Degrassi, on the house

Degrassi, on the house
Consider it an unobtrusive homage: The grand opening of the DeGrassi House comes this Friday

EMILY MATHIEU

Unless you knew what you were looking for, you’d walk right past DeGrassi House. That’s kind of the point.

The recently renamed restaurant and bar at 780 Queen St. E., just west of the street first made famous with Kids of Degrassi Street and which remains so thanks to Degrassi: The Next Generation, has a new sign.

But that’s the flashiest thing about it. And that’s how the owners like it. Since they took possession of the place 14 months ago, co-owners and good friends Jo-Anne Cameron, 50, and Robert VanVelthuizen, 43, have been busy keeping tabs on the countless ins and outs of running a licensed restaurant and all-ages music venue.

They’re planning to get a few pieces of Degrassi St. paraphernalia to hang on an inside wall. Cameron has lived on De Grassi St. the spelling was tweaked for the TV show, and again for the restaurant for more than two decades. And neither her or VanVelthuizen, who moved there four years ago, are interested in running a gimmicky theme restaurant.

They have a name in common, but the restaurant has no official link to the show consider it a quiet homage, if you will.

It’s that obvious prioritizing of function over flash that makes the place so perfectly Degrassi which as a program will celebrate its 25th anniversary next year. The show draws more than 600,000 viewers on Monday nights on CTV. Just last weekend, in the wake of the infamous Kevin Smith episodes being shown in the U.S., The Next Generation was profiled extensively in the New York Times Magazine. Already a cult hit in the south, the show has the breakout potential to become the next hip thing across North America.

Sidling onto the Canadian television scene, Kids of Degrassi Street and all its ensuing programs, have been about students in a neighbourhood that’s less than spectacular, yet always ultimately interesting. The bar’s going for the same vibe.

For the most part, the kids of Degrassi weren’t and aren’t that attractive, they make major social mistakes and, for the most part, get stuck with the results.

That gritty realism, Cameron and VanVelthuizen agree, is what gives the show its appeal.

“There was that great punky girl, Spike” muses Cameron, about the character’s infamous pregnancy debacle during Degrassi Junior High that led to Next Generation’s star Emma. The former corrections officer for the Don Jail is a clear champion of big-haired girls willing to stick to their guns.

“That whole thing was like `Go girl, you go.'”

That “whole thing” with Spike, was Degrassi at its awkward best.

It’s unclear if a shot of Spike’s pointy, bleached out, head will make it onto a DeGrassi wall, but Cameron and VanVelthuizen do recognize the characters have a broad appeal.

“We get people, fans of the show, from out of town all the time,” says Cameron, who adds that she occasionally forgets the low-key community she lives in is a landmark.

But then there are always the reminders.

“There were those two girls from Milwaukee,” VanVelthuizen says. “They drove down and came here specifically because of the name, they grew up with the show.

“We couldn’t get rid of them for three days,” he jokes.

Life at DeGrassi House primarily revolves around a stage where local and out-of-town musicians, of all ages, can listen and play (the joint is classified as a restaurant, so all ages can come down).

“We get about 300 kids in here a week,” says VanVelthuizen.

“The kids who live around De Grassi know us,” he continues.

“They know not to screw around with us at the bar.”

Whatever it is, bar, restaurant, music venue, DeGrassi House isn’t glamorous, but the owners know there is something to be said for just fitting in.

It’s perfect strategy in a place where several generations of pimple-faced kids turned a couple blocks between and Queen and Gerrard Sts. E. into a national treasure.

With the official renaming party coming up Friday, Cameron and VanVelthuizen are just planning on setting out some extra food and making sure the beer taps are running smoothly.

And, of course there will be music.

“I remember the name of the band, The Zit Remedy,” says VanVelthuizen. “With Joey and that tall red-headed cat, Snake.”

“The Zit Remedy,” says Cameron, laughing. “I think they were playing here on Monday night.”

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DeGrassi House is at 780 Queen St. E. See the website at

http://www.degrassihouse.com.

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