Ontario’s draconian liquor laws and the vagaries of Toronto’s municipal politics have made owning a bar in Canada’s largest city a practically Sisyphean endeavor, so it’s a testament to the ingenuity and resolve of the city’s entrepreneurs that Toronto nevertheless boasts one of the best nightlife scenes in the world. From obscure dives to high-end taphouses, we’ve scoured every neighborhood to find the finest bars the city has to offer. Here are our picks for the 12 best places to imbibe.
For the true beer aficionado, no ordinary draught list will suffice. But we trust that few could glimpse Bar Volo’s offerings and leave dissatisfied. Their thirty-plus taps and cask ales afford the discerning beer drinker a rotating selection of craft brews in any number of styles and flavors, making the only difficulty settling on just one. Fully accessible, if regularly packed, Bar Volo is best approached outside of its bustling five-to-nine, after-work weekday rush.
If you want proof that Cold Tea cultivates an aura of seclusion, look no further than the door: It’s located, unmarked, inside a dilapidated Kensington Market mini-mall. (You can also enter the bar through a steel door at the end of an alley on the other side.) But just because it’s difficult to find doesn’t mean it’s too exclusive—and in fact scarcely has a bar’s atmosphere been more casual and relaxed. Sapporo on tap is a reliable choice of libation, but regulars know that the cocktails, more elaborate than you’d expect from a place this low-key, are worth waiting for.
TORONTO TEMPERANCE SOCIETY
Little Italy’s sophisticated Temperance Society isn’t a bar you can simply stroll into off the street, but rather one you apply to as either a monthly or yearly member—unless you can score a nightly invitation from someone already among them. And yet the tasteful atmosphere and distinguished clientele—not to mention the superb cocktails, crafted with obvious care and expertise—justify any claims to snobbery. One warning: Do not order a Cosmopolitan, as, according to the house rules, “you will be asked, politely, to leave.”
BLACK DICE CAFE
Dundas West has no shortage of hip bars and restaurants, but the standout of the strip is the Black Dice Cafe, a Japanese rockabilly joint decked out like a diner designed by Jim Jarmusch. The green lights and coolly glowing ‘50s jukebox—which co-owner and bartender Hideki Saito routinely slips from behind the counter to cue up—contribute to an ambience unlike any other. Where else can you expect to eat a pogo (or a TV dinner), drink a Japanese whisky, and play a game of pinball simultaneously?
A low-key bar even by the standards of a low-key area, Dundas West’s precious cocktail bar The Wallflower is perhaps the ideal place to bring a date—intimacy already seems in the air of the place. (This is supported by the fact that the Wallflower’s seating has been arranged mainly for parties of two.) A kind of downbeat jazz-bar vibe makes the front room all but glow—think the Sonata Cafe near the beginning of Eyes Wide Shut—while an enclosed outdoor patio, open for the city’s few summer months, nicely widens the scope.
This relatively new Haitian snack bar is exactly as novel as it sounds, but the appeal of Rhum Corner runs much deeper, thankfully, than the intrigue of being something different. The bar, as its name suggests, offers a staggering variety of rum, served neat for discriminating sipping or, if you are in the mood for something more extravagant, mixed into what is handily the best Dark and Stormy in town. Ah, but the pièce de résistance is even more exquisite still: A picture-perfect Piña Colada poured from a jerry-rigged slushie machine.
NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL
This College Street fixture gets its name from the classic Gabriel Garcia Marquez novella, though, alas, there are no roosters to speak of on site. Still, the spacious, inviting lounge has every bit of warmth you’d expect of something Marquez-indebted, littered with comfortable vintage furniture inside and featuring a cozy outdoor patio through the summer. The bar advertises a “feel at home” atmosphere, and that puts succinctly what the Colonel does so well.
THE COMMUNIST’S DAUGHTER
Any bar named after a Neutral Milk Hotel song is alright in our books, but the Communist’s Daughter hardly needs the advantage. This miniscule spot, found right across the street from Get Well, is among the city’s most consistently busy watering holes. And for good reason: the well-stocked jukebox—replete, of course, with its namesake record—no less than the Christmas light decor make this a very easy bar to fall for. Don’t leave without trying one of the bar counter’s unappetizing but irresistible pickled eggs.
If you want a real cocktail—that is, a libation you would be unable, without a stocked bar and a great deal of talent, to make for yourself at home—there is no better destination than Parkdale’s Geraldine, the city’s go-to spot for elegance and refinement. Featuring two varieties of high-end absinthe and a host of drinks to be made of them, the Geraldine is interested in the best drinks available whatever the cost—so perhaps not the best place to visit on a budget.
THE PEOPLE’S EATERY
Newly opened at Spadina and Dundas in the heart of Toronto’s otherwise unglamorous Chinatown, The People’s Eatery has quickly established itself as the neighborhood’s most distinguished bar. Boasting a full-time DJ through the week, a wide array of draught beer and cocktails, a slew of exemplary Chinese a-la-carte snacks (try the tongue sandwich), and an atmosphere unrivaled for cool in the area, this is a new bar that has already proven itself as worthy of a spot on any best-of list. Best of all, it never stops: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more happening spot on a Monday or Tuesday night.
It’s rare to find a bar with a sizable draught list that also serves as a late-night hangout more energetic than a becalmed pub, but that’s precisely what one can hope to enjoy at Get Well, located at the ever-buzzing corner of Dundas and Ossington (arguably the city’s trendiest intersection). Though it may prove slightly too busy to make use of them during its hottest hours, a clutch of classic arcade machines line the bar’s fall wall, so feel free to hit the joint up early for a few rounds of Galaga.
THE HEN HOUSE
Inexpensive beer, a DIY aesthetic, and a queer-positive vibe have made the Hen House one of Toronto’s most inclusive and agreeable hangouts, both as a low-key spot for drinks with friends in the early evenings and, on weekend nights, a full-fledged dance bar. The decor might best be described as “vintage store kitsch,” but somehow, bustling with eager locals on a Saturday night, the atmosphere feels more like a nightclub than a shabby cafe.