While Vogue magazine may have caught on to Queen West’s international appeal in time for its September 2014 list of the 15 coolest neighbourhoods in the world, many native Torontonians and downtown devotees have been watching the evolution for years, or even decades. From shopping as a tween, sneaking into bars as a teen (which, don’t bother these days – if you manage to get served underage, you might just be a sorcerer), to working and living here as a so-called adult, I’ve watched my beloved go from an area that gave my mother anxiety to a mecca for yummy mummies, well-to-do hipsters, gutterpunks and riff raff alike.
So, what’s the big draw? Everything! Whether you want food, drinks, shopping, dancing, live music, kitsch or novelty, we’ve got it all – in big box, boutique and altogether unexpected formats. You can imagine, then, that when the sun sets, our nightlife is unmatched.
The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern
Let’s just put it this way: The Rolling Stones have played The Horseshoe. So have The Pixies, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn, The Police, Nickelback, The Strokes, Lights and Billy Talent.
The ‘Shoe, as you will inevitably hear it lovingly referred to, is an institution. It has always been, and continues to be a hotbed for emerging music, whether local or international. With a past so storied, it’s no surprise that you can basically find the entire elite of the Canadian music industry here, bleary eyed and rocking out.
If you don’t want to get sweaty and dance at a gig in the back area of the club, you can relax along the front part of the bar for a pint, a game of pool or a seat on the patio, space and weather permitting. If you make it to last call, there’s a takeout window for the neighbouring A&W burger joint literally in the bar, making it even easier to wake up covered in grease and full of hazy rock n’ roll regret, as one tends to do on Queen West.
390 Queen Street West. Live music: rock/indie; food: A&W; patio: yes.
The Cameron House
What the Horseshoe is to rock, indie and alternative, The Cameron House is to folk, acoustic, Canadiana and rockabilly and has hosted a who’s who of musical elite over the years. It’s one of the few bars from the 1970s and 1980s still in operation and has been credited with resurrection of Queen West as a musical and cultural centre. (I recommend you Google Handsome Ned at this juncture!)
With live music seven nights a week in its two rooms, cheap drinks and a dedicated set of patrons and performers, this is a great place to grab a pint and do a little square dance. If you’re looking for more than just meeting people at a bar, give it a whirl – at the Cameron, it’s a whole community of music lovers and musicians, both local and those just passing through.
You probably didn’t need to read this, though; the building is adorned with striking murals and massive killer ants scaling the façade, so that alone would have probably lured you in anyway.
408 Queen Street West. Live music: folk; food: no; patio: yes.
BarChef is a must in my books – plan ahead, set aside some cash and indulge yourself in a truly decadent cocktail experience. The complex cocktail has become all the rage over the last few years, but no one does it quite like Frankie Solarik and his team. I’m not talking about a solid Old Fashioned; I’m talking about a feast for the senses in each little masterpiece of a cocktail. For first-timers, I recommend finding a seat at the bar to get the full scope of what they have to offer: house-made infusions, bitters and syrups, fresh juices and ingredients, and a selection of molecular cocktails that I can only equate to wizardry. Plus, you can chat with the staff this way, who are more than happy to talk shop as they concoct each drink.
With thick drapes sealing off any reminder of the outside world, it’s easy to get a little lost in this little Queen West gem; sultry lighting and comfy, modern furniture urge you to never leave this lair replete with the fresh aromas and smoky essences that go into each drink. This is a great venue for special occasions where you want to treat yourself or someone else – it’s not your average bar to sling back rum and cokes, and it’s a pretty unforgettable experience.
472 Queen Street West. Music: DJ – lounge/eclectic; food: snacks/finger foods; patio: no.
The Shameful Tiki Room
The Shameful Tiki has all the kitsch of ’60s and ’70s tiki culture, but done modern justice with a massive menu of fruit-ily inventive rum-based drinks and Polynesian-inspired snacks and eats (no milky green Jell-O moulds garnished with pimento olive slices here). It’s great for groups who want to indulge in large shared bowls that are served quite ceremoniously, delivered with a gong smash or volcano eruption (seriously). During the summer, a night out here only augments the warm breeze in the air, while a winter visit will temporarily cure the cold weather blues with an injection of straw and bamboo decor, Hawaiian shirts and plastic tropical plants galore, all with an infectious surfabilly soundtrack.
1378 Queen Street West. Music: surfabilly; food: polynesian-inspired; patio: yes.
The Rhino Bar & Grille
Where The Hideout is my favourite joint, I have tons of friends and colleagues who flock to The Rhino, a large spot in Parkdale with a massive patio that’s always teeming with people. If you have a large group with varying tastes to accommodate, Rhino is great across the board: the menu is affordable, succinct and offers a cross-section of popular cuisines that are executed well, and the international beer list by the bottle is downright formidable in size. They also have relationships with a ton of Ontario craft beermakers, if you’re looking to try out the latest offerings from increasingly innovative local breweries on tap.
If you’re new to the city or just passing through, the Rhino is an excellent place to meet people. Because it’s a big bar and can accommodate so many groups of various sizes, you’ll find an eclectic mix of folks hanging out, and the vibe is always friendly. Not feeling the music? Pop a tooney into the jukebox and pick a few of your favourite tracks before letting someone else do the same. If you want to take in a major game but don’t want to touch a bro-filled sports bar with a ten-foot pole, this is your joint.
1249 Queen Street West. Music: jukebox or house playlist; food: a little bit of everything; patio: yes.
Other Queen West Favourites
These are just the tip of the iceberg! Don’t be shy about popping in to the dozens upon dozens of other spots you’ll find along the way – here are a few other Queen West favourites to note:
- The Rivoli
- Java House
- Rush Lane
- The Dime
- Bovine Sex Club
- Lisa Marie
- Come and Get It
- Dog’s Bollocks
- The Drake Underground
- The Gladstone
- The Beaver
- The Cadillac Lounge
- The Dog and Bear
- Parts & Labour
About the Author
Emy Stantcheva is a lifelong music junkie-turned-music biz dabbler, from brand and band publicity and artist management to the not-for-profit sector. By day (and often night), she champions the indies as Marketing & Events Coordinator at the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA) and MusicOntario, and moonlights as Lifestyle Editor for Addicted Magazine. Find her on Twitter (@mookalina) and Instagram (@mookalina).