Toronto has a creative soul and is atypical in its sojourn toward imbibable greatness. According to Robin Goodfellow, an award-winning restaurateur and owner of VELA, Torontonian bars (as we enjoy them today) were born out of restaurants. Many of the city’s bartenders first began working alongside chefs in the kitchen rather than at the bar — and the development of Toronto’s drinks scene flourished from there. So rather than master the technical skills first, artistry took precedence and was followed by finessing and fine-tuning later.
There were some growing pains due to this (a.k.a. some really funky-tasting stuff) but the fact that Toronto didn’t look at “rule books” first is what makes the city’s drink culture that much more dynamic, experimental, and tantalizing. Ultimately, every drink is an opportunity for tinkering, playing, and collaboration between chef and bartender. It also explains why the fare here is as sophisticated and stellar as the libations — so much so that the Michelin Guide has (finally) come to anoint the city with its coveted stars.
Here are the best places to drink in Toronto.
The Best Place to Start an Evening: VELA
This seductive spot with curved, sculptural ceiling lights is like a modern-day Copacabana (from an alternate timeline) and hotel lobby bar — minus the actual hotel. The vivid space has a lounge area, primary bar, and restaurant, but more important is that the vibe is welcoming and manifests the energy and spirit of “choosing your own adventure.” Drinks here can be as complex or as easygoing as you like: Peruse 42 classics if you want to stay in your comfort zone. Otherwise, co-owner Goodfellow and his team have concocted 12 in-house (and cheekily named) wild-eyed creations with which to whet your appetite. The Mo Eisley Cantina is a glorified show pony and top seller; it’s heavy-handed with smokiness and agave notes but tempered with malva florals, elderflowers (which gives the drink its signature amethyst hue), and a touch of “the force” — yes, they like to have fun around here. Otherwise, the Tokyo is an elegant underdog for serious drinkers: It’s essentially a Japanese version of an Old Fashioned with cherry blossom notes (thanks to their housemade jasmine and marigold syrup) and finished with a spritz of heady leather tincture.
Don't Miss A DropGet the latest in beer, wine, and cocktail culture sent straight to your inbox.
Tip Jar: The restaurant is booked up months in advance, but there’s always walk-in availability for the bar and lounge areas. Perhaps the best spot is the chef’s counter (adjacent to the bar) and where chefs Marvin Palomo and Kim Haugen offer a taste of modern Canadiana, with a requisite lobby bar twist: Think brûléed cashew torchon and octopus lacquered with tamari glaze. Also noteworthy: blind tasting menus on the fly.
Address: 90 Portland St., Toronto, ON M5V 2N2
Best Place to Blend in with the Locals: Avling
Located in the family-friendly neighborhood of Leslieville, Avling is a love letter to the respectable Old World brewhouses in Europe, presented with a modernist flair. In fact, it’s not every day you hear of a brewery offering elevated Nordic/Asian fare paired with refreshing Ontario suds — but here we are, and it works. “It is certainly complex, but not complicated,” explains head brewer Brandon Judd. It’s something that Avling founder Max Meighen has always strived for: “I’ve always had a vision to offer a community- minded, circular, and deeply flavorful experience,” he says. This philosophy is driven by a thoughtful approach: on the drinks side with Judd’s meticulous craft of maturing and barrel aging ever-rotating seasonal varietals, and on the food side with chef Eva Chin’s masterful creations that complement the flavor nuances in each beer. Standouts include Pale Fire, a matte gold sour emboldened with peaches that is barrel-aged for two years and offers a vibrant minerality and precise acidity. It’s paired with a succulent double-patty BBQ pork char-siu laced with ginger scallion relish, pickled cucumber, and fresh lettuce, embraced in a black sesame bao. Also of note, Violet Moon — an aubergine ale featuring Ontario blue plums and Gamay skins with a beautiful juiciness and tannic edge; it’s perfectly paired with unicorn-worthy rockfish shumai that’s nestled atop a pool of tomato satay sauce.
Tip Jar: Avling is Norwegian for “crop” or “harvest,” and it’s a fitting name because as well as housing a kitchen and brewery, the space is also home to a rooftop farm where much of Chin’s ingredients and inspiration stem from. Tours for the brewery and farm are available through advance booking requests.
Address: 1042 Queen St. E., Toronto, ON M4M 1K4
The Best Place for a Date Night: Grape Witches
Since 2015, industry vets Nicole Campbell and Krysta Oben have democratized wine through their lively, informative parties and educational workshops. Today, their flourishing business includes Grape Witches, a chic wine shop and tasting room in the West End of the city which allows visitors to enjoy a portfolio of curated organic, biodynamic, and natural wines from nearby and around the globe (over 300 and counting!). And in keeping with their friendly and approachable vibe, Campbell says that they’ve developed a badge system to help folks navigate their constantly rotating selection. “We have something for everything: We rate all wines that arrive in shop 1 to 5 on our ‘Freaky Scale,’ she says. “From classic in all the right ways Freaky 1, to outrageous, otherworldly oddities of Freaky 5.” She adds that their ‘Freaky’ scale is available online and in-store, which allows people to take “baby steps” within a flavor profile they feel comfortable in. “Freakiness isn’t about a different grape or place,” Campbell says, “but instead about a wine different from conventional wine flavors — think higher acid, pleasing VA, brett, or super savoriness from things like amphora or flor aging adding to freakiness.”
Tip Jar: The Grape Witches team is always a sociable crew, so depending on when you visit, they also have some big and fun events you can join in on, such as their biannual Try & Buy, summer Boat Party, and Natural Wine Adventure.
Address: 1247 Dundas St. W., Toronto, ON M6J 1X6
Where to Get Drinks Before a Concert or Game: Bellwoods Brewery
This always boisterous spot has been a part of the city’s West End artsy hipster neighborhood since 2012. Bellwoods embodies the celebratory nature of going to your best bud’s backyard barbecue — replete with a forever summer sentiment that include white picket fences and wood picnic benches. Head brewer John Gallagher offers suds that are particularly vast and versatile, with options that range from delicate and fruity to robust with a rounded bitterness — from 4 to 10 percent ABV. The go-tos are its ever-popular, easy-to-drink pilsners, but sours such as the Jelly King — with its light body and notes of fuzzy peach — and IPAs (how could you not love something named Cat Lady with tropical notes and overarching piney/hop profile?) are best-sellers, too. Beers are given more of a tantalizing lift with what front-of-house staff member Tamara Appleton describes as “elevated pub grub.” A smattering of snacks and main plates include piquante grilled duck hearts, creamy scallop crudo, and in-house smoked half chicken with white BBQ sauce.
Tip Jar: A must-try for those who like to dabble in beer-wine hybrids is the brewery’s collection of Bellwoods Reserve bottles. Of the four currently available, a favorite is the Vines Chambourcin (2021), a mature effervescent beauty with tart notes from ale-barrel aging with grape skins.
Address: 124 Ossington Ave., Toronto, ON M6J 2Z5
The Best Place for a Most Holy Eclectic Experience: The Vatican Gift Shop
At first glance, Vatican looks like a simple “gift shop” that sells religious paraphernalia. But once you find the secret entrance, you’ll be greeted with a gothic speakeasy decked out with a “confessional booth,” Sistine Chapel art sprawled across the ceiling, and religious iconography. But you don’t need to pray too hard for a good drink. Sips here include “Old World order” brews from Europe, “East End” Collective which showcases local city suds, a global roster of reds and white wines, and in-house cocktails such as Paper Heart, laced with cinnamon, bourbon, amaro, Aperol, and lemon; and blessed tastes like Ride the Cliche, made with tequila, amaro, and lemon topped off with ginger beer. To pair, whole Neapolitan pies are served up, including the Good Shepherd — anointed with lamb, kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, artichokes, mozzarella, and feta cheese with a rosé sauce. Amen.
Address: 1047 Gerrard St. E., Toronto, ON M4M 1Z7
The Best Spot for Boozy Brunch: Baro
This four-season stunner is a tropical verdant oasis that welcomes guests to its rooftop patio, nestled in the heart of Toronto’s Fashion District. Baro is actually four floors containing the spirit of Latin America all housed in one historical building (formerly an old print house). While the space offers late-night dance parties, large-format dinners and drinks, the proverbial gem is definitely brunch. Drinks are vivacious and echo the liveliness of Central and South America. The Bogota Sour takes your taste buds on a vacation with its melange of Grey Goose, amaretto, pink guava, lime, egg whites, and bitters. This hero cocktail is best matched with spicy-salty dishes such as the choripapa with its medley of pork chorizo, potatoes, eggs, peppers, onion chipotle aioli, corn, and goat cheese — all loaded up on plush flour tortillas.
Tip Jar: Return for late-night shenanigans: There are some true hidden-hideaway gems in this place *wink, wink*. Toss away the GPS, don your explorer’s hat, and venture forth.
Address: 485 King St. W., Toronto, ON M5V 1K4
Where to Get Drinks With the Cool Kids: Cocktail Bar
This aptly named spot near Trinity-Bellwoods Park in the Queen West neighborhood is restaurateur Jenn Agg’s commitment to the purity and art of a cocktail (and cocktail bar). Here, there’s no fuss and no muss: only the top shelf stuff, but without the pretentiousness. Modernist libations are enjoyed by candlelight and include the Absinthe Whip — a whirlwind of absinthe and Cointreau that is tempered with pistachio, coconut, and orange (fun fact: It’s a playful rendition of the Blues Brothers’ famed Orange Whip concoction). Another worth trying is the Hoof Manhattan (a nod to Agg’s now-shuttered legacy restaurant the Black Hoof, which brought offal in all its gutsy glory to Torontonians), which sees heady 10-year rye, topped up with Antica, blended with “hoof” bitters, and finished with a buxom preserved cherry that’s infused with bitter almond, vermouth, rye, and caramel syrup. It’s a mouthful of magic.
Tip Jar: Hungry? Walk across the street to Agg’s sister spot Rhum Corner, a Haitian outpost created in honor of her husband Roland’s affinity for rum and Coke, among other munchable must-haves. Think salt cod patties, oxtail and rice, and fried chicken with pepper honey.
Address: 923 Dundas St. W., Toronto, ON M6J 1W3
The Best Spot to Bring a Large Party: Paradise Grapevine
Situated in Toronto’s quieter, community-oriented Christie Pits neighborhood on Bloor Street, Paradise Grapevine is the only establishment in the city that produces its own wine (sourced from seven different growers across Niagara and Creemore) and sells it on-site. “We’re essentially an urban winery,” explains general manager Vidal Wuu. From eye-openers to deep dives, the bespoke wine offers a chance to taste the vitality of locally sourced grapes. “Our ‘Nightcall,’ made from Zweigelt grapes sourced from St. Catharine’s, ON, is a great starting point to our wines,” Wuu says. “We make a lot of sparkling wine and this dark rosé pétillant naturel, with its notes of fresh cranberry, cherry blaster, and mulled wine spice, is perfectly refreshing. And for the more adventurous, our Pinot Gris pétillant naturel ‘How I Dream of You’ is a touch more wild with notes of peach pit, Meyer lemon, and tangerine.” The wine bar also operates an open-air grill from Thursday to Sunday with the cuisine focus drawing from head chef Kaitlyn Lasagna’s Argentine heritage: Provoleta, a melted cheese served on a hot mini cast iron skillet pairs beautifully with the wine bar’s Vin de Soif light red, a blend of Gamay and Zweigelt.
Tip Jar: Wuu offers weekly guided tasting of Paradise Grapevine’s wines. It’s an opportunity to taste the more rare gems on offer: “We pour wines you can only find here, including exclusive, small-batch releases.” Best of all, you can bring your large squad on the fly and they’ll accommodate — no reservations necessary.
Address: 841 Bloor St. W., Toronto, ON M6G 1M3
The Best Spot to End a Big Night: Hong Shing
Late-night Chinese food and cocktails? Check and check. For over 25 years, Hong Shing has seen all walks of life streaming through its doors: from clubbers needing to refuel, to off-duty police officers, to health workers finishing their graveyard shifts. They’ve all gotten satiation from this stalwart Chinese restaurant. Owner and chef Colin Li, whose restaurant has been in the family since 1997, offers a rotational drink program focused on sustainability, with a special emphasis on spotlighting baijiu, China’s national liquor. “We believe it is one of the most versatile spirits behind the bar,” Li says. “It is overproof, ranging from 52 to 60 percent ABV, but the characteristics remind you of a flavor range that spans from gin to a Jamaican pot still rum.” Meanwhile, bar manager Michael Ranger prides himself on crafting drinks with a deft mastery of flavors and interweaving their profiles into the tapestry of beloved Asian dishes. The A Wise Sage Once Said is perhaps your gateway Chinese cocktail and one of the most approachable sips to start out with. “Think of it as our superior version of a Gin & Tonic,” Ranger says. “We use two different types of gin — a local Plum and Blackthorn gin from Collective Arts and a Japanese Roku Gin. We balanced it with verjus and in-season, salted plum and topped it off with tonic.” It’s perfectly paired with the kitchen’s plump fried shrimp morsels. For thrill seekers, Ranger recommends the Tales of the Nimbus: Goji berries are infused with baiju for 72 hours, then given a vibrant lift with yuzu, fresh raspberries, cherry vanilla bark bitters, and egg white for the silky smoothness. It’s a heady beast that’s tamed with just the perfect amount of floral and fruit undertones. The drink is a perfect counterbalance to spicy items on the menu such as Hong Shing’s Chili Chicken or General Tao.
Address: 195 Dundas St. W., Toronto, ON M5G 1C7