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Ottawa, in general, is not a wild nightlife kind of town. It’s a government town, and that means thousands of civil servants flee each evening to their far-flung suburban bungalows. That being said, the capital has long since cast off its reputation as the sort of place where the sidewalks are rolled up at 6PM. With two universities and two colleges, it has an active bar scene, especially along Elgin Street and in the ByWard Market from Thursday through Saturday, where things heat up around 10PM. Bars are allowed to stay open until 2AM, but most outside these two areas close earlier, especially on weeknights. Expect cover charges of $5 to $15 for live acts on weekends. Gatineau, across the Ottawa River, was once the go-to place for partying students, because the legal drinking age was lower and the bars were open later. Now that closing times are the same in both cities and a number of bars in the Hull sector have closed, the late-night flow of cabs across the river has slowed. Gatineau does still draw a young crowd, though, because at 18 the drinking age is a year lower than Ontario’s. If you’re looking for a quieter wine bar or restaurant, try Centretown, the Glebe, Old Ottawa South, Wellington Village or Westboro. Aside from bars, Ottawa also has a diverse and growing contemporary arts community that supports a range of galleries and lounges hosting everything from art exhibitions to spoken-word performances. Interesting venues are popping up along Somerset Street in Chinatown and Preston Street in Little Italy, as well as the Byward Market. The city is also home to a range of theatre companies, opera companies and classical music ensembles.
Even though this Ottawa branch of the nationwide comedy chain can seat 150 people at cabaret-style tables, it doesn’t feel like a big barn, due to the low ceilings and cool basement vibe. Talent ranges from local amateurs to international headliners. Snacks and drinks are available during all shows, which run Wednesday through Sunday. Book a pre-show dinner at Hooley’s restaurant upstairs from Thursday through Sunday and get an added perk: preferred seating at the show. Otherwise, seating is first come, first served. Shows change weekly and run just under two hours, and there are two shows on Saturdays. Minimum age is 16; anyone 16 to 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Yuk Yuk’s also runs smaller shows at the Prescott tavern in Little Italy on Fridays and Saturdays, with individual tickets and dinner-show packages available.
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Why, you ask, would you drive all the way to some village in the Gatineau Hills to catch a show? For the music, man, for the music. The Black Sheep Inn regularly sweeps up just about every “best live music venue” award—even though it looks like your average small-town watering hole, with its bright yellow walls and plain furniture. The roster of past performers is like a who’s who of Canadian music over the past decade or two—Neko Case, Jim Cuddy, Feist, Buck 65 and more. Roots and folk are heavily featured, but there’s a bit of everything here. And you can’t get much closer to the performers than you will in this intimate venue. The Black Sheep is about a 25-minute drive from downtown, if you’re not going in rush hour. In summer, get there early to enjoy a beer on the patio overlooking the Gatineau River.
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Neighborhood: ByWard Market
The Rainbow is Ottawa’s home of the blues. Drop into the cozy, two-story spot during Bluesfest and you’re more than likely to catch one of the headliners from the festival jamming with a few locals late into the night. But there’s more here than blues—you might get a taste of anything from jazz to ska. It’s one of the few local venues to offer live music seven days a week, including free matinees at 4:20PM from Wednesday through Sunday. (On Sundays, you’ll have to cough up $3 for the Open Blues Jam—it’s a steal.) With its exposed-stone walls and big fireplace, the Rainbow feels like your best friend’s cottage—if your best friend is really, really cool.
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Neighborhood: Wellington Village
The GCTC—as everyone calls it—was born at Carleton University in the mid-1970s. It still has something of the flavor of an idealistic student enterprise, albeit now with actors and audiences of all ages. The plays run heavily toward works by Canadian and emerging playwrights, and scripts with a strong social conscience. Some performances include a post-show Q&A with the playwright, director or cast. Housed for many years in a converted garage, the company moved to sleeker digs in an eco-friendly new building in the 2007 season. However, the new theatre is very similar to the simple, intimate old space—just with more comfortable seats and better lighting. A café downstairs serves drinks and light meals, and an onsite art gallery features contemporary works.
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Opera, Shakespeare, famous comedians, classical music, black-tie galas, blockbuster musicals—this is one of Ottawa’s main venues for big-ticket live events. Built in the 1960s, it has the brown-brick, bunker-esque feel of the era, albeit with glamorous touches like multi-story glass sculptures hanging inside the curving stairwells. Perhaps its best-known asset is the well-regarded National Arts Centre Orchestra, but the NAC offers diverse programs in dance, music and English- and French-language theatre. Weirdly, the main entrance is around the back, down a ramp meant mainly for cars. If you can even find the small entrance doors on Elgin Street, you’ll be diverted down a series of long, featureless hallways before you get to the main lobby. For a festive evening, book a pre-show dinner at the NAC’s pricey but elegant Le Café, overlooking the Rideau Canal and featuring dishes from across Canada.
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The music hall in 1914 was a grand movie palace, then morphed into a strip club and a disco as times changed. In its 1980s heyday as a live music club, it showcased just about every big act that came through Ottawa, from Tina Turner to U2. Shuttered by financial problems in the 1990s, it was later revived—music lovers just couldn’t let the legacy die. In its current incarnation, it serves up live rock on Saturdays, rounded out with DJ nights on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays: retro 80s and 90s nights, world beats and more. The huge interior features a big bar and lots of faded-movie-queen glamour, including the odd chandelier. Don’t bother showing up before 10PM on Fridays and Saturdays.
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Neighborhood: ByWard Market
It’s sleek, it’s hip, and it seems to change by the week— like any trendy cocktail lounge. That’s the Mercury Lounge in a nutshell, but some things seem constant, like the focus on soul, jazz, funk and electronic music, and the swish décor with its exposed-brick walls and red curtains. As well as the music mentioned above, it also hosts a range of other events, from spoken-word nights to flamenco performances. Theme nights on special occasions like Halloween fill up quickly. Open Wednesdays through Saturdays from 9PM to 2AM, as well as other times for special events.
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Neighborhood: ByWard Market
A little bit of everything is on the musical slate at Mavericks Bar: garage-band rock, punk, reggae, thrash metal, Afrobeat, alt-country—you name it, they’ve probably had it. It’s one of the city’s busiest venues, and local live music fans count on the club’s bookers to grab whatever cool indie band is currently on tour. Doors open early, usually around 8PM, but the action goes late. The crowd skews young, particularly at all-ages events. The décor is pretty basic—low ceilings, white walls—but patrons aren’t here to admire the wallpaper.
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The architecture isn’t anything to write home about. It’s your typical big hockey arena. And the location—stuck in a largely empty field on the far edge of Kanata—is a bit of a pain unless you live in the west end. OC Transpo does run special express buses to and from the site during Ottawa Senators NHL games and other big events, but if you don’t want to stuff yourself into a packed bus, you’ll need a car to get here. Most stadium-style rock, pop and country shows that come through Ottawa play Scotiabank Place—it’s a bit easier to dance along to Lady Gaga or Keith Urban here than at, say, the National Arts Centre. The box office is closed on Sundays year-round and on Saturdays from early May until Labor Day.
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Neighborhood: ByWard Market
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Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts is the sort of place that defies easy classification. It first opened as a Roman Catholic church in 1890, mainly to serve the large population of Irish-Canadian laborers in the Byward Market. Fast forward to 2008, when the church was deconsecrated and turned into an arts centre. It still has strong ties to the local Celtic community: It’s the home of the National Irish Canadian Cultural Centre and it frequently presents ceilis, harp concerts and similar performances. However, it also offers fare undreamed of by the church’s 19th-century founders—anything from opera and Cuban art exhibitions to drag queen cabaret shows. The crowd is equally eclectic: white-haired dowagers one night, multi-pierced Goths the next. The centre has two venues: the church nave itself, where the religious statues and murals are in a state of ongoing restoration, and a multi-function room in the basement.
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