When m’lady and I were considering moving to rural Newfoundland we settled on Harbour Grace almost arbitrarily. I tell you, we looked at houses in Trinity, Heart’s Desire, Dildo, Heart’s Content, Cupids, Heart’s Delight, Deep Bight…we were all over the place. At the end of another long day chasing our real estate agent down bumpy country roads we found ourselves in our hotel room humming and hawing and surfing our respective ‘nets. And that’s when we found out about the old cathedral and the even older courthouse in Harbour Grace.
The two recently-decommissioned buildings sat just around the corner from a house we were considering and the internet told us that the owners of Yellowbelly – AKA the most successful brew-pub(s) in St. John’s – had acquired both of these structures and they planned to convert them into premiere heritage destination drinking establishments. Now, I won’t say that this is why we bought the place – I mean, the house is nice with a great view, it was reasonably priced and not too far from Town – but it was a tipping point.
Okay, it’s why we bought the place.
But then they didn’t open. Oh sure, I saw contractors and pickup trucks and dumpsters around both establishments almost daily (still do). There were rumours and news stories but the places kept not opening and it was driving me crazy. Even worse, in January of 2021 I heard that there was a comedy show coming to the courthouse and it sold out before I could get tickets. Then I saw a bus there one Saturday; turns out it was a party bus on a brewery-hopping tour of the area. Then another show came and went that sold out before I heard about it. Like, was the place open or not?
Then finally we acquired tickets to a show in what they are calling The Old Courthouse. It was for Saturday, November 27th, 2021 and as far as I could tell it would mark the third time the place was open for the evening (the party bus thing was just for an hour in the afternoon). The band was called The Fine Lads, a group of young west coast Newfoundlanders based out of St. John’s. I gave them an e-listen and found it to be upbeat open-chord traditional Irish/English/Newfoundland music, and while I find that style of music overtly boring we were so excited to see the place we bought tickets at $30 a pop.
We were among the first to arrive and – with covid protocols being what they were – we were led up to a small balcony and seated at a table for two. There was no actual bar in sight so it was all table service and I must say our waiter did a great job. To say it was all downhill from there would be rather negative and almost wholly accurate.
There is one other bar/pub in Harbour Grace. It’s called Easton’s and it’s just a short walk in the opposite direction. However, by the time we moved here it had closed down. After almost a year it reopened but the place was unlocking its doors infrequently and at random intervals. When I notice that it’s open I’ll stop in for an afternoon pint and when I do I’m almost always the only person there. And they don’t have taps, nor do they stock any IPA beers.
So I was very, very interested in trying all of the in-house beers that Yellowbelly had on offer. I started with their IPA. Flat and not cold…almost warm. Then I tried the Come From Away New England IPA. Same two problems. Then I moved on to the J’Ale beer that is brewed specifically for this location. “A very normal-tasting lager,” our server explained. “So it’s made here, onsite?” I asked. “No,” he replied, “For now all of our beer is brought here from or St. John’s location.” Ah, no wonder it’s all warm. I ordered a J’ale and found it rather indistinguishable from the others. I ended up biting the bullet and reverting back to the regular IPA for the remainder of the evening.
The venue itself surprised me. I was expecting the main room to take up the entire second floor of the building but with the balcony on one side and an inexplicably curtained-off area behind the band on the other the room comprised only about a third to maybe half of the storey. And though everything was all very shiny and clean it was also rather plain. I’m sure the checkerboard floor and wood-panelled ceiling were original but talk about not ornate! I dug the wooden panels running halfway up the walls and the big arched windows, but overall the room was simply: plain. There wasn’t even a stage.
But then again, it had been a courtroom built on the edge of a windswept rock in the North Atlantic Ocean in 1830. What sort of pageantry was I expecting?
The sound guy was horrible. He had about five times more sound gear than he needed and he was using it all for the drums and bass. You couldn’t understand a word, you could hardly hear the banjo…it was just aural mud.
To The Fine Lads themselves: they were fine. The guitar/banjo/fiddle player was really good as was the drummer. The vocalist had a great voice and the bass player was playing bass. They started with Whiskey in the Jar which boded well but they soon got into the I’s the B’ys stuff and lost me. When they went into Wagon Wheel I checked my ticket. Did this really cost $30 per person?
So the whole evening was: fine, I guess.
Then on the way out a gentleman at the door thanked us for coming and said he hoped we’d be back. That was way too much customer service to be an employee. “Is this your place?” I asked and it was. The guy ended up taking us downstairs to the old jail cells where the speakeasy and the stone courtyard are. Oh my goodness, it was amazing! Like, dream-come-true everything-I-hoped-for awesomeness. A great looking bar, a cool room, cells with bars and locks intact had been renovated into private booths…it was all so great! He told me they were hoping to open next March* and I can’t wait!
I currently have bells on.
*They didn’t. As I am doing my little proof-read it’s now September and with very, very few exceptions the Old Courthouse still sits dark every night. I was so interested in having the place open on the reg that I sent in my resumé. I didn’t hear back.