Photo: petereleven/Shutterstock

Where to Get the Most Interesting Drinks in Toronto

Restaurants + Bars Insider Guides
by Jules Torti Aug 29, 2012
This post is part of Matador’s partnership with Canada, where journalists show how to explore Canada like a local.
The Avro

A saccharine waft of roasted marshmallow grabs my attention as I elbow up to The Avro counter. Curious onlookers stop conversation and follow my lead, ordering the “Canadian Campfire” just because it smells so good.

Emily quickly spouts off the recipe when I ask:

  • ½ ounce of Crown Royal
  • ¼ ounce Goldschlager
  • ¼ ounce butterscotch schnapps

and then demonstrates how to toast the Marshmallow Fluff chaser on a pâté knife. With a crème brûlée torch, she scorches the Fluff until it oozes and bubbles into a char.

The moment when she adds a pinch of cinnamon, causing a spray of sparks, is a crowd-pleaser. The shot is as smooth as the trunk of a beech tree and the follow-up Fluff evokes campfires past.

The Avro opened two years ago on Queen East, in the very barhop-friendly stretch of Leslieville near Broadview Avenue. The space is cozy and intimate, like having 40 of your closest friends over and stuffing them into your living room. The customary classic rock rarely interferes with conversation, and on “Plaid Night” Thursdays, the place becomes a hive of dress-up fun. Don a plaid shirt (gingham sometimes accepted) and get a buck off your pint. There’s a daily theme. Be sure to check out “Play Your Own Vinyl” Sundays and DJ Damn Akroyd on Wednesdays. Monday nights? $4 Canadian Campfires.

Alert: Owners Bruce and Rachel are taking up turf in Kensington Market. Check out their sister bar, “Handlebar,” at 159 Augusta.

The King Edward Hotel Consort Bar

Just east of Yonge Street on King, the King Edward Hotel is a sleeping giant in the Financial District. The Consort smells like money without reeking of pretention; there’s no need to put on an ascot and talk horses and stocks. On the contrary, one can slip in wearing faded denim and be treated like royalty. In fact, our server was so attentive I’d bet $5 that if I’d asked for a shoulder rub…just a few minutes…she would’ve indulged.

Bottled beer starts at $8 and covers the map from Unibroue’s La Fin du Monde to Toronto’s local pilsner, Steamwhistle.

The martinis are a dangerous range of $18 fruity and boozy toss-backs to the $375 King Edward (“luxurious and refined for the discerning”). Rimmed with gold flakes, and served with rose petal caviar, our server insists the drink “is like a ballerina in your mouth.” A very expensive ballerina — the Remy Martin Louis XIII Cognac alone is priced at $2,800 for 700ml.

My friend and I opt for La Fin du Monde ($9) (promising to return for the King Edward when we “make it big”) and handfuls of the best free bar snacks in the city: a mix of flax-studded corn chips, maple syrup-rolled almonds, Cajun sticks, and cashews. Lean back in the wingbacks and quicksand couches and indulge.

Gusto 101

In January of this year, Gusto 101 found a hungry and thirsty audience in the swishy nocturnal King West ‘hood. The Italian fusion resto is heavy on sexy with its slick decor: vaulted ceilings, Thomas Edison bulbs, and exposed brick and cinder block (leftovers from its prior incarnation as a mechanic’s garage). Sculpted and svelte servers wearing cycling caps move about as quickly as the cooks in the open concept kitchen.

As soon as I grab a seat at the bar, the weight of the work day vanishes in the laughter and clinking glasses of those around me. The rooftop patio has become a reliable destination for first dates, gossipy girl gangs, and post-workers. The lure? The Vino Di Gusto (Pinot grigio or a Cabernet Sauvignon-Malbec blend) is $1/oz — Vintage One winemaker Alejandra de Miguel has established a silky and easily quaffable pairing to Gusto’s menu. The website humbly states, “We’re just a joint that serves nice food and wine.”

Owned by Janet Zuccarini (of Trattoria Nervosa in Yorkville fame), Gusto is a friendly and addictive space. Wood-fired smoke permeates the air, hinting at the blistering pizzas that zoom about the room topped with fontina, meatballs, local fior di latte, and Pingue prosciutto. Arrive early to avoid the evening crush, and I triple-dog-dare you to order the absinthe — neat.

Poetry Jazz Cafe

Poetry has groovy in a headlock. The jazz cafe is dark, moody, and pulsating with a very chilled-out clientele in the beating heart of Kensington Market. We opt for the back patio to embrace the soupy summer night and discover a space that encourages reclining and deep convo. There are bistro tables, reclaimed benches, and old mill carts for parties of one or several.

The bar has a signature drink, the Miles Davis-tribute “Bitches Brew” (vodka, tequila, lime, angostura bitters; $9.50), but we opt for tall boys of Guinness and Stiegl to cool down in the soaring humidex. Later, we wash down handfuls of super-salty popcorn with pints of Keith’s, Steam Whistle, and Strongbow ($7.50).

In addition to live experimental jazz, the bar hosts vinyl DJs. Owner Steve Pascalle’s intention was to “give emerging jazz musicians and writers a sanctuary to step outside the norm, to experiment, to write, to share their gift, and to mess around.” I think he’s succeeded. Closed Mondays.

Burger Bar and Tequila Tavern

The picnic tables and bistro sets crowded in the front of the Burger Bar and Tequila Tavern provide great refuge after a day poking around the vintage shops, cheese stores, and fruit stalls in Kensington Market. Slide in for a quick pint — this is the birthplace of Kensington Brewing Company’s Augusta Ale. The draught list is always fluid and showcases Ontario’s microbrews, with the likes of Junction Conductor’s Ale, Hockley Valley Dark, King Pilsner, and Flying Monkeys Smashbomb ($6.25-7.25).

To drink adventurously, order up the tasting flight (4-4 oz. portions of any draught, $6). Ready to rock and roll? Mugs ($7.25), beer steins ($12-14), 650ml bottles ($12-21), and pitchers ($18-22) should keep your wolf pack hydrated. Keep in mind that the Burger Bar has its claws in the tequila scene too: Mezcal, Anejo, Reposado, Silver, Plato, and Blanco.

The bar shot list is very original: Pickle Backs (shot of Bourbon with pickle juice chaser), organic Bacon Bourbon (Jim Beam-infused and fat-washed bacon whiskey), or Lucky Charms Whiskey (Jameson infused with Lucky Charms cereal). Feeling wobbly? Try a burger (lamb and bison as well as beef). They’re killer.

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