Funny thing running Bartender Atlas. We go to whatever cities we can as often as possible and then suggest some of the bars that stand out from that trip (you know, like Paris or Sydney or Mexico City) but we have never done one of these in our hometown.
A few days before leaving to Puerto Escondido for the month, a couple friends of ours asked us to take them out to see some of the places we feel are the best representatives of what Toronto has to offer for cocktails right now. The plan for the night: start downtown and end up in Parkdale.
(PLEASE, don’t get mad if you are not in this post. Your bar probably also rules – we just wanted to keep this as responsible as possible and there are only so many hours in a night.)
CLOCKWORK (Fairmont Royal York, 100 Front Street West)
Hotel Bars all over the world have been re-invigorated in the last decade. Whether in Belfast, London or Denver it is safe to say that one of the best places to drink in that city, is at a hotel bar. Toronto has been slower on the uptake here. Not so much now though. Some of the oldest and fanciest hotels in the city have taken the time to build, both literally and figuratively, excellent cocktail bars in their lobbies (or other times hidden amongst otherwise soulless conference rooms). Clockwork at the Royal York Hotel has done a great job of bringing this once dingy space with 3 oz warm pink things they called martinis to a world class destination for drinks. The team made up of Nick Incretolli, Daniel Castro and others helmed by Rus Yessenov have twists on twists on classics* as the backbone fo the menu. There are no wrong drinks to order, but I stick to The Wake Up Call. Jess like Foreign Exchange (which has something like 4 whiskies in it).
LE SWAN (892 Queen Street West)
On the theme of classic spaces getting a new life, Le Swan, has housed a few different concepts in the last 10 years and in the decade before that established itself as one of the first “places to check out” on the west side of Trinity Bellwoods Park. Under new-ish ownership (Jen Agg of Black Hoof, Rhum Corner, Grey Gardens and Cocktail Bar) this all too familiar (in the good way) space feels truly vibrant again. The menu is a simple selection of French food classics and the cocktail list is inspired. David Greig (who refuses to be on our website despite dozens of “polite conversations” about it) has been known to avoid the spotlight. However, his palate and creativity and passion for educating his employees are responsible for some of the best and best-made drinks Toronto has ever known. At Le Swan he gives us Pink Rabbits, which on paper seems like it would be too much of too many things. instead comes out as the most perfectly balanced pink drink I have maybe ever had.
MAHJONG BAR (1276 Dundas Street West)
Dundas Street, if you aren’t from Toronto, was a joke 10 years ago. It was a series of dive bars populated by the residents of the neighbourhood around them. If you were in the mood for cold-ish beer in clean-ish glasses you would do fine. However there are several places extending west from Ossington (formerly a joke in its own right) that incorporate not just local flavours but influences from far reaches of the globe. Whether it is American Whiskey, Old World Wine or in the case of Mahjong, Far East flavours put through a North American filter. The cocktail list here has been top notch since the spot opened. The incorporation of ingredients like Shochu and Sake (bartender Tess Anne Sawyer’s favourite) onto the light and fizzy cocktail menu is a great way for people outside of us booze hunters to become not just acquainted with these flavours but to learn how they are so versatile. When I am here I drink the Hard Feelings (not to be confused with the Strong Feelings at Kiin) which demonstrates perfectly that idea.
PRETTYUGLY BAR (1237 Queen Street West)
Having never owned a bar (but been on many opening teams) there was a lot of hype surrounding PrettyUgly Bar when it first opened. Owners of the award winning Bar Raval had hired global cocktail competition champion Evelyn Chick to run their new relaxed-but-serious cocktail bar. Expectations were exceeded but in my opinion, PrettyUgly has really hit its stride in the last 6 months. The groundwork laid by the owners and Evelyn provided a track for the team at PrettyUgly to roll on. The team seems tighter than ever. Everyone working there is excited to be there and excited to give you what they have created. The newest cocktail menu (or Album) has made use of superfoods and unusual extracts to really make you (or me in this case) think about what it is you are consuming and why. Kava Kava finds its way into the Everybody Panic!, a tall rum and coconut drink with a little peated whisky.
*-Start at a Manhattan. Now split the base between Rye and Scotch. Now sub the Vermouth for a split of two kinds of Sherry. Now instead of Angostura, use Cedar Bitters…you know, for example.