It's never been a better time to grab a drink in Toronto
By Sarah Parniak
Mar 7, 2018
The opulent back room of Mahjong Bar is hidden behind a false front.
The liquid lay of the land gets more exciting with each passing year. Whether craft beer, local cider, natural wine or bespoke cocktails are in the cards, these 10 new bars won’t crush any dreams when it comes to good vibes and drinks.
1276 Dundas West, mahjongbar.com
Mahjong is Toronto’s most non-secret “secret” bar.
Enter via a pink-lit bodega hawking cans of craft beer, shrimp chips, Pocky and Pocari Sweat to milling millennials, and wander through an illuminated arch into Mahjong’s sanctum – not so much a den of iniquities as of indulgences.
Though Mahjong’s popularity can turn the vibe up to a full-blown party after 10 pm, especially on weekends, there’s way more than cheap beers and whiskey shots on offer: Japanese-style highballs, a selection of local beers and ciders or a spectrum of sparkling wines, from bottles of Jolly Ferriol Pét’Nat to Moët rosé.
Partners Josh LeBlanc, Emily Blake, Kyle Wong and Andrew Perry have enlisted chef Tricia Soo, who owns Soos on Ossington, to serve up Chinese small plates – like spicy, liquor-absorbing wontons, braised beef noodles and Malay-influenced half-moon dumplings – Wednesday to Sunday from open to midnight.
619 King West, goldie.ca
Those with vodka-fogged memories of Goldie’s previous incarnation, Candyland, may be either mildly disappointed or incredibly stoked to hear that there are no more flying faux-Wallendas or scantily clad contortionists to be found behind the palatial doors of 619 King West.
Now a slick and moody cocktail bar with capacious leather banquettes, track lighting and shiny golden accents (obvs), Goldie looks like a super-glossy retro fantasy – a place where you might set a mafioso-inspired Blade Runner prequel if Scorsese had directed it in the early 80s.
Bar manager Jake Dolgy’s cocktail list riffs playfully on classics like Old Fashioneds, the obscure and delicious Japanese Slipper (melon and orange liqueurs with fresh lemon) and bright-coloured 1980s Cocktails-and-Dreams extravaganzas like the neon blue Orinoco Flow (blue curaçao, manzanilla sherry, pineapple, coconut, lime, orgeat and Bittered Sling plum and root beer bitters) and the deep purple Risky Business (blanco tequila, mezcal, pinot noir syrup, crème de violette, Kensington bitters and lime. All cocktails $16 plus tax).
Still not tired of chasing the vodka-Redbull dragon? Hit the upstairs bar for a clubbier feel – this is King West, after all.
1029 Gerrard East
Poor Romeo, which opened last November, is all unsullied east-side chill – a relaxing contrast to the increasingly high-gloss spots populating the city’s opposite end. (Sorry, west side, I live in and love you, but an occasional evening away from your too-cool bullshit can be like a goddamn sea breeze.)
Inside, the lights are flatteringly dim, Bowie and the Clash take turns spilling through the sound system, and there’s a fridge full of (mostly local) short boys like Burdock Tuesday and Left Field Spaceman – with Molson Stock Ale thrown in for a requisite dose of irony.
It’s as if partners Marc Baglio, Adam Graham and Andy Wilson successfully smashed together a diner and a dive bar, preserving the best bits of each classic vibe while ensuring that everything – a sous-vide Bavette board, a mean lineup of whisk(e)y – is workaday fancy.
On Wednesdays oysters are buck-a-shuck, and if you need a quick change of scenery, Pinkerton’s Snack Bar is a perfunctory jaywalk across Gerrard from its next of kin.
Though Toronto does itself a disservice with half-assed comparisons to New York City, the Broadview Hotel’s jaw-dropping rooftop bar feels like it was plucked fresh off of the Manhattan skyline and dropped on a corner that was held down for decades by the seasoned rippers at Jilly’s. (The immaculately updated building actually dates back to 1891.)
The Broadview’s markups don’t quite rival the gut-punching prices of the glitzy roofs of Chelsea, but even a panoramic view of our skyscrapers doesn’t come cheap. No matter, because the sprawling 280-seat rooftop is something to behold – especially in more livable weather with a glass of rosé in hand.
Cocktails range from healthy-ish, like Beyoncé’s least fave drink, Becky With The Good Hair (vodka, orange and carrot juices, coconut water, lemon juice, allspice syrup and charred rosemary, $14) to decadent, like the Smokey Robinson (two types of rum, banana liqueur, Moscatel sherry and Amargo Chuncho flambé, $12).
Suffering from a phobia of modest heights? The Broadview has two other spots off its grand lobby to post up and drink – a day-to-night plant-deck horseshoe in the café and a small bar in the Civic, where the focus is on cocktails stirred and stiff.
Even whiskey-slammers have opened their minds to wine in recent years, and casually lapping up esoteric and elevated offerings by the glass, sans wallet-draining meals or stuffy vibes, is becoming the new norm.
Mad Crush, opened four months ago by the group behind the Oxley, the Wickson Social and Queen & Beaver, pegs itself as an “unwine” bar – but a swift scan of its wine list proves its owners are being cheeky and probably a little modest.
Head sommelier Julie Garton says she selects wines that excite her the most, and they’re likely to pique any palate.
Get weird with a beguiling zero-sulfur orange wine from Slovenia’s superstar Movia, or gulp some Grüner from Austria’s uber-trendy Meinklang in three or five ounce pours, but keep in mind that the team at Mad Crush, a pack of certified and studying sommeliers, will happily open any bottle on the list via Coravin as long as two glasses are spoken for.
Flex your taste buds at the in-house Wine Boot Camp, launched last month, and do keep in mind that champagne and magnums can be crushed at half price after 11 pm Sunday to Wednesday.
Anyone who’s come here to methodically slam perogies, sausages and platters of smoked fish into their face knows that the Tenny is more restaurant than bar, but it’s just not right to put a beverage program this thoughtful and diverse in a corner.
Fancy a glass of Pheasant’s Tears? It’s not as cruel as it sounds – it’s Georgian orange wine fermented in traditional clay amphorae called qvevri.
Or what about a hard-to-find sour from Cascade or a can of Godspeed’s tasty “Ochame” Green Tea IPA, Toronto’s beer du jour?
How about all of the above, capped off with what’s probably the city’s broadest assortment of Eastern European fruit brandies outside of your uncle Milos’s liquor cabinet.
Sip through 20-odd bottles of palinka, slivovitz and rakija distilled from all types of fruit, like apricots, sour cherries and quince – definitely the thematic highlight of all the spirits lining the coloured-light-draped back bar. Good luck escaping into the night without an obligatory $4 shot of rustically rejuvenating plum brandy.
Northwood was Bloorcourt’s cutest bar until its babely sister swished into the neighbourhood last summer. (That said, Northwood, which turns five this month, has grown into itself and its hood quite nicely.)
With its emerald walls, classique bistro seats and stunning Parisian-esque arcade, Mulberry is tailor-made for an aperitif or a low-key late-night canoodle.
The cocktail menu offers everything from spirit-forward to no- and -low alcohol cocktails, like La Belle Provence, made with juniper, lavender, thyme, lime and tonic ($10 or $11 with an optional splash of sparkling wine).
Once the foliage unfolds over Shaw, Mulberry’s sweet little side patio will be a go-to perch for tall, cool glasses of Tawse chard ($2 off before 7 pm daily with all other wines, by the way). But for now snag a spot inside on Thursday nights to catch a rotating cast of local DJs spinning everything from boogie to downtempo and organic (non-electro) beats from South America.
It’s only right that music is a focus at this months-old College Street spot named after Sylvia Robinson, one half of R&B duo Mickey and Sylvia and the founder of Sugar Hill Records, who repackaged rap for the mainstream with Rapper’s Delight in 1979 and made hip-hop history with Grandmaster Flash’s The Message three years later.
Walk through the door and the first thing you’ll see is a floor-to-ceiling wall lined with old speakers and boomboxes wedged with vintage vinyl, the backdrop for a rotating lineup of DJs playing funk, Motown, hip-hop and soul or, depending on the night, a live band.
Grab a cocktail (try the soft-landing Little Priest made with Cocchi Vermouth Amaro, peach liqueur, Earl Grey, lemon and rosemary, $12) at the long, under-lit bar and soak up the sweet tunes and weird decor, which somehow manages to feel both kitschy and classy. Who knew that bead curtains slung over exposed brick could coexist harmoniously with funky retro wallpaper? Mrs. Robinson probably did, but inside her bar it makes for an odd revelation.
552 College, bangarangbar.com
Though it’s usually the super-young or the slightly geriatric who have the deepest interest in the ol’ wholesome games of yore – not to mention the most time to play them – even millennial bar-goers have discovered the joys of keeping their hands busy with something other than drinks.
Thanks to spots like Bangarang and its progenitor, Track & Field, obscure and absorbing lawn and tabletop games that don’t require much skill or coordination can be tossed, clacked and shuffled on College till the lights come on.
Corn Hole is the star game around these parts, and it’s recommended that you reserve a lane on weekends. Never played? It involves throwing a bean bag into a hole, so yeah, you’re probably a virtuoso waiting to step out of the shadows – especially after a cocktail or two.
Bangarang keeps it breezy with Negronis and Palomas (tequila, lime, grapefruit and soda) on tap for $10, tall and short cans of local beer and Champagne if you fancy.
Paris Paris, the finessed and fresh-faced level up from Bar Fancy, Superpoint and SP Express, is serving natty wine from noon till night in the former Cooper Cole gallery space as of last week.
Partners Jonathan Poon, Gani Shqueir and Jesse Fader enlisted superstar somm Krysta Oben (one half of Grape Witches and the former wine director of Byblos) to shape a whimsical wine list that’s delightfully geeky and stacked with glou-glou. Oben, one of the least snobby and most wildly knowledgeable wine pros in the game, drew inspiration from a handful of her favourite low-key natural wine haunts in Paris.
Though it’s named for a defunct nightclub in – where else? – the City of Lights, Paris Paris is no doubt airier than a sweaty, jammed dance cave on the fringe of Le Marais.
Massive skylights and a plethora of plant life make it a natural setting for a cheeky afternoon gulp of Pét’Nat, while the vibe gets sultry after dark.
An aide-mémoire when faced with so many delectable wines: it would be irresponsible to miss the delicate dishes (sous-vide salmon with potatoes, olives and green goddess dressing), lavish snacks (chicken liver mousse) from chef de cuisine Nicholas Morra (formerly of La Banane) and the glorious sourdough at Paris Paris.