Top 5 Bars on Queen Street West
By Emy Stantcheva. While Queen West technically runs from Yonge Street to Roncesvalles, here’s a snapshot of some places in my neck of the woods that never fail to deliver. ShareThis
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
390 Queen Street West | HorseshoeTavern.com | Live Music: Rock/Indie; Food: A&W; Patio: Yes
Let’s just put it this way: The Rolling Stones have played here. 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.
The Cameron House
408 Queen Street West | TheCameron.com | Live Music: Folk; Food: No; Patio: Yes
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.
472 Queen Street West | BarChefToronto.com | Music: DJ – Lounge/Eclectic; Food: Snacks/Finger Foods; Patio: No
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.
484 Queen Street West | TheHideoutToronto.com | Live Music: Rock/Indie/Acoustic; Food: Wings/Pub Snacks; Patio: Yes
The Hideout is my favourite bar in Toronto, and I’m not the only one. It’s a hub for our community on Queen West, and it’s rare to walk in and not be greeted by a friendly face between regulars and their killer staff. I often joke that it’s one of the few pubs/bars in Toronto that can genuinely call itself Irish in ownership and hospitality. With live music seven nights a week, great drinks, cheap and tasty eats, free pool and games (giant Jenga and Connect Four and arcade offerings) and the slogan, “A Bar That F*%&#n Rocks,” its reputation is more or less that what happens at the Hideout stays at the Hideout. Or as it literally says on the side of the building, “What happens at the Hideout starts with a Jameson,” and it usually ends with a lot of dancing.
While it’s almost always a good time, I suggest wearing a helmet if you take on St. Paddy’s, Halloween, NYE or Nuit Blanche there. And if you pop by on a Sunday afternoon when it’s warm out, prepare to be roped in for the day with acoustic jams on the patio over Caesars, Sangria, and Jäger shots with the gang, then into the wee hours for more live music inside. Its reputation seems to precede it around the world, because I’ve met travellers from all over who’ve made this place temporarily home. Think of it as the Cheers of Queen West – where everybody knows your name (and you can also watch the game).
The Rhino Bar & Grille
1249 Queen Street West | TheRhinoBarToronto.com | Music: Jukebox or house playlist; Food: A little bit of everything; Patio: Yes
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.
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
- Rock Lobster
- 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 and Instagram.