FOOD AND DRINK
Where to Grab That Celebratory Drink in Toronto
Imagine the sun is setting on your glorious day in Toronto. You’re in the middle of a romantic weekend, or you just put pen to paper on that deal you were working on for months. Or it’s just Friday. Whatever the reason, you’re nursing a thirst for something really special to drink.
Where should you go for that little celebration? Not just anywhere. Toronto’s a town where it helps to have an idea of your drinking destination before you set out. It doesn’t have a charming neighbourhood bar every few blocks like Montreal or New York. What it does have is plenty of cheesy pubs and cocktail lounges that masquerade as their betters. It’s hard for an outsider to tell the real deal from the duds.
If you have all the makings of a fantastic evening and you’d rather not spoil it somewhere second-best, head to one of the bars profiled below. They’re all top-tier spots where you’ll get the drinks and service you deserve – and where a little noise won’t be an issue (this is Toronto, remember; eyebrows raise easily). We’ve tried to arrange these spots from the most laid-back and casual to the dressiest.
The Oxley and The Queen and Beaver
These sister establishments are the most authentically British places to drink in a city that was once very British and has the pubs to prove it. They're located at different ends of downtown. Busy at most hours, they offer the sort of convivial atmosphere you find over a pint all across Her Majesty's Commonwealth – especially when the soccer is on, and especially if you’re at the louder upstairs bar as opposed to the quieter, more restaurant-like downstairs (both locations are arranged in this way). The food is modern British (which you might love, actually – even the lamb’s kidneys on toast), and there are cocktails and well-chosen wines alongside the draft beer. Alas, the prices wouldn’t be too out of place in London, either.
Best for: a casual celebration where it’s OK to raise your voice and a glass and maybe get caught up watching the footie on telly
The Queen and Beaver, 35 Elm St., 647-347-2712
The Oxley, 121 Yorkville Ave., 647-348-1300
What goes with Caribbean music and food? Rum, and lots of it. A real, hand-shaken daiquiri is a revelation to those who have only had blended versions before. The “zombie (pour deux)” is, as the name says, meant to be shared. And what underlines a celebratory mood better than a drink that’s actually on fire? This is the brainchild of local star restaurateur Jen Agg, and it helps that she has a Haitian-born husband, the artist Roland Jean. Agg’s other two spots, The Black Hoof and Cocktail Bar, are on the same block, and both are also excellent.
Best for: casual celebrations with a group – but only a group that knows how pace its liquor intake
926 Dundas St. W., 647-346-9356
The Drake Hotel / The Drake One Fifty
It’s difficult to explain to non-Torontonians exactly what the Drake brand has come to signify. For starters, it’s nothing to do with the rapper of the same name (equally important to Toronto’s identity though he may be). This other Drake is a former dive that reopened as a boutique hotel and arts venue in 2004. It also has a whole bunch of different places to eat and drink in it. The Drake remains positioned as the blue-chip night-out destination in West End Toronto, and retains some bohemian cred. (Have you ever read Bobos in Paradise? This is the paradise.) Visit and encounter a cross-section of hipsterish Toronto society, from twentysomethings just figuring out how to conduct a non-sloppy night out to still-with-it middle-aged media types popping corks. It’s slammed on weekends, more laid-back Sunday to Thursday night. Staff are unflappably professional either way. Do check what’s going on at The Underground bar in the basement; some terrific music and events happen down there. The drinks list is encyclopedic, running the gamut from draft beer to Louis Roederer Cristal. The Drake One Fifty is an appetizer-sized Drake-let in the Financial District, a handy thing to keep in mind when it’s rush hour and you don’t fancy the prospect of a stop-and-go Toronto taxi ride.
Best for: watching locals, meeting locals, accommodating a big group with diverse tastes in drinks, showing off a little
The Drake Hotel: 1150 Queen St. W., 416-531-5042
The Drake One Fifty: 150 York St, 416-363-6150
Toronto’s hottest bar opening of 2015, Bar Raval is a dark, swirling wooden womb that’s part Antoni Gaudi sculpture, half Hobbit hole. It makes a jaw-dropping first impression. As contemporary as it looks, Raval is supposed to feel traditional in its Spanish ways. Just like a real Barcelona tapas bar, it gets stuffed to the curvy rafters on a Friday or Saturday (or even weekday) night. So here’s a tip: Raval actually opens in the early morning for coffee and snacks and stays open all day. If you can, arrive in the afternoon, develop a rapport with the highly competent staff, and simply park yourself in a nice spot and nibble on bocadillos and olives while the place fills up. The cocktails are among the city’s best, and lean heavily on fortified wines, which are worth trying again if it's been a while. The relatively low alcohol helps keep you standing for hours. (And you may have to stand: There aren’t many seats.)
Best for: a potential marathon of a celebration
505 College St., no phone
This Financial District bistro and bar is owned by the provincial lottery and gaming authority, which means you can bet on the horse races that are playing on all the televisions. The ownership wants you to think of Turf Lounge as a place for great food and drink, but come on. You’re here to bet on the ponies. Staff will happily show newbies how to use the machines.
Best for: betting on the ponies when you feel like splashing some extra money around
330 Bay St., 416-367-2111
Opened in 2009 when “molecular mixology” seemed like an of-the-moment fad, BarChef’s ongoing experiments in the more esoteric realms of cocktail technique have helped it stay relevant longer than one might have expected. In case you missed the buzz, “molecular” cocktails incorporate such trickery as flavoured foams, boozy jellies and aromatized vapours. BarChef’s signature drink all along has been the $45 hickory smoked Manhattan, which must be the most-written-about cocktail in the history of Toronto. Try one if you’re in the mood to splurge. (It tastes a bit like a s’more and the booze geeks will tell you it’s technically closer to an old fashioned than a Manhattan.) While you're in the neighbourhood, another worthwhile cocktail bar called Rush Lane is practically across the street. It sports a 1970s bachelor pad vibe.
Best for: capping a winning day with a cocktail experience you won’t forget
472 Queen St. W., 416-868-4800
David Chang’s New York-based Momofuku ramen empire has three restaurants in Toronto, at different price points but all within the Shangri-La Hotel. If you’re on a liquid mission, head straight to the second floor. Envelop yourself in dusky lighting and soothing white oak. Sink into a comfy chair if you can grab one, and people-watch. Order a brewed-in-Toronto saké, served chilled, like good saké should be. Or try a cocktail; the list isn’t so much pan-Asian as pan-everything, and staff are held to high standards of quality control. Note that you’re practically across the street from the Four Seasons Centre, making Nikai an option for a drink before or after the ballet or opera.
Best for: luxuriating while contemplating the nearby dining possibilities
190 University Ave., 2nd Floor (inside the Shangri-La Hotel), 647-253-8000
This article was originally published on October 14, 2015