Best Bars: Toronto’s top 16 cocktail lounges, dives and speakeasies
CHECK OUT ALL 16 COCKTAIL PICKS »
JUMP TO: BEST ROOFTOP TIPPLES | CLASSIEST DRINKS IN A DIVE | BEST DRINKS AFTER A 12-HOUR DAY | GAYEST COCKTAILS | BOOZIEST BRUNCH | TRENDIEST COCKTAILS IN A PORTUGUESE SPORTS BAR | BEST TEQUILERIA | BEST RUM AND BOURBON | LIVELIEST DRINKS IN A STUFFY HOTEL BAR | MOST RELAXED WHISKEY BAR | TASTIEST NEGRONIS | MOST IRONIC COCKTAILS | MOST AUTHENTIC SPEAK EASY | MOST EXCLUSIVE COCKTAIL CLUB | BUZZIEST BARTENDER HANGOUT | BEST PLACE TO SEAL THE DEAL
BEST ROOFTOP TIPPLES
The Thompson Rooftop
550 Wellington St. W., 416-601-3595
Nowhere in Toronto can our world-class status be more easily confirmed than from a perch at the Thompson’s rooftop bar. Even in winter, the view is really that impressive, and it’s best enjoyed with a sophisticated drink. The Millionaire #3 ($15)—with Belvedere vodka, Cointreau, grenadine and raspberry syrup—is sweet but not cloying, thanks to whipped egg white. A pub grub–style menu (spring rolls, calamari) is adequate if uninspired, but, hey, that’s what the view is for.
CLASSIEST DRINKS IN A DIVE »
IN A DIVE
60 Kensington Ave., 416-546-4536
Hidden in a Kensington Market shopping centre, Cold Tea resembles a musty storage room and a squatters’ refuge, but it has excellent DJs (spinning electro-funk and psych-rock) and artisanal cocktails. Our favourites: the Buk Chai ($8) with Goslings rum, ginger beer, chai syrup and lime, and the Apple Pie ($8), made from Zubrowka, apple cider and honey-chai syrup. Sipping one on the concrete patio out back feels illicit, like getting drunk in a parking lot in high school, only with way better booze.
BEST DRINKS AFTER A 12-HOUR DAY »
372 Bay St., 647-352-3211
Amid the Financial District’s hustle, The Gabardine takes great pains to be relaxed: deep, plush leather booths, clapboard walls, sepia-toned pictures of cows and cottages. But it’s unavoidably frenetic, as harried servers rush to seat thirsty post-work stockbrokers. To alleviate all that tension, the first round of cocktails comes fast and strong—gin-soaked negronis ($10), horseradish-spiked caesars ($8), dirty martinis ($10)—and the snacks, like the extra-corny deep-fried hush puppies, encourage lingering.
GAYEST COCKTAILS »
553 Church St., 416-926-2501
Bars in the village don’t usually put much effort into the drinks list—not when there’s a drag revue desperate to meet Liza’s standards. It’s different at Smith, a comparatively sedate resto-bar with a tiny lounge upstairs for weekend DJ nights. The cocktail list is short and perfect. At the outset of winter, it included a seemingly innocent smash ($12) of whole cranberries, lime juice and ginger spiked with shots of apple-flavoured schnapps and gin. The Millionaire’s Cocktail ($13) is a fancy froth of bourbon, Grand Marnier, pastis, citrus, egg white and a dash of nutmeg.
BOOZIEST BRUNCH »
782 Queen St. E., 416-519-1851
Brunch is a religion in Leslieville, and every weekend the faithful gather at Table 17, as often as not with children in tow, for cocktails with their Neapolitan eggs and farmer’s breakfasts. Mikey Morrow, the east end’s most creative bartender and a dapper neighbourhood icon, makes classic eye-openers like mimosas and caesars that are only $5 each, encouraging repeat orders. For his breakfast version of a Pimm’s cup, Morrow blends the fruity, gin-based spirit with orange juice and soda and serves it in a champagne flute with a cucumber slice.
IN A PORTUGUESE SPORTS BAR »
IN A PORTUGUESE
1212 Dundas St. W., 416-588-4900
Churchill is a mishmash of unpretentious watering hole and Portuguese sports bar (it used to be one). Chatty bartenders serve Prohibition-era cocktails like the Last Word ($14), made with gin, green chartreuse, Luxardo Maraschino and lime, and trendy Italian drinks like the Paper Plane ($14), made with bourbon, Aperol and Amaro Nonino. It’s a cozy place to drink before heading across the street for a concert at The Garrison—or home to relieve the babysitter. Bonus: the doors on the washroom stalls reach all the way to the ground.
BEST TEQUILERIA »
136 Ossington Ave., 416-532-6474
A good tequila stupor is lucid rather than sloppy, which makes this purist-run bar, specializing in quality goods rather than body shots, a godsend on the sloppy-drunk Ossington strip. Tequila flights ($18–$45) are served with homemade sangrita (Clamato’s tangy cousin) rather than lime and salt. A Hot Ruby ($11.50), with habanero- and strawberry-infused tequilas and grapefruit soda, is the ideal winter warmer. The heated back patio offers an excellent view of neighbourhood fire escapes, which you don’t see very often in this city.
BEST RUM AND BOURBON »
BEST RUM AND BOURBON
The County General
936 Queen St. W., 416-531-4447
A good drink is in the details, and Aja Sax’s devotion to the little things borders on OCD. A simple garnish is weeks in the making: an Ontario cherry ferments in a mixture of brandy, orange zest, lemon juice and sugar before fulfilling its destiny in a drink. Bourbon and rum have their own menu—25 kinds of bourbon, 33 kinds of rum—and provide the base for most cocktails. A Flip the Switch, made with Bulleit, Grand Marnier, chilled Earl Grey tea and cinnamon, goes down like a comforting, but not too sweet, dessert.
LIVELIEST DRINKS IN A STUFFY HOTEL BAR »
LIVELIEST DRINKS IN
A STUFFY HOTEL BAR
181 Wellington St. W., 416-585-2500
Open for a just a year, Toca, the bar in the Ritz-Carlton, already feels like an indispensable institution to suits in need of a stiff after-work drink. The main draw is the smart list of house cocktails. Our favourite: an ethereal frappé ($16) of egg white, thyme-infused Jamaican Wray and Nephew rum, bitters and citrus-elderflower liquor, all goosed by a naughty shot of absinthe. The over-styled room will date fast—a blown-glass chandelier, enough wood panelling to build a frigate—but the cocktails are keepers.
MOST RELAXED WHISKEY BAR »
MOST RELAXED WHISKEY BAR
The Emmet Ray
924 College St., 416-792-4497
It’s only fitting that a bar named after Sean Penn’s hard-drinking guitar player from Sweet and Lowdown would feature live jazz in the back room and around 40 scotches, 25 bourbons and 35 other assorted whiskeys from around the world. The Ezra “B” from Kentucky ($9.50), a favourite of Andrew Kaiser, the chatty owner and bartender, is uncommonly smooth for a 12-year-old bourbon. The overstuffed armchairs fill up with a crowd of floppy-toqued under-30s who are more subdued than the revellers elsewhere on the College strip.
TASTIEST NEGRONIS »
1704 Queen St. W., 416-588-0100
An appreciation of Italian aperitivi and sausage are prereqs for diners at this Parkdale gem, where cured meat hangs from the ceiling. The brief drinks menu is a love letter to the negroni, the Campari-strong Italian drink that’s served in pretty much every new rustic Italian restaurant in the city. Of the six variations, our favourite is the Sbagliato ($10), where prosecco subs in for the standard gin. Salumi’s snack menu demonstrates similar devotion to la dolce vita, the best being paper-thin, house-cured prosciutto with homemade crostini.
MOST IRONIC COCKTAILS »
MOST IRONIC COCKTAILS
Parts and Labour
1566 Queen St. W., 416-588-7750
Spotting urban lumberjacks should be a drinking game at Parkdale’s tongue-in-cheek hardware-store-turned-resto-bar. Cocktail auteur Rob Turenne obviously got the gig based on more than just the cut of his flannel. The Collins McIntosh ($12) owes its crisp taste to Turenne’s house-made apple shrub (fresh-squeezed apple juice and apple cider vinegar) combined with Plymouth gin and yellow chartreuse. Spiced honey and cardamom bitters add warmth, as does the bar’s wood-burning stove. Vegetarians be warned: the carnivorous snacks involve bone marrow and pig faces.
MOST AUTHENTIC SPEAKEASY »
923 Dundas St. W., 416-792-7511
With a smouldering fireplace and a soundtrack lifted from the credits of a Woody Allen movie, Cocktail Bar is the kind of snug salon that makes you linger all night and spend way too much money. The owner, Jen Agg, is known for upgrading old-timey cocktails with top-notch booze and her own house-made bitters, which make each drink taste befuddlingly good. Her signature manhattan ($16) blends 10-year-old rye, Antica Formula sweet vermouth, bitters and a macerated black cherry. It’s sweeter and smoother than any variation we’ve tasted.
MOST EXCLUSIVE COCKTAIL CLUB »
Toronto Temperance Society
577A College St., no phone
Members-only admission ensures that everyone at the Temperance Society takes cocktails seriously. About 350 members pay $285 a year for access to the intimate second-floor space. The bar serves the highest-quality booze blended with painstakingly made garnishes. Peaty’s Muddle ($12), a glass of mescal, lime, cilantro, jalapeño syrup and Bitterman’s habanero shrub misted with Laphroaig Islay single-malt scotch whiskey (dispensed from an atomizer), is a musky sip. Live jazz bands on weekends authenticate the Boardwalk Empire vibe.
BUZZIEST BARTENDER HANGOUT »
BUZZIEST BARTENDER HANGOUT
The Harbord Room
89 Harbord St., 416-962-8989
One of few places to successfully pull off the resto-bar hybrid, The Harbord Room is where the cool kids of Toronto’s food and drink industry gather on their nights off. Much of the draw is the bearded man behind the bar, Dave Mitton, whose charisma is matched by his cocktail creativity. The Ronald Clayton ($15)—vanilla-infused Crown Royal with organic maple bitters and tobacco syrup—is a smooth and smoky elixir named after Mitton’s late grandfather. Much of the winter drink menu is similarly inspired by old men and dark drawing rooms.
BEST PLACE TO SEAL THE DEAL »
TO SEAL THE DEAL
107 King St. E., 416-603-8009
At Origin, across the street from St. James and the former Occupy site, the dark, hard-edged room is a haven for the area’s suits. The creative cocktail list is designed to blow expense accounts and impress clients. The Seafarer’s Sanctum ($13)—blueberry syrup, dark rum, orange pekoe tea and lemon juice—turns late afternoon into early evening all too quickly. Chef Claudio Aprile’s excellent Asian fusion food helps prevent fall-down drunkery so some work still gets done between drinks.