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Toronto: Best Dive Bars?

Hi all,

Five of my friends are meeting in Toronto at the end of this month for a few days. Three of them have never been to Canada before, so I feel additional pressure to make sure that they have a great time!

Although the visit falls over New Year's (hopefully this won't affect us too much), the group's preference is to dodge the holiday crowds and head to pubs / dive bars.

We'll be staying at King and Yonge, and an ideal chilly day would be hopping from watering hole to watering hole.

Do you have any recommendations for low-key drinking spots? I've been to Allen's on the Danforth (a little far in this case, maybe?), am sure some Sneaky Dee nachos will feature, and love The Victory on Markham (that's the perfect vibe). Does Toronto have any notable brew pubs or chill bars? Solid options for somewhere not too far from where we're staying?

Thanks in advance (and an appreciative life of the pint glass!)

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  1. C'est What fits your description of "chill bar" and is just a couple of blocks from where you're staying. Extensive beer list, very laid back vibe. Service has been known to be surly, but that doesn't sound like it would deter you. Bar Volo is a little further afield, but within a short cab ride and is another beer focused spot.

      1. You might want to check out Duggan's Brewery/Pub on Victoria, close to Yonge and King. Here's a recent thread -
        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/673579

        1. I prepped this for a friend of mine with desires for dives. It may be a little farther than you want to go, but the routing is good.

          Eton Tavern, 710 Danforth Ave east of Pape
          Jane’s Happy Bar, 1238 Danforth Ave east of Greenwood
          Linsmore Hotel & Tavern, 1298 Danforth Ave east of Greenwood
          Crossroads House, 1544 Danforth Ave at Coxwell
          Ulster Arms, 1345 Gerrard St E east of Greenwood (The #1 Pick)
          Maple Leaf Tavern, 955 Gerrard St E east of Carlaw (Tonight’s Karaoke Night)

          http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid...

          2 Replies
          1. re: Googs

            In that area, I'd add the Only at Donlands on the Danforth.

            1. re: Googs

              The Crossroads has closed. On the upside, there's a bar at Danforth Bowl which is located at the same intersection.

            2. If you make it as far north as Dundas, the Queen & Beaver on Elm has some good brews plus a good burger.
              http://queenandbeaverpub.ca/

              The places I'm suggesting are decent pubs or brewpubs, not at all like the true dives Googs has listed. Your post/request was a bit confusing in that respect.

              1 Reply
              1. re: JamieK

                Awesome; thanks, all!

                These are some really solid suggestions. Duggan's looks great, and the link to the pub crawl also had some good options for us.

                (and sorry JamieK for any confusion: I guess I was looking for both recs for pubs/brewpubs as well as true dives. The thread delivered...thanks!)

              2. I just moved to Toronto and can't speak from experience, but the omnipotent NY Times recently weighed in on Toronto dive bars: "Let the frat boys have College Street. And West Queen West has been overrun lately with 905ers, slang for out-of-towners with suburban area codes. The cool kids, it seems, are now migrating north along Ossington Avenue, which some Toronto bloggers are already calling “Next West Queen West.” Bookending the district are Sweaty Betty’s (13 Ossington Avenue; 416-535-6861), a hole-in-the-wall with a brash jukebox, and Communist’s Daughter (1149 Dundas Street West; 647-435-0103), an understated lounge that attracts the skinny corduroy and high-top-wearing set. A trendy bar crawl is emerging in between, tucked among old Portuguese bakeries and kitchen supply stores."

                You might do well to check bar reviews on Yelp.ca, too.

                1. Further north in case you crawl that far are notable pubs with great brews -

                  Volo
                  http://www.barvolo.com/

                  Rebel House
                  http://www.rebelhouse.ca/

                  Here's one closer to home (for you) that is more divey but I don't know if it's a true dive like those on goog's list -- believe me, the boozy lady nailed it with that list. Imperial has been there forever but I've actually never been there.
                  http://www.imperialpub.com/the_imperi...

                  5 Replies
                  1. re: JamieK

                    goog's did a fine job and the one i was going to add was the imperial pub which is sort of like a legion except you didn't actually have to be in the military

                    1. re: JamieK

                      Imperial's GREAT if you want an actual dive bar. Maybe not the best place if you want to impress friends from out of the country, but it's quiet, friendly, and a lot of people get a kick out of the lending library upstairs with big couches and lots of students. Plus, there's free popcorn and live music Saturday's and sometimes Friday's.

                      1. re: bringonthelbs

                        Another thumbs up for the classic dive Imperial Pub on Dundas and Victoria.

                      2. re: JamieK

                        there's"chill" and there's "dive"

                        great chill bars with great beer - Castro's in the Beach area and Bar Volo.

                        a little more dirty - Green Room (Spadina and Bloor) and Red Room (Spadina and College).

                        more grit - Sweaty Betty's, Dakota Tavern (Ossington).

                        1. re: JamieK

                          The Rebel house is hardly a dive bar. It is quite expensive for pub food and I really dislike their bar rules. If you want to have a drink and you show up before 9 or 10 you have to stand at the tiny bar even if there are tables available because they want to hold them if people want to come and eat dinner. If you want to impress visitors you might give them the impression that Toronto is a cold unfriendly place.

                          If you are looking for a dive bar in the area check out Scallywags up at St. Claire.

                        2. The Wheatsheaf at King and Bathurst is the oldest bar (and dive) in Toronto. I would also recommend Grossman's on Spadina for live music in a seedy setting.

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: sloweater

                            Black Bull on Queen Street, The Horseshoe on Queen, and The Hideout on Queen West are all "dive bars"..

                            1. My favourtie all time pub in Toronto is the Tap at Bloor and Bathurst. Take your friends there and play some table hockey for a truly Canadian experience.

                              1. Betty's on King Street east of Sherbourne.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: westhead74

                                  Yes, Betty's too. Crooked Star is a good dive bar too on the west side.

                                2. The Red Light is a newer bar on the Dundas West strip, on the south side just west of Ossington. It's shares the same owners are Sweaty Betty's but is a tad larger with a more local feel, now that Ossington has become the new College. The Local, in Roncesvalles, is also a great place to be these days.

                                  1. Black Dice is my new favourite hole-in-the-wall bar, but it gets pretty hipster in there so you need to be someone who is comfortable around that species.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: childofthestorm

                                      I have to point out that while the Queen & Beaver, Rebel House, Duggan's and C'est What are all great drinking establishments, they are not "dive bars" in the least. The Q&B in particular has a much more upscale vibe and a price point to match. Dive bars in the US, as I understand it, are super sketchy and sell drinks for $1 to $2. You won't find a pint under $6-$7 before tax and tip at any of these bars.

                                      Closer might be the aforementioned Hideout on Queen West and the Imperial/Library near Yonge and Dundas. Also there is a tiny little bar ironically named the Wide Open on Spadina just south of Queen. The Cameron House just west of Queen & Spadina has a ridiculous amount of character and is likely closing next year, so catch it while you can. Up around Kensington Market you'll find Ronnie's Local which is pretty divey in a hipster sorta way, and the Red Room, which I like quite a bit but most people find too, well, divey.

                                      1. re: Gary

                                        There's some interesting ideas of what's a dive bar in this thread, so I guess it's subjective. To me a dive bar is a place with low cost offerings, stick to bottles because the draft would taste weird, and there's usually a damp or stale beer scent throughout. All of Gary's suggestions are perfect and are all fairly friendly dive bars. There's some around Queen and Bathurst where regulars pay for their beer in nickels and dimes are are not very friendly so probably best to avoid with out of towners.

                                        If you do make it out to Ossington The Crooked Star near Dundas is a really great chill bar. Looks like a dive from the outside but is very comfortable and cozy on the inside. Good selection of beers at reasonable prices and good bar staff. Another place with a ton of character. Some might consider it a dive by the way it looks but you can get a really great classic martini there which disqualifies it in my book.

                                    2. Most of these suggestions are not dive bars.

                                      A dive bar is dirty and old, has cheap beer, questionable clientele and usually has a Chinese owner.

                                      On the other hand, if you mean that you want a bar with a bit of grit and an in-the-know crowd, some of these suggestions will suit very well.

                                      Most of the suggestions that fit this gritty vibe are college student hang-outs like Sneaky Dee's, Bistro 990 or Bovine Sex Club.

                                      The Victory, C'est What, Castro's, Bar Volo are all rather nice pubs.

                                      8 Replies
                                      1. re: jollyinebriate

                                        Um...Bistro 990?! The uber-upscale, fine dining restaurant across from the Sutton Place hotel?

                                        1. re: TorontoJo

                                          Haha, I always do that! I mean Bistro 440 on College St.

                                        2. re: jollyinebriate

                                          I was under the impression the Bovine Sex Club has been closed for years. I used to go there quite a bit before motherhood slowed down my search for dives. I passed by last year and It looked quite closed. Please let me know if it has be resurrected.

                                            1. re: childofthestorm

                                              Really? I guess since motherhood, my sensibilities have changed....it looked SO closed to me. Next time I squeeze myself into my "clubbing" jeans, I am off to check it out again. Thanks for the heads up.

                                            2. re: Livingtoeat

                                              It's never closed and has experienced something of a resurgence as of late. Last time I went there, it was full of rock scenesters.

                                              1. re: jollyinebriate

                                                The Bovine. Land of the Tall Men. Even in heels I always felt about 2' tall.

                                              2. re: Livingtoeat

                                                It's not closed, went to see a band there weekend before last. The crowd at Bovine varies based on who is playing there.

                                            3. You guys have a different opinion of a dive bar than I do. You want dive as in bad smell, potentially dangerous people, buy drugs openly? Try Michael's at Queen/Bathurst. Now that's a dive in the real sense, not the hip sense.

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: ziggystardust

                                                Michael's was one of the not so friendly ones I was thinking of. Dropped in there before going to see a band at another place once for a quick beer. Underagers walked in, were asked for ID and had various stories as to why they didn't have their ID with them. When asked to leave on kid freaked out and screamed "BUT MY MOM HAS A TAB HERE!" Fights broke out, cops showed up, big mess. Semi amusing expience..but yeah that's a dive!

                                              2. Grossman's Tavern on Spadina south of College. They've recently renovated, though I've not been in since, but it fits the bill for a dive. Live music at night draw perhaps less questionable clientele into one room, but you also get a lot of students and men who occasionally light their cigarettes inside before heading out.

                                                In the past, we've been timid enough about the dive-y-ness of this place to head next door to Kom Jug Yuen for takeout, then bring it back to Grossman's to wash down with cheap beer. However, friends have ordered food there and not only survived, but enjoyed it. (To be clear, they are students who eat a variety of burgers, wings, and nachos - the cheaper the better - so this should be taken with a grain of salt)

                                                8 Replies
                                                1. re: c.cow

                                                  Grossmans Tavern - Renovated !!! Sacre Bleu !..tragic. Hmm now i have confess, Duke of Gloucester hidden above an Indian Restaurant on Yonge around Charles...(i think its 649 yonge)...This certainly qualifies as a dive, great jukebox, comfy chairs, wallpaper (flock) hasn't changed for 20 years, greasy breakfasts when international soccer is on in a different timezone...sticky old wooden tables that may get the odd rag over them...PLUSES, you can order curry from downstairs, decent selection of beer and it makes the Rebel House look like the Rosedale hangout that it wants to be. The only rebellion in the Rebel house is the IPA.

                                                  1. re: Minister of Kebab

                                                    I love the Duke of G! Never thought of it as a dive, though — just a slightly seedy pub. The Imperial feels more like a dive to me, with those giant bottles of beer and the bizarrely bright lighting. A true dive, though, to me, is a bit ... unsafe. I'm thinking of the "cafés" along Bloor between Landsdowne and Dufferin, where there are fights out front and jittery women selling bj's for ten bucks. I prefer the slightly seedy pubs of the city. I love Sweaty Betty's and The Communist's Daughter along the Ossington strip — they aren't squeaky clean enough to meet the hipster standards, and they aren't grimy enough to entice the criminal element. I LOVE Sweaty Betty's back patio, with those 80's-style aluminum lawn chairs with the woven plastic "fabric". The classic Toronto dive bar used to be The Brunswick House (aka The Brunny) at Bloor and Brunswick, but I think it's been renovated and now has bottle service, appealing more to the 905 crowd. Might be worth visiting just to say you've been, though.

                                                    1. re: Sarah Cat

                                                      Ohhh Jeez the mysterious "Cafes" between Lansdowne and Dufferin...whoa...have to confess haven't really ventured into em ...they're like the land that time forgot..know exactly the ones you mean.

                                                      Speaking of which there used to be a really really Divey pub around there...opposite the Sally Army..was as rough as the rear-quarters of a bear, had the classic dive elements, jug beer, ashtrays that were screwed to the table, seriously sketchy clientele...and for a while a decent jukebox...can't for the life of me remember what is was called....duke of something or other ...connaught ? anyhow its gone now...that area is starting to gentrify

                                                      1. re: Minister of Kebab

                                                        Do you mean Duffy's - thats right where you're describing. North side of Bloor, halfway between Dufferin and Lansdowne. It's had a bit of a reno recently, they knocked out the dodgy take-out counter in the front put in some big new windows and gave the place a coat of paint - it's still pretty divey though and has kept the clientelle.

                                                        1. re: Glyndwr

                                                          Thanks !!! Yep that's the place....Duffy's, I give that at least a 4.5 on the Dive-o-meter. I'd forgotten about that take-out counter.

                                                        1. re: jollyinebriate

                                                          yep ...thats dundas, i think SC was referring to Bloor between Landsdowne and Duff....

                                                          1. re: Minister of Kebab

                                                            I know she did, I was replying to her mention of the Ossington strip.

                                                  2. I have to put in a vote for the Monarch on Clinton. Some CHers found it very divey, I never have but agree it has that old school atmosphere. Grab a slice or a sandwich from downstairs and head on up to chill out!