The most famous bars in Toronto are those which are famous to us, not necessarily to a wider national or international audience. Spread throughout different neighbourhoods, these are the reliable standbys, the go-tos, most of them steeped in history. "Meeting at Sneak's," for example, is a privilege given the bar's history (and nachos), and with places like this around, it sometimes seems silly to seek out those new spots.
And, for the record, it would have been easy to populate this list entirely by live music venues, but we've left some of those lovely spots off the list in favour of including a little something for everyone. Here, some of Toronto's most iconic establishments for imbibing.
The building that houses Lee's has seen a number of incarnations since completion about a century ago. It was born as a movie theatre, morphed into a restaurant, and came into its current form as a somewhat gritty music venue in 1985. Since then, it's welcomed into its fold the likes of Nirvana, Oasis and the Smashing Pumpkins, and something of the '90s does persist over the place, with its graffitied face and cheap beer. Crowned by the Dance Cave, Lee's is an ideal spot to party and catch a show in the Annex.
The 'Shoe, branded "The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern,"has been around forever (since 1947, to be exact)," and when The Rolling Stones choose to grace your small-scale stage, iconic status is often soon to follow. I've discovered many an up-and-coming band at the 'Shoe, and as Toronto bands grow and start touring, making folks in other cities stoked for their shows, they still routinely play the 'shoe with tix available for $10 to $12. Beyond the music, the Horsehoe is home to one of the city's best bartenders in the form of Teddy Fury, who can spin a yarn with the best of them. This is a grungy spot covered in stickers and scribbles, an ideal place to relax over a bottle of 50.
The Brunswick House
The Brunny is where 20-year-olds from U of T and the like go to get hammered on cheap shots and Coors Light and dance around the subject of hooking up. Because of its positioning in the Annex (and maybe the fact that it's been around for 100 years) Brunswick House has become a Toronto institution, whether you like it or not.
Sweaty Betty's was one of the first of about 100 bars that now line Lower Ossington. It prides itself on being designed for those of us who are distinctly unfancy. Drinks are simple; this is not a cocktail bar. You will, however, find PBRs and Jameson, which is all any of us really need, right? The crowning glory of Sweaty Betty's is, for sure, it's huge fairy-lit patio, which has little nooks and crannies to get lost in over a pint.
Bovine Sex Club
As most of you will know, Bovine is not (exactly) a sex club. It's the bar at Queen and Bathurst with all the junk attached to its facade. You know, the one with bike parts and wires and other gadgets sticking crazily out into the street. It's been a fixture in the Queen West area since it opened in the '90s, and is generally home to our city's filthy (in a great way) punk rockers and metal lovers. Aside from the music, the 80-seater rooftop patio is a highlight at the Bovine.
Woody's and Sailor
"Toronto's hottest gay bar" has been around for a quarter of a century, so that's saying something. Located, of course, in the the Village, this is a good spot to both watch gay chest and ass contests and to drink massive quantities of beer for astonishingly little cash. Like most of the Village, Woody's is a friendly spot, and you're totally welcome to come here and chill even if you aren't a gay dude (or lady). If you're a prude, though...this may not be the spot for you.
The Guvernment just might be Toronto's most well-known club. It's actually a complex, including the Kool Haus and Skybar. When I was a young'un, I would visit the Kool Haus for all-ages shows. That's not what the complex is known for, though, let's face it. This is a spot for intense partying. It's a place to indulge in too many drinks (or your poison of choice) and rock out to whatever famed DJ presides that night. The Guv has been around for 15 years and, barring a condo development, I can't imagine it going anywhere anytime soon.
Sneak's landed in Toronto in 1987. Originally positioned on Bloor, it later migrated down to the south east corner of College and Bathurst, where its wacky, punky signage beckons today. Everyone from BSS to Arcade Fire to Fucked Up has graced the bar's upstairs stage. The downstairs is laid out as a restaurant serving up deliciously junky Tex Mex. Vandalism is actually encouraged here: the place is layered in years' worth of graffiti, and the washrooms are truly a sight to behold for that reason (they're also a treasure trove of basic wisdom).
The Pilot feels more like a pub than anything else, complete with a long, stretchy bar. Established in 1944, this Yorkville establishment was originally located on Yonge Street north of Bloor before moving to its current Cumberland location. It's known for its rooftop patio (cheesily dubbed The Flight Deck). The Pilot also hosts weekly jazz nights, and there are 20 beers on tap, alongside 25 choices for bottled beer and cider.
What would this list be without something for the west-end clubbers among us? Brant House, located, of course, on King West, is aimed at the glitzier folk of the city. You can't, for example, show up at the door in scuffed cowboy boots or (gasp!) flip flops and expect to be admitted. The club bills itself as a place for "Toronto's elite young professionals," so there's an air of exclusivity that's been cultivated with multiple VIP tables and the requisite bottle service areas.
OTHER BARS THAT JUST MISSED THE CUT
What would be on your list of famous Toronto bars?
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by Sarah Ratchford via blogTO