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Eat & Drink

The 10 most famous bars in Toronto

Posted by Sarah Ratchford / July 25, 2013

famous bars torontoThe 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.

Lee's Palace
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 Horseshoe
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
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. (Note: after 17 years in business, the Guv is scheduled to close in January 2015.)

Sneaky Dee's
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
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.

Brant House
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.

UPDATE: The Brant House is now closed and has been replaced by The Citizen.



The El Mocambo
Silver Dollar Room
Communist's Daughter
The Madison
Drake Hotel

What would be on your list of famous Toronto bars?

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Dan / July 25, 2013 at 08:27 am
No love for Allens on the Danforth?
Xavier / July 25, 2013 at 08:38 am
I think El Mocambo might be a little more famous than a few of the places on this list
Agreed replying to a comment from Xavier / July 25, 2013 at 09:23 am
The El Mo is definitely more famous. Not sure why it's not on there. Fun list, though.
C.A. / July 25, 2013 at 09:42 am
Chester Pape / July 25, 2013 at 09:45 am
If fame is the primary criteria I don't see how the El Mo didn't make the cut.

Similarly The Rivoli, famous as the place where the Kids in the Hall got their start.

Chris / July 25, 2013 at 09:49 am
I'm too old for it now.. but isn't The Madison pretty famous?
Thunder / July 25, 2013 at 09:50 am
Hemingways, Scally Wags, Wheat Sheaf
Brian / July 25, 2013 at 09:51 am
Because The "El Mo" is a f-kn dump....go for AID's test after ging there
yaa / July 25, 2013 at 09:58 am
Footwork, bra!
yup / July 25, 2013 at 10:00 am
El Mocambo should be on the list.
Andrew / July 25, 2013 at 10:00 am
El-Mo definitely needs to be on this list. Rolling Stones secret shows? Stevie Ray Vaughan? A "Live at the El Mocambo" record from Elvis Costello? I have no idea how Sweaty Betty's made this list..
Laura / July 25, 2013 at 10:08 am
I feel like The Green Room is infamous more than famous, but I'd be hard-pressed to find a Torontonian who's never heard of it.
?? replying to a comment from Laura / July 25, 2013 at 10:13 am
I wont lie. Lived in Toronto since 1997. I dont know where the Green Room is.

Munira / July 25, 2013 at 10:17 am
Ah...I heart Toronto. My new fav is definitely Northwood near Christie Pits. It's all about the Dark as Night and Sweet as Sin - YUM!
Skye / July 25, 2013 at 10:21 am
People, Sarah Ratchford said the list was meant to cover all genres. Of course some of them missed the cut.
Joanna / July 25, 2013 at 10:21 am

The Bamboo Club should be on there, and the C'Oq D'or too.
WONDERDICK / July 25, 2013 at 10:22 am
OH JUST FUCKING GREAT. Now all the 905ers know about Sneaky Dee's.
Joanna / July 25, 2013 at 10:22 am
The Bamboo Club should be on there, and the C'oq D'Or too.
George / July 25, 2013 at 10:25 am
Yeah if you are really talking truly famous Toronto bars, meaning over time, have a lot of history backing them up which makes them "Famous", well known out side the city etc. There is no reason the El Mo should have "not made the cut", maybe just shows the age of the person writing this article. Has it been shit for the last number of years (being improved now) sure, but it is up at the top with Horseshoe and Sneaky Dee's as actually having history and fame attached to it from people all over the world of what they know about Toronto bars.
John / July 25, 2013 at 10:41 am
Hemingway's from the Yorkville TIFF heyday.
Lily replying to a comment from Thunder / July 25, 2013 at 10:43 am
haha.. these are your regular hangouts, not famous toronto bars.

hard to fully narrow it down, but pretty good list!
chris / July 25, 2013 at 10:52 am
The Coffee Mill, The Riverboat, The St Charles Tavern, Nuts & Bolts, The Gasworks, Club Domino, The Diamond, The Morrissey Tavern, the Silver Rail, Larry's Hideaway
chris / July 25, 2013 at 10:56 am
Of exisitng bars, I assume the Madison was left out because there were already two Annex institutions listed already. It's a zoo, but it's a longstanding one.
DY replying to a comment from chris / July 25, 2013 at 11:04 am
born and raised in toronto, never heard of any of these places you just mentioned.
DY / July 25, 2013 at 11:08 am
i mean, leaving off the black bull? while desolate in the winter the patio is unbeatable in the summer. this isn't a list of the best patios in toronto though...

the wheat sheaf should be on there purely based on its history though the owners have been trying to sell it for how long now?

no love for ronnie's either... shameful
Collin replying to a comment from Brian / July 25, 2013 at 11:15 am
the El-Mo is no more of a dump than sneaky dees.
George replying to a comment from Collin / July 25, 2013 at 11:25 am
Which has nothing to do with if somewhere is famous or not...
Terry / July 25, 2013 at 11:37 am
The Imperial Pub/Public Library?
Stanley / July 25, 2013 at 11:56 am
That list makes me really sad to live in Toronto.
Marmar / July 25, 2013 at 12:22 pm
Brant house made the list? But not Cadillac lounge. Fire the writer of this immediately.
why replying to a comment from Marmar / July 25, 2013 at 12:31 pm
Whats the difference?

You're just swapping in one crappy bar for another.
aoifhaoi replying to a comment from chris / July 25, 2013 at 12:35 pm
I'm not convinced that any of those places exist.
Downtowner / July 25, 2013 at 01:15 pm
Re: Brant House

Sure, the club bills itself as a place for "Toronto's elite young professionals," but in reality it's full of 19-year-old 905ers in Guess dresses and increasingly their middle-aged suburban moms. It was hot 5 years ago, but that heat has faded into blaaaaaah.
Jacob replying to a comment from WONDERDICK / July 25, 2013 at 01:42 pm
Sneaky Dee's isn't exactly some big secret. It was even featured in the Scott Pilgrim comic series.

"They have shows at Sneaky Dee's?"
bjws replying to a comment from DY / July 25, 2013 at 01:52 pm
Well that's just sad because many of these are on major streets that you would actually have to try hard to miss. It seems to me a likely scenario is that you don't live in the actual city. I've been to most of these before I was even of legal drinking age.
el replying to a comment from aoifhaoi / July 25, 2013 at 02:21 pm
Larry's hideaway used to be on carlton at jarvis (i think it's an empty lot now), the gasworks was the inspiration for the club scene in wayne's world
sw replying to a comment from chris / July 25, 2013 at 02:34 pm
I totally agree with you... I have never heard of these/been to these, and I've lived in Toronto my whole life (and let's just say I'm well over legal drinking age). Cool and underground as they may be, these are certainly not "famous" bars.
gr1 / July 25, 2013 at 03:00 pm
ITT: pretentious drunks.
Josh / July 25, 2013 at 03:09 pm

Should this list be titled "Most Popular"? "Famous" is a whole new ball game, I know you're saying famous to us, but I wouldn't call Sweaty Bettys (while a good bar) not so famous....
bjws replying to a comment from sw / July 25, 2013 at 03:24 pm
Like Chris, you seem to go through life with your eyes closed. Half these places slap you in the face when you walk by. Honestly it's hard to believe you live in Toronto and are not aware of these places. I grew up in North York and still visited many of these before university. Saying these are not famous and you don't know them would be like living in Vancouver and saying you've never heard of or seen skid row. Or being from Hamilton and asking where Hess Village is. You are wilfully blind me thinks.
Jack / July 25, 2013 at 03:54 pm
From a musical standpoint, you did miss the following, which are also great drinking bars: The Rex Jazz and Blues bar on Queen West; Grossman's on Spadina south of College and Black Swan / Eton House on the Danforth
Durwin Smith-fieldson Whitxrell / July 25, 2013 at 04:00 pm
this is like the list of bars to avoid.
toronto dude / July 25, 2013 at 05:04 pm
and no CZ? if not for the sound system, the djs and the sketchy patrons than maybe for the semi-regular police raids and the odd death...everyone knows CZ even if alcohol is hard to come by there
Tracey / July 25, 2013 at 05:09 pm
I definitely think that The Wheat Sheaf, the ElMo, and The Rex should have made the list. Not sure why Brant House did.
Hank Bain / July 25, 2013 at 06:00 pm
Wow, I am shocked that The Only did not make this list. I live downtown and this is a downtown list and bars that are currently open, not the ones that made downtown an adventure in the early to mid 80's. The writer needs to get off their bike and at least try TTC.
monkeybutler / July 25, 2013 at 07:16 pm
been around since the 20's and has supported the arts community for years!

black bull is just a big patio. lacks character.
cadillac lounge. ugh .I guess...although i hate the unfriendly rockabillys and awful service.
wheat sheaf is a glorified sports bar.
I really want the rex to be nice. but sadly it's not. uncomfortable and stuffy.
Grossmans is .yes Gross.
Nick / July 25, 2013 at 08:33 pm
The Victory Cafe. That is all.
Monkeybutler / July 25, 2013 at 08:39 pm
followed a link from this article about a bar tender at the Horseshoe. nice little read if anyone's interested
pon di cockey / July 25, 2013 at 09:14 pm
Duffy's Billboard
Tim / July 25, 2013 at 09:28 pm
For a list like this why do they have to be current?

Whiskey Saigon
Big Bop
Club 404

Tim / July 25, 2013 at 09:29 pm
Would love to see a history of Toronto clubs and bars from yesteryear.

iSky2000 / July 25, 2013 at 09:32 pm

Drago / July 25, 2013 at 09:55 pm
Lest we forget Sanctuary.
pisshole / July 26, 2013 at 09:28 am
Sweaty Betty's? No way. My parents still talk about going to see shows at El Mocambo and Horseshoe. Ask any out of town performer and they'll say the same. Wheat Sheaf should have also made this list.
toronto dude replying to a comment from Tim / July 26, 2013 at 09:30 am
The Grid does excellent regular feature articles on these
Tom / July 26, 2013 at 11:03 am
Real Sports??? I know the place is a douche hangout for Bay Street "Shooters" on weeknights, but it was voted as the #1 sports bar in North America by ESPN sometime back. Just because the 99% don't gel there, and the place is rather modern, annoying, and shitty versus nostalgic, authentic, and charming, you still have to give it props for "International" fame.
sw replying to a comment from bjws / July 26, 2013 at 03:07 pm
Wow, you're like.. SO in the know!

However I did some googling to see what I could come up with about these places and came to find that you are totally full of hot air, "me thinks."

-Coffee Mill is a shitty Yorkville resto.
-The Riverboat was a famous club in Yorkville in the 60s/70s
-St Charles Tavern was a popular gay bar in the 70s.
-Nuts & Bolts closed in 88
-Gasworks is now a surplus store.
-Diamond Klub closed in 87
-The Diamond closed in 91.

I got bored after getting this far and gave up. Clearly you're more well over the legal drinking age than me, because after having googled these places, I've still never heard of them. Even though they were popular in their heyday (60s-90s), that doesn't make them "famous" by any means (with the exception of maybe the Riverboat or Gasworks.... maybe).

Get over yourself and drop the condescending tone, old man.
sw replying to a comment from bjws / July 26, 2013 at 03:08 pm
Also you just compared a bar in Yorkville to skid row in Vancouver. Sweet comparison, dude...
candace / August 2, 2013 at 10:50 am
This needs to be more clear on whether this list is "famous" or "popular".
Laura / August 2, 2013 at 02:32 pm
The El Mocambo should be on this list. I've never even even heard of a few of these bars.
underage / August 2, 2013 at 04:23 pm
Brunswick house is NOT home to 20 year olds...more like 16 year olds...or 18 at the very most. Total trash
r / August 2, 2013 at 04:52 pm
does this mean i will get lucky at these places?
Ryan / August 3, 2013 at 10:15 pm
The Bagel
whoDat / August 3, 2013 at 11:29 pm
Diamond Club
Bill / October 7, 2013 at 02:13 am
The Bohemian Embessy
bill / October 7, 2013 at 02:17 am
The Cellar Club Purple Onion yeh yeh yeh
Celeste / November 16, 2013 at 01:31 am
What about Grossman's on Spidina?
Celeste / November 16, 2013 at 01:32 am
What about Grossman's on Spidina?
Celeste / November 16, 2013 at 01:32 am
What about Grossman's on Spidina?
Celeste / November 16, 2013 at 01:33 am
What about Grossman's on Spidina?
Damien / November 16, 2013 at 05:58 pm
Missing McVeighs, which just celebrated its *50TH* anniversary.
Celeste replying to a comment from el / February 14, 2014 at 08:54 pm
Larry's Hideaway burnt to the ground in 1987 and couldn't be salvaged so the city bought the land and demolished it to make way for park land.
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Kris / September 7, 2014 at 12:17 am
Marc / September 7, 2014 at 12:28 am
Lee's Palace is not covered in "graffiti" but actually the art of one man called "Runt" who also decorated the eastern wall of The Bamboo.

Ll / September 7, 2014 at 01:06 am
The Rivoli!!
Hank / September 7, 2014 at 09:20 am
The Beverley Tavern
tony / September 7, 2014 at 05:49 pm
what about finn mcCools at amc plaza in vaughan?
Mikey from Vaughan / November 5, 2014 at 08:38 pm
@tony Mc Cools in Vaughan is actually a dope place, love the old style feel and is a true clasic bar, especially on karoke night however this is BlogTO so Vaugahn is not part of toronto
kita / November 5, 2014 at 09:01 pm
A little before everyone's time. It was once the oldest tavern in Toronto. The Silver Rail Tavern. Gus with white shirt, black tie and black pants poured you an honest drink every time
pearlD. / November 5, 2014 at 10:46 pm
Oldies..... The Colonial Tavern, The Town Tavern, Le Coq'dor
The Pilot, Morrissey's, The Brass Rail...

I laughed when I saw the BRANT HOUSE...I was born right in that building in 1939 (our family lived there, upstairs 519 King Street West....my parents owned a restaurant called "SID'S LUNCH" at street level...
Phil / November 6, 2014 at 08:07 am
Brant House? really that is on the Top 10 Most Famous? Poll 100 people and maybe you get 10 that have heard of it and know where it is... how about the oldest one of all Wheat Sheaf? hardly a popular bar, but well known. or Imperial Pub or Cameron House or Phoenix/Diamond or El Mocambo, etc.
Cranky replying to a comment from WONDERDICK / November 6, 2014 at 08:27 am
I hope you meant that as a joke.
Cranky replying to a comment from Celeste / November 6, 2014 at 08:30 am
Larry's Hideaway had closed and was in the process of being torn down when it caught fire. It always stood in the middle the park and the small bit of land it occupied was indeed integrated into the park.
Cranky replying to a comment from sw / November 6, 2014 at 08:42 am
Wow. You know nothing and you just proved it to the whole city.(or at least to anyone older than yourself). If you think you can dismiss the history behind a place like The St. Charles Tavern with a one line description of it, you're fooling yourself. Most of the bars that bjws mentioned helped shape the culture of this city in a way it would be impossible for any bar opened within the last 10 years to do. I guess if you've never heard of them they're irrelevant though.
Carl Graham / September 7, 2015 at 11:24 pm
Would anyone have a picture of the outside of the old Concord Tavern on Bloor Street. Thanks
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