“I’ve been drinking here ever since,” he said last week, sitting at the table he has occupied for the past 10 years and holding a pint of beer estimated at a cool 2 C.
“This is my seat, my table. Through every major playoff run — hockey, basketball, football — I’ve sat right here.”
He’s worried, though, that he might not get to sit there and watch the games again.
On Monday, the Wheat Sheaf closed its doors for renovations for the first time since 1995. The building needs serious refurbishment, and some wonder just how radical the difference will be when it’s all done.
After all, the inside of the Wheat Sheaf is nothing if not storied. Established in 1849 — before Toronto roads were paved and upscale microbreweries lined the downtown core — it stands as Toronto’s oldest bar. It was initially built as a two-storey brick building, a relic of Second Empire architecture, before a third storey was added in 1905 for hotel rooms. It went through several changes in ownership and yet somehow maintained roughly the same characteristics and identity through 170 years of operation.
If walls could talk, the Wheat Sheaf would have countless stories to tell. It was a bar for Irish-Catholics in a time of intense Presbyterianism. It was the watering hole for soldiers from the Fort York Barracks. It survived fires, disease outbreaks, countless brawls and, so far, the rapid gentrification of King St. W. Until Monday, it was home to dozens of regulars, some of whom have been elbow-bending there for more than 20 years.
“It smells like urine but it feels like home,” MacFarlane said affectionately.
The regulars can still recall drinking at the bar with legendary athletes like Daryl Sittler, Doug Gilmour and the Raptors’ Amir Johnson. On the back of the menu is the story of how Toronto Blue Jays catcher Charlie Moore got plastered, literally, when a sign fell on his head due to a leaking ceiling.
“You can meet anyone,” said Bill Godfrey, a regular who stumbled upon the Wheat Sheaf more than 25 years ago. “Construction workers, people working in finance, athletes — but we’re all the same here when we sit down at the bar.”
The regulars acknowledge the Wheat Sheaf is due for a makeover. The walls are flaking. The ceiling tends to leak. Part of the floor is on a springboard that appears to be sinking into the ground.
But they don’t want too much change.
“The owners are probably going to spend so much money remaking this place, and the prices will go up and it just won’t feel the same,” MacFarlane said. “If I come back here months from now and they don’t have the same kind of baked (chicken) wings? Well, it’s going to be a hard ask to stay.”
Before MacFarlane moved to Leaside, he says he came to the bar eight or nine times a week — that is, sometimes twice a day. Godfrey says he drank there so often that the renovators decided to consult with him specifically about the building’s structural integrity before moving forward with their plans.
Some of the regulars eat breakfast there on weekends. Some have shown up in pyjamas. Everyone has a drinking story, and few can remember them in their entirety.
It’s not clear when the Wheat Sheaf will reopen, or how extensive the renovation will be. John Georgopoulos, the bar’s owner, declined an interview request.
But the renovation “has to happen,” said bartender Jacob Cancade, who has worked at the Wheat Sheaf for almost three years. “There’s enough to fix around here.”
The team of bartenders and wait staff worked their last shifts on Sunday. Some are working at other downtown locals while the Wheat Sheaf is under repair, unsure if they’ll return.
Tommy Marshall says he spent so much time at the Wheat Sheaf that he was eventually hired as a bartender. He works as a standup comic on the side, and says many of the regulars he met at the bar now watch him perform.
He hopes the bar’s character is not lost in the renovations. “Make it so that it can be a bougie, upscale, Belfast-type pub, like the others on King St. W.? That’s not my style.”
If the bar becomes as ritzy as some of the other spots on King St. W., Godfrey wonders if he’ll be allowed back in. Habitually, his outfit consists of an old T-shirt with the Wheat Sheaf’s logo, and khaki shorts. He claims to have been turned away at several nearby bars for dress-code violations.
Serious change suggests the end of an era, giving Monday’s closure a level of uncertainty for the regulars. MacFarlane, as uncertain as everyone else, says he’ll have to make a decision when the Wheat Sheaf reopens.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the people who come here,” he said. “So if these guys stay — if they decide they like the new place — then I probably will, too.”
Jacob Lorinc is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @jacoblorinc