If you’re in or on your way to Toronto and asking yourself that age-old question, “Where’s the good drinking at?” look no further. Whether you’re in the market for a gimmick-free dive, a boisterous beer hall, a renowned cocktail bar or a natural-wine specialist, Culture Trip has you covered.
In Toronto, drinking is very much a pastime, whether it’s raising a local brew during play-offs, soaking in the fleeting summer on a patio or warming up in the winter by a fire, rye in hand. And where there’s a will to drink in a particular fashion, there’s a bar to match.
Every bar on this list has warm and welcoming staff, an atmospheric setting and a great drinks menu, naturally. They include conventional craft-cocktail sanctuaries (Coffee Oysters Champagne), places that push the envelope of creativity (Bar Chef and Mother) and pubs that just offer a plain old good time (Black Dice, Crews and Tangos); many also serve non-alcoholic options (Mother and Civil Liberties) for designated drivers and non-partakers. Above all, each has a sense of community, making them the perfect place to get a taste of the real Toronto.
Alo Bar for an award-winning martini
Bar, Cocktail Bar, Restaurant, Wine Bar, Cocktails, Wine, Beer, Fusion
Alo Bar channels the fine-dining atmosphere of award-winning restaurant Alo into an electric, Friday-night destination. It’s the kind of place to sink into a leather booth and watch the bartenders dance between the bottles as they craft masterful cocktails. The martini puts up a fight for the best in the country, as do most cocktails on or off the menu – these folks know what they’re doing. There’s also some good eating to be had: bar bites range from uni (sea urchin) and tuna on toast to a gloriously crispy cauliflower dish with grape, mint and almond.
Japanese-rockabilly bar Black Dice Café is the sake-fueled dream of veteran bartender Hideki Saito, whom you’ll probably find slurping cocktails behind the bar. Black-and-white movies flicker overhead, surf rock blasts from the jukebox and periodic cheers erupt from around the pinball machine – this is a place to shake your hair out. It’s also one of the few bars in Toronto to serve sake on draft – it’s poured right into a tokkuri (ceramic sake pitcher). The Ronin – a neon cocktail of vodka, sake and Calpico, a milky Japanese cultured soda – offers an easier way to appreciate sake. Those in the mood for something more familiar can take a tour of the extensive Japanese whisky selection.
The air in Grant Van Gameren’s Spanish-influenced bar is always full of excitement. The standing-room-only bar is decked out floor to ceiling in mahogany and has an emerald-green exterior. The kitchen serves up delightfully creative Basque-style tapas and pintxos, with a menu of small plates that range from perfectly crispy croquetas with béchamel and ham to flame-grilled toasts with fresh tomatoes. But seafood is the star here – make sure to order the meaty grilled squid and Cantabrian anchovies. A pick from Bar Raval’s sprawling selection of imported sherries and vermouths makes the perfect nightcap.
In the age of precise cocktails and waistcoated bartenders, drinkers may need a reprieve from buttoned-up cocktail bars. Cue Montauk, an essential Dundas West hangout that feels exactly like that – a hangout. It’s the after-work bar for off-duty bartenders, who come to sip negronis or American 75s (like a French 75, but with Miller High Life instead of bubbly). Whether you’re rolling solo or with your entourage, all are made to feel welcome. But just because it lacks attitude, doesn’t mean drinks aren’t made with precision: it’s got a serious-business cocktail menu. Check out the chalkboard for the specials, though you’d also do well to let the bartender surprise you.
The same people are behind PrettyUgly as Bar Raval, so it’s clear the cocktails are anything but quotidian: even the most pedestrian leverage house-made ingredients and far-flung bottles. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the delectably left-field offerings, such as the foraged woods-infused sherry-based flip or the coconut-infused mezcal. Speaking of mezcal, the agave-based spirit takes center stage here – though a stellar set of non-alcohol cocktails also make a good case for abstinence.
Mother is not your ordinary bar. One of the newest additions to Toronto’s cocktail landscape, Mother shines a spotlight on fermentation – negronis are made with lacto-fermented plums, and caramelized yogurt is on the ingredient list. Though the processes are cerebral, the cocktails are quaffable. Cases in point: the uber-frothy, lassi-like pina colada, or the tequila and tonic doused with house-made tepache.
The newest addition to Toronto’s budding sake scene, Sakai Bar imparts an unmistakably Japanese feel in everything from the wood and paper doors to the bottles of Kuheiji that line its walls. It’s the brainchild of Stuart Sakai, a former sake brewer from local brewery Izumi. On Sundays, bottles from Masumi, Kuheiji and Tedorigawa (star of Netflix’s TheBirth of Saké) are on generous discount. On Toronto’s chillier days, sip warm sake from your choice of choko (ceramic cup). Even if your sake knowledge is limited, you’ll find something to try.
When in Rhum Corner, order a rum cocktail. The concept is derived from owner Jen Agg’s Haitian husband’s love of rum – his bright-hued murals liven the walls. Try the slushified pineapple and spiced daiquiri, or the rummy take on negroni, which will convince even the most ardent negroni fan to skip the gin. Discerning rum fans can indulge in a flight, either self-guided or pre-designed. When hunger sets in, Haitian staples make tasty bar snacks: rice and beans (with a healthy dousing of scotch bonnet) and plates of oxtail with bean sauce are perfect for soaking up the rum.
If the temptation of a hidden bar with top-notch drinks isn’t enough, Bar Fancy also has fried chicken. Turn off Queen Street West and follow the neon-tiger sign down a back lane, then turn into the unmarked bar. This new venture offers an intimate atmosphere, as well as a menu with an agreeable list of cocktails, local beers and a smattering of wine. Order fried chicken by the piece or by the plateful – a combo that includes bread, pickles, lime and two different hot sauces.
While this Bloor West brewery is a destination for beer lovers, some of its most spectacular beers aren’t beers, but beer-wine hybrids. Burdock combines beer and winemaking techniques, such as cellaring in neutral oak barrels, adding splashes of local wine, or ageing beers on the skins of orange wines. The brewery offers a full range of easy-drinking, low-ABV beers (the baby riesling grisette is particularly noteworthy), and vino aficionados will love the natural-wine list. The Tuesday, a classic saison in a millennial-pink can, is perfect for patio weather (and Burdock has a great patio). And the piri piri chicken pairs perfectly with whatever sudsy brew you’re drinking.
Birreria Volo is treasured by the city – there was uproar when the original location, Bar Volo, shuttered in 2018. But the team is back, and swinging for the fences with a menu that speaks with sophistication but without pretension. Check out the chalkboard of 26 rotating drafts – it’s staggering. A notable bottle list rounds out the offerings. Highlights include stouts and barley wines from the lauded Dieu du Ciel! from Montreal, and both Quebecois and Belgian wits. Pair one (or three) beers with Italian bar snacks such as the burrata, a cured-meat platter or carciofi – Roman-style artichokes with parmesan.
You'll find Barber & Co’s Gift Shop past the beard trimmers and clippers | Courtesy of Barber and Co.
This Ossington watering hole is shrouded with mystery – even to enter the tiny space (just 18 seats) you have to duck through the back of a barbershop. Once inside, you’ll find a bar staffed by a bartender known only as ‘H.’ Flip through a nostalgic magazine (curious ads from the ’60s and ’70s line the pages) to find the drinks. Many are completely out of the box (such as a translucent pina colada), though the basics (such as the martini, chilled to a perfect -4.5 degrees) are also tremendous.
Grab a stool at this Dundas West wine bar and one of its talented oenophiles will delight in touring you through the progressive wine list. There’s a range of old-world essentials, yes, but the beacons here are skin-contact wines and under-the-radar varietals (swoon-worthy listings include a crémant-style pinot noir from Alsace and Cambridge Road’s uber-yeasty shiraz/riesling pét–nat). It has a decidedly bohemian vibe, with plants and a sweeping bar created by local woodworker Graham Waliczek. The night starts early here: Paris Paris opens at noon every day, making a strong case for a long lunch. Want more to love? A daily special means a half-litre of wine costs only 20 Canadian dollars.
At Midfield in Little Portugal, tables lack tablecloths and patrons stay chatting late into the night. The bottle list could cause heart palpitations in even the most experienced of sommelier: it boasts over 350 low-intervention bottles ranging from white, red, orange and rosé, along with sherry, amari and vermouth.
Step through the door of this Queen West bar and find yourself falling down a rabbit hole into a tropical wonderland. The rum-fueled Shameful Tiki Room is the second project by Vancouver Tiki guru Rod Moore. Sip everything from perfected classics (daiquiris and mai tais) to mystery bowls for two under canopies of bamboo and wicker. It’s a mirage of a bar in the middle of the city, due in no small part to the blacked-out windows that keep reality at bay.
The only thing to guide you to Civil Liberties is a glowing pineapple and a Doors quote – this must be the place. And it is – it’s continuously voted one of the best cocktail bars in the city and the country, and it is climbing the world rankings. Menus aren’t to be found here, as the bespoke drink program prompts bartenders to create cocktails that cater to guests’ palates. Even if your order is a martini or old-fashioned, expect hard-to-find amari and vermouth to be used, while craft ryes and small-batch gins sub in for the standard ingredients.
Coffee Oysters Champagne serves exactly what its name suggests, with dozens of options for each | Courtesy of Coffee Oysters Champagne
It’s all in the name: Coffee Oysters Champagne serves coffee, oysters and champagne. It’s a coffee shop in the early hours, and as the day goes on, more and more guests switch to flutes of bubbly. A Verre de Vin maintains the freshness of the bottle up to 21 days after opening, allowing for by-the-glass pours of exclusive and elusive bottles of champagne. Pair your glass with dressed-up oysters topped with edible rose petals and black masago caviar. Once you’ve had your fill of the sunny front bar, slip into the back, pull on one of the decorative champagne bottles and a door will swing open, beckoning you into the sub-level speakeasy, A Toi.
The rooftop terrace at The Drake Sky Yard is open all year round | Courtesy of The Drake Sky Yard
The weekend brunch crowd comes here during the daylight hours, but the cocktails in the rooftop Sky Yard are what continue to make the hotel a destination for drinkers. In the winter, the heated and covered space has a firepit for marshmallow roasting and its own satellite cocktail bar. As the temperature heats up, the hotel offers rooftop movies under the stars. You can also head downstairs to the underground and take in one of the visiting bands or resident DJs, or retreat to the ground-level patio (particularly on Wednesdays, when the wine is heavily discounted).
Often referred to simply as Crews, this multi-story Victorian house is home to the city’s biggest and best drag shows. Expect an explosive combination of performances and crowd-fueled karaoke seven nights a week, led by a host of charming drag queens. Crews emphasises inclusivity, so all guests are welcomed with open arms.
The Ivory Room at The Walrus is a dedicated martini and tonic bar | Courtesy of The Ivory Room at Walrus
If you find yourself in the financial district and in dire need of a cold drink, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better option than the Walrus Pub. Here, you’ll find 20 brews on tap and a spacious dining room that serves sesame-crusted pizzas. Skirt left to The Ivory Room and you’ll find something far more special than just a place for a cold beer: a dedicated martini and tonic bar. The bartenders are well versed in all the classic martini variations (those made with pink and barrel-aged gins are particularly good) but don’t skip the thoughtful house martinis or the local section, where local gins shine in original cocktails.