How to Drink in Toronto

In the interest of transparency, it would be irresponsible for us to not start this series. Even with all the bartenders, interviews with industry leaders, cocktails, bar hops and stories, the most popular post on this site is the Drinking at an All-Inclusive Resort. We are surprised every week when we look at the web traffic and it is always in the top 5. Hey travellers that want to look like you know what you’re doing at bars, we see you and are here for you!

With that in mind we thought it would be a good idea to start a series of posts about how to drink in different cities/places around the world. We are talking: what to order, what neighbourhoods to visit, how to get around, what hours you can drink and everything in between. First stop: our hometown of Toronto.

Toronto
If you are travelling to Toronto for the first time, and know nothing about it, hopefully this will act as a nice little guide as to what to expect when drinking in the hometown of Michie Mee. The best cocktails and beers and wines in Toronto are usually found in restaurants. There are many arcane liquor laws restricting which establishments can serve which products, etc. so often restaurants are the only places that can serve rare and hard to find stuff. Toronto is the capital of the province of Ontario in Canada. And while you may think of Canada as being a quaint little country filled with small town folk, keep in mind that population-wise, Toronto, is the fourth largest city in North America (after Mexico City, New York and LA). Cocktail culture here is only about a decade in but there are some great things happening. While Toronto bartenders may look to cities like NYC for inspiration for when it comes to how we drink, Toronto definitely has its own thing going on.

What to Drink
What’s good? This is the worst question you can ask a bartender. What you should really be asking is: What’s popular? What are you known for? What have I never had before? What’s your signature? etc. Toronto cocktails lean toward the tart and bitter side. Things like Amaro, Sherry and bitters carry a heavy workload in bars here. Get excited about stirred drinks and low alcohol versions of classic cocktails. Fresh citrus in Toronto will never be that fresh because it doesn’t grow here so bartenders here are accustomed to creating their own ingredients from whatever is available. There will be a lot of ingredients made in house, do not fear them.

How to Drink in Toronto | Bartender Atlas

Grey Gardens | Photo: Jessica Blaine Smith

Popular Drinks
Paper Plane, Penicillin, Toronto Cocktail (duh), Old Fashioned (look for house variations) and anything involving sherry and/or amaro. If someone offers you a Blackbird, what they mean is a shot that is 50/50 Amaro Montenegro and Wild Turkey (“Black” and “Bird”, get it?).

Regular Drinking Hours
Toronto, while being one of the most multicultural cities on the planet, is still ruled by restrictive puritanical laws from a bygone era. Meaning, people don’t drink during the day here, even though you can get a drink at 11am. Sometimes there is an early knock-off drink on Fridays but outside of weekends on patios during the summer, for the most part, Torontonians don’t drink until the sun goes down. So plan on drinking from 6pm onward. Until 2am anyway, as that is last call in the city. There are certain occasions where bars will stay open until 4am (TIFF, Pride, NXNE, NYE) but those times are few and far between and because they are so rare, the general population ends up behaving badly when they can drink for that long.

Buying Booze
Those hotel minibars are expensive, we know. In Toronto getting liquor and beer means going to stores specific to those things. As of writing this, there are many new laws concerning who can sell alcohol. Spirits can only be purchased at the provincially run LCBO Stores. Wine can be found in the LCBO, Wine Shop and some grocery stores (but not all). Beer can be purchased at LCBO stores, The (creatively named) Beer Store and again, some, but not all, grocery stores.

Price per drink
You can expect to pay the following while at a bar. All prices are quoted in Canadian dollars (which means if you are used to paying in US dollars, think of it as a 20-30% discount since the Canadian dollar is currently not faring well!)
Cocktails:$12-$20
Beer:$7-$10 per pint,$5-$9 for bottle
Wine:$7-$16 per glass, $50 and up per bottle
Tip everyone well. Bartender/Server wage here is less than minimum wage. A typical tip here is a recommended 20-22% for good service.

What to Wear
Toronto has been described (by a friend of mine) as the “Upscale Casual Capital of the World”. You can show up to pretty much anywhere in pretty much anything and not get a glance. Jeans and Leather jackets are everywhere. Winters get cold so no one is judging you for wearing a toque – colloquial term for a wool hat – or weather resistant boots. Summer time means shorts and tanks tops or t-shirts. Some restaurants and clubs will have dress codes, but they will be well advertised. Basically, if you feel like dressing up, do it! If you feel like wearing jeans and a T, just do it!

Getting Around
Public transit – subway, streetcars and buses – in Toronto is pretty effective and better than most citizens would have you believe. Fares are around $3.25 CAD and will get you everywhere you would need to go in the city, but not always quickly. Taxis are everywhere. They are the cheaper and faster way to get around the city, especially if you are in a group of 3 or more. Lyft and Uber both operate in Toronto, but are often driven by people from outside the city proper and so you are probably better off with a taxi.

How to Drink in Toronto | Bartender Atlas

Famous Last Words | Photo: Jessica Blaine Smith

Neighbourhoods
Toronto is BIG. There are so many places to go to drink in this town that an exhaustive list would be… exhausting. We are going to list a few neighbourhoods and a few bars, but please don’t feel hurt if we left your bar or your favourite bar out, we really cannot list every bar in Toronto. And remember, the best move is to always ask the bartender where you should go next. Seriously, bartenders are the best ambassadors to their cities. This is a core belief of ours and is one of the main basis for us even creating Bartender Atlas.

Toronto’s streets are laid out pretty neatly in a grid (for the most part) so it is an easy city to navigate. To understand your directions, keep in mind that Lake Ontario and the CN Tower are located to the South.

The Core:
The Core of Toronto represents anything “downtown” which is basically from the lake in the South to the Dundas Street West in the North. To Yonge Street on the East and Spadina Avenue on the West, more or less. Recent years in the downtown core have seen a slight shift away from the mega chain restaurants and “too expensive for people that aren’t lawyers” steakhouses. There are some new bars and restaurants owned and operated by younger and slightly more independent restauranteurs. Check out Kiin, Rosalinda, Mother Tongue, Constantine, Lena, A Toi and The Drake Minibar.

To the East:
If you are not staying in the East end of Toronto but mention that you are going to visit there, don’t be surprised by any jokes or laughs you may receive. While all sides of Toronto are great – there is quite a divide between the East and the West (think Springfield and Shelbyville). Once you cross Yonge Street heading East, some may assume you have entered a new country. 🙂 It will take you sometime in a cab or on a streetcar to get out of the core going to anything worthwhile to the East, but that’s cool because once you are there, you will realize it was worth it. Get out at Queen and Broadview and get ready to do some (short) walking. Check out The Broadview Hotel, Comrade, Goods and Provisions. Get in a cab, head a few blocks North (and further East still) and go to Pinkerton’s and Poor Romeo.

The Village:
This is Toronto’s LGBTQ haven. Drag shows and karaoke nights and pubs and clubs abound. In the last few years though there has been some attention paid to cocktails and newer drinking styles. Glad Day Book Shop and Storm Crow Manor are two great spots to check out in this hood.

To The West:
Okay look, from Spadina to Roncesvalles, all the way along King Street, Queen Street, Dundas and College you will find any and all manner of bar, restaurant, coffee shop, barber shop, shoe store, hot dog cart you could ever imagine getting a drink from. The neighbourhoods by name worth getting into a cab and saying  “take me to….” are:

Kensington Market: El Rey, Grey Gardens, Ronnie’s
Trinity Bellwoods: On Queen: Le Swan, County General, Noce. On Dundas: Cocktail Bar, Rhum Corner, Northern Belle
King and Portland: Bar Buca, Belfast Love, Regulars
The Drake Hotel: The Drake Hotel, The Gladstone Hotel and any pace in between the two
Parkdale: Pretty Ugly, Chantecler, Miss Things, Shameful Tiki, Food and Liquor, Tennessee Tavern
Dundas West: Founder Bar, Mahjong Bar, Viaggio, Project Gigglewater, Black Dice
Little Italy: Bar Raval, Ted’s Collision, Bar Isabel
The Junction: Famous Last Words, Hole In The Wall, The 30/30
Roncesvalles: Tuk Tuk Canteen, Round The Horn, Barque
Bloor & Ossington: Civil Liberties, Mulberry Bar, Paradise Grapevine

Also, never hesitate to ask any of the Toronto bartenders on this ol’ site about when and where they are working so that they can make you a fine cocktail! That is what they are here for.

How to Drink in Toronto | Bartender Atlas

Bar Raval | Photo: Jessica Blaine Smith

 


Josh Lindley
Co-Creator at Bartender Atlas
Josh Lindley has been bartending in Toronto since 2007. In that time he has watched the city grow from drinking slushee Cosmopolitans into crisp creations made from locally grown ingredients. He still likes beer though. Before working for Hendrick's Gin as a Brand Ambassador he was bar manager at Campagnolo and a hired gun at Bar Isabel. He has contributed to many magazines, tv shows and newspapers with his recipes and opinions. Currently pouring at Chantecler, he enjoys being an ambassador to Toronto and talking about horror movies and music.
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