities, but fall under the single umbrella of the Royal Albert Bar & Grill. The menu has changed, too, as Alycia’s moves into catering for private functions and deli sales — though some favourites, such as perogies, will still be available alongside more typical pub fare such as ribs, burgers and flatbreads.

Swifte (from left), Dwayne Nicholson, Mike Chipka, Brett Hesford and Ryan Sorensen are the crew behind the Royal Albert Bar & Grill.</p>

Swifte (from left), Dwayne Nicholson, Mike Chipka, Brett Hesford and Ryan Sorensen are the crew behind the Royal Albert Bar & Grill.

The restaurant is family-friendly, and Swifte says the plan is to bring in TVs for sporting and other events, with the intention being to make the Albert an ideal after-work stop for those in the neighbourhood.

"I just want it to become a place where people feel welcome, they come in and enjoy everything here… we’re open for business and people are welcome to come down and I think they’ll find it’s a very different place than it was, but not so different that we want to lose the original vibe," Swifte says.

"We’re very cognizant of what the Albert was and the types of bands and the people that used to frequent here and the legacy it has in the city," Sorensen adds. "We certainly want to honour that while at the same time bringing it into 2019."

Local indie-rock outift the Bonaduces tested out the sound system at the soft opening of The Albert last month.</p>

Local indie-rock outift the Bonaduces tested out the sound system at the soft opening of The Albert last month.

He admits to feeling pressure from the local music community, having received emails from friends wanting to know how legitimate this new attempt at maintaining a venue will be.

"There is a degree of skepticism, and also, since the Albert closed the last time, a lot of other music venues did arise in the city..." he says. "So the Albert does have a bit of an uphill battle to re-establish itself as one of the premier music venues in the city.

"But I think we’re up for that challenge. There’s still a lot of excitement, a lot of really great artists have already booked shows — we’re booking well into the fall already — so I think it’s something that’s going to succeed."

erin.lebar@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @NireRabel

Erin Lebar

Erin Lebar
Manager of audience engagement for news

Erin Lebar is a multimedia producer who spends most of her time writing music- and culture-related stories for the Arts & Life section. She also co-hosts the Winnipeg Free Press's weekly pop-culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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