Our deputy editor (and professional booze expert guy) picks some favourite spots where you can actually hear yourself think while you drink
“No pretension” is a virtue close to the hearts of Torontonians – well, some of them, anyway – and a city full of bookish types who prefer to keep things quiet naturally sports a number of establishments where conversation is king (and the cocktails are often pretty important, too).
You can be assured of being safe from unnecessary show-offy nonsense at any of these establishments. The only thing that would ruin these bars would be if they became more popular than they already are, and therefore louder. So here are Billy’s picks for chilled-out bars in Toronto, but promise you’ll only go if you keep things quiet.
The Roof Lounge at The Park Hyatt
If you ask around in Toronto about a spot for a quiet drink, “the Roof at the Hyatt” is the recommendation you’ll hear most often, from locals aged anywhere from 27-ish to 70-plus. The décor is a little dated but the view and the romance make up for it: The 18th floor of the Park Hyatt has been the classic choice for a refined cocktail hour for generations of Torontonians, as well as a hangout for famous visitors from Jane Russell to Russell Crowe. Try for a patio seat in summer to admire the unique vista of downtown from the north end of Queen’s Park; in chillier months, the luckiest customers nestle on the soft seating next to the fireplace and await the complimentary nibbles. While the cocktail list has been spruced up and updated, the thing to order is a martini (don’t be a philistine; make it gin, not vodka).
Best for: a date; a casual interview; relaxing before or after a visit to one of the nearby museums or a meeting at the University of Toronto, Queen’s Park or Yorkville
4 Avenue Rd., 416-925-1234
York Station at the Fairmont Royal York
From a visible and well-known hotel bar, we move to one that in-the-know Torontonians keep hidden in their back pockets – and it would almost fit in there. A snug, private little retreat, you’ll snoop out the York Station bar on the mezzanine level of the venerable old Royal York. Apparently a good portion of the regulars who are keeping the secret work in the Financial District. Part of the attraction is the company of head bartender Alina, who is known to occasionally don an engineer’s cap, and if you visit you’ll discover why. Note the limited opening hours: noon to 7 p.m., weekdays only.
Best for: A bit of escape
100 Front Street W., Mezzanine level, 416-368-2511
The Bar at Alo / Katherine Holland
The Bar at Alo
A couple of restaurant industry veterans teamed up to open this spot in July 2015, introducing Toronto to something the city didn’t realize it needed (but it did): a contemporary, non-fussy French restaurant and bar, located in an area that needed some gussying up. (The corner of Queen Street and Spadina Avenue is pretty central, but unless you desperately need a fast food burger it doesn’t offer many reasons to stick around.) Board the nondescript elevator and take it to the third floor. The restaurant is to your right, and to your left is “Bar Alo,” a cocktail bar that sinuously evokes the middle 20th century with its tasteful curves wrought in brass, marble and blue leather. The bar here is as well-stocked and expertly staffed as anywhere in the city. You’re especially in luck if your favourite poisons happen to be French. Alo’s take on the old fashioned, for example, swaps in Armagnac for the more typical bourbon, and adds a dash of absinthe as a coup de grâce. The bijou little bar snacks are almost too pretty to eat: beautifully cut and presented crudités, deep-fried olives, pork belly that will haunt your dreams with its deliciousness.
Best for: romantic celebrations; staying classy
163 Spadina Ave, 416-260-2222
If the name makes people stare blankly, call it The Black Hoof Cocktail Bar and they’re more likely to know what you mean. Local superstar restaurateur Jen Agg started Cocktail Bar in 2011 partly because she needed a holding pen for the meat-craving multitudes who were clamouring to get into the no-reservations charcuterie resto The Black Hoof across the street. (The Hoof is still usually busy, as is Rhum Corner, a third Jen Agg joint on the same block of Dundas Street West at the top of Trinity-Bellwoods Park.) While she was at it, Agg created a cocktail bar as simple and perfect as the name. Its clean, graceful look – lots of white, with distressed cabinetry and dark wood accents – still looks slick after half a decade, an eternity in restaurant design trends. The 20 to 25 cocktails on offer tend toward bold flavours in exquisite balance. Nearly everything is delicious, and you’re a fool if you don’t try the snacks. Heads up for expense accounters: As per Agg Empire policy, Cocktail Bar only takes cash and Canadian debit cards.
Best for: a jumping-off point for a night out in Toronto’s west end, including The Black Hoof and Rhum Corner; a date; a place for world-beating cocktails
923 Dundas St. W., 416-792-7511
Midfield Wine Bar & Tavern
All this talk of cocktails and sometimes you just want a glass of wine. In Ontario it’s especially important for oenophiles to pay regular visits to wine bars like Midfield, where the crew ensure they bring in bottles via special order that consumers can’t uncork any other way. (It’s close-ish to Cocktail Bar, by the way.) Orange wines, Jura wines, obscure Vinho Verdes, Sardinian wines: If it’s trendy but generally unavailable at government-owned LCBO stores, settle into one of the simple bistro tables with a companion and the glow of candlelight and enjoy a sip. (Hint: Some of the rarest stuff is on the chalkboards, not the paper menu.)
Best for: Wine, duh
1434 Dundas St. W., 647-345-7005
The Harbord Room
You can’t tell in this black-and-white photo, but these walls are pink and co-owner Dave Mitton’s flannel shirt is probably red
What’s this off the port bow? Boat-style light fixtures, scattered randomly; swooping white panelling, like Cape Cod but with curves; a smallish-plates menu with a strong seafood game. Yarr, mateys, it’s a nautical theme – but this is no Long John Silver’s; the effect is modern, clean and solemn. Among your many bar choices in teeming Parkdale, this is joint is easily the classiest, and it’s one of a very few where the music is low enough to encourage conversation. Highlights: Canadian wines, ceviche and the Lolita cocktail (with Earl Grey-infused rye whisky with frothy lemon).
Best for: Experiencing Parkdale without ear-splitting music
1265 Queen St. W., 416-537-1265
Adam McDowell is deputy editor of Billy, and also the author of Drinks: A User’s Guide, published by Tarcher Perigee.