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Music

A brief history of Sneaky Dee's

Posted by Benjamin Boles / May 24, 2014

Sneaky Dees historyPunk rock dive bars don't generally last very long in a city like Toronto, so Sneaky Dee's must be doing something right. The bar continues to thrive, thanks to the deceptively simple winning formula of cheap beer, giant plates of late night nachos, and notoriously loud bands.

Generation after generation of college students and young punk bands have made it their home-away-from-home, leaving layers of graffiti on the walls and booths. Still, somehow the place never seems to change much, and feels like one of the few remaining examples of pre-gentrification downtown Toronto. It remains a family business, currently operated by three generations.

Sneaky DeesThe current location at 431 College is actually the second home for the long running restaurant and concert venue. It originally opened in 1987 a few blocks north, across from Honest Ed's at 562 Bloor Street. Open 24 hours a day, the restaurant was more the focus in that era, although bands played downstairs in the small dark basement, including early gigs by the Cowboy Junkies. It even acted as a venue for the first Fringe of Toronto Theatre Festival in 1989.

Sneaky DeesIt wasn't until 1990 that they moved to the corner of Bathurst and College, but the new location had already been the site of at least two previous restaurants. El Rancho (formerly El Borinquen) operated out of the second floor until 1979, before moving across the street where it still currently operates. A classified ad from 1949 names a restaurant called the Daisy Tea Room at that address as well, but it's probably safe to say that it didn't host a lot of rock concerts in that era.

In the early 90s it was a key venue for the Toronto punk rock scene, and regularly featured hardcore acts like Armed and Hammered, Bunch of Fucking Goofs, and Hockey Teeth. In that era it was also a popular hangout for anti-fascist activist groups like Anti Racist Action (ARA). That association culminated in a massive brawl between ARA members and Heritage Front neo-nazis outside the bar in 1993, in retaliation for an ARA protest earlier that day. Heritage Front co-founder Wolfgang Droege and HF member Chris Newhook were eventually convicted in 1995 on a variety of charges related to the incident.

Sneaky DeesIt was closely associated with the Kensington Market punk scene for much of the 90s, but the 200 capacity concert venue upstairs has hosted far more than just hardcore bands, and even went through a period in the late 90s when DJs replaced live music. When bands returned in 2002, programming expanded greatly to include a mixture of eclectic dance parties like Shit La Merde, as well as the loud rock bands that it was originally known for.

The long running and influential Wavelength series ran Sunday nights there for a while, and it was also once home to the Trampoline Hall series. It's been a key launching pad for countless bands over the years, and has played host to a very diverse range of indie acts, including Feist (who is rumoured to have worked there at one point), Broken Social Scene, and Dirty Projectors.

Sneaky Dees Scott PilgrimIndie rock superstars Arcade Fire thanked Sneaky Dee's in their Juno acceptance speech, which is probably the only time a grimy tex-mex restaurant will ever get a shout out on the music award show. The comic book series Scott Pilgrim featured the bar as a location, although unlike Lee's Palace, it didn't end up appearing in the movie version.

Toronto hardcore heroes Fucked Up have two breakfasts on the menu dedicated to them, but the bar also has dishes created in honour of metalcore band Cancer Bats and electro pop singer Lights, which gives a sense of how broad of an appeal the place has had with musicians of all stripes.

Sneaky DeesLongtime booker Shaun Bowring opened up his own live music venue the Garrison in 2009, and brought some of the indie scene westward with him, but a quick glance at Sneaky Dee's event calendar proves that it's still a very active venue, especially for up-and-coming bands. With a 200 person capacity, it can handle emerging touring acts, but it's also not out of reach for local bands.

Sneaky DeesIt continues to accumulate a growing number of nicknames, from the obvious (Dee's) to the disgusting (Sleazy Disease), but even the latter is usually meant affectionately. The food might not be as cheap as it once was, but the massive portions, late hours, and vegan options continue to keep the crowds young, with a smattering of original era patrons mixed in.

For a venue that was originally an afterthought to a restaurant, it's carved a fairly impressive spot for itself in Toronto music history. In some ways, the carved up tables and wallpaper of band stickers serves as a living and constantly growing record of that history.

Lead photo by Tomros. Photo of downstairs area with graffiti by Gary Choo, sign closeup by Will.

Discussion

29 Comments

w-hat / May 24, 2014 at 08:00 am
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Frequented this place a lot in the late 90's and early 00's. You can't wash that smell it puts into your clothes off, I guess that's ok.
Hurst / May 24, 2014 at 10:53 am
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Supergrass played their first Toronto show there in early '95. On the right night there is no better atmosphere than upstairs at Sneaky Dees.
Toronto in home personal trainer / May 24, 2014 at 11:00 am
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Never been but definitely on my to-do list
jonny / May 24, 2014 at 12:38 pm
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part of the reason why the dj nights stopped
http://www.torontopolice.on.ca/homicide/case/264
matt king / May 24, 2014 at 01:57 pm
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I remember I first heard about Dee's because CJ from Mods & Rockers used to talk about going their after taping the show.

I saw Vampire Weekend open for Dirty Projectors and they were so forgettable.

Hez / May 24, 2014 at 02:42 pm
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The name "Sneaky Dee's" is a play on words, the quasi-opposite of "Honest Ed's."; I guess that made more sense at it's first location across the street.
Yellow Card / May 24, 2014 at 04:22 pm
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Cool. Now who's going to do the detailed history of all the various health code violations and police reports eminating from that place? I love it, by the way. Fajita Tuesday, all day long.
snugglebunny replying to a comment from Hez / May 24, 2014 at 05:59 pm
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there was also Sneaky Dee's Uptown, short lived at Davisville and Yonge - @Hez, the name Sneaky Dee's has nothing to do with Honest Ed's. it has everything to do with a play on words of the owners last name.
Bigjohn / May 24, 2014 at 06:33 pm
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Home away from home. Ilactuallt, home is my home away from Dee's. Cheers.
Tony / May 24, 2014 at 07:00 pm
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A whole article on Sneaky Dee's and no mention of Jughead? WTF?
Hez replying to a comment from snugglebunny / May 24, 2014 at 09:03 pm
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Is that right? Another urban legend put to rest.
Jake / May 24, 2014 at 11:27 pm
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Yes every Saturday afternoon the Jugheads played for about A Year and A Half. Begging for any gig was thebarenakedladies. That's oh they printed it so we couldn't even read it! Big jokers. Others such as The Phantoms andAmanda Marshal also regularly played upstairs. Also very proudly, many weddings have been celebrated up stairs with at least two dozen couples meeting for the first time or somehow making it their special place! Who would of thought Sneeky's was a romantic spot. Lastly sort of both right on the name creation.
smh / May 25, 2014 at 02:50 am
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No mention of Fiona Smyth's iconic artwork? Shame....
Wesley J Ramos / May 25, 2014 at 05:39 am
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Also no mention of Dwayne Slack, the booker responsible for bringing bands back (with a vengeance) to Sneaky Dee's in 2002. If it weren't for him, there would probably still be DJs spinning upstairs.
Out of home corporate personal trainer / May 25, 2014 at 09:12 am
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No mention of......
It states a BRIEF history, not a full detailed history of everyone that's ever been involved with the place.
Ray / May 25, 2014 at 09:13 am
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Nonmention of the time I got a BJ on the roof? That was pure legendary!!!!!!!
Dowkes / May 25, 2014 at 11:07 am
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Thanks, Demitra for e-mailing me this site. My partner, Mike and I were the last customers at the previous bar at the location, and the first under the new owners - we lived just down Bathurst. We became good friends with Jimmy, johnny and Tommy and their families - watched the kids grow up. New years eve was always a blast!!
I have hundreds of photos.
Moved away 7 years ago, don't get back often. Must remidy that.
Bill
Rae / May 25, 2014 at 12:12 pm
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Bring back the hip hop dance nights!!!!!!
paul / May 25, 2014 at 04:35 pm
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OK article but no mention of the art of FS - shame really. I remember late night/ early morning breakfasts at Bloor and Bathurst., dancing on the tables and breaking plates at the christmas parties. Great owners, great staff, great people, great vibe and of course the huevos rancheros with guacomole.
Diana replying to a comment from matt king / May 25, 2014 at 09:28 pm
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Matt, if it helps, I accidentally underpaid Vampire Weekend $100 for that show ... :/
AceBox / May 26, 2014 at 08:05 am
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No it doesn't help to rip off bands.
Derek / May 26, 2014 at 10:40 am
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Mmmm avacado spring rolls. Also edit: Arcade Fire shouted em at the GRAMMYs.
Dwayne Slack / May 26, 2014 at 10:56 am
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Ben! No Love?!?
Curtis / May 26, 2014 at 12:07 pm
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This place oozes character. No, I mean it literally oozes character. Love going here, but don't expect to get in right away after 5:00PM.
Paul Gott / May 26, 2014 at 12:21 pm
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Always one of my favourite places to play when we're in town. Great food, great crowds, great memories.
Garry T. / May 26, 2014 at 12:42 pm
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Was reminiscing about this place with a friend yesterday. Wavelength, Over the Top Fest, and many others shows 'n fests made the place great. One of the best shows that I ever saw at Sneaks was Think About Life. Life-changing experience.
Steve D / May 26, 2014 at 02:19 pm
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Nice article great place and great memories for all of us who've been eating drinking and seeing bands - 28yrs loyal patron. Jimmy and the family are nice people particularly miss seeing Sonia long time server! According to Jimmy my family holds the record for having the youngest person at SD's for brunch... Henry was less then 24 hours old :)- with no tattoos!
Brian / May 27, 2014 at 02:49 pm
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Had my first date with my wife there!
marilyn replying to a comment from w-hat / May 29, 2014 at 07:47 pm
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love sneaky dees We Started with the Bathurst and bloor site years ago and we followed them to the current location.. always fantastic food. the sneaky thing about sneaky dees is the basement.. very sneaky

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