Food & Drink

Toronto's Essential Dive Bars, and Why You Should Drink in All of Them

Ah, dive bars. They serve a unique purpose, and provide the average drinker with several perks: wallet-friendly beverages, interesting patrons, and enough neon to fit out a Tron sequel. And sometimes they’re just what you need. But which one should you go to? Well, consider this your cheat sheet...

Best back patio dive: Done Right Inn

Queen West
You’d never guess, upon walking into dark and divey Done Right Inn, that tucked out back would be one of the most magical back patios in the city. Shaded by a massive tree canopy and looking decidedly romantic for a dive bar, it’s the hidden quality that really makes the space seem special. Other than that, the Done Right is about as bare bones as it gets but service is friendly. And although there’s no food here, you are allowed to bring in your own eats last we checked.

Best dive for dirt-cheap drinks: Wide Open Bar

Entertainment District
Where else in the city can you get $5 shots of Jameson EVERY night? Or $2.75 everything on Thursdays? That’s right, nowhere. If your cash supply is suffering but you still want to get merry, this is the best place in Toronto to do it. Bargain basement drink prices combined with a dark and ultra-narrow space (despite the name) and true dive bar vibes make it a place to not only come when you’re cash-poor, but when you just want the basics.

Best dive with a library: Imperial Pub

The main floor of this Downtown dive is pretty standard as far as bars, but head upstairs and you’ll be rewarded with an altogether different vibe. Still divey, but in a much cozier way, surrounded by low tables and shelves heaving with paperbacks. Add in cheap beer and it’s not hard to see why Imperial’s Library Lounge becomes a favourite for anyone who happens to stumble upon it. Plus if anyone asks you what you’ve been doing all day you can legit tell then you were “at the library.”

Best blues and jazz dive: Grossman’s Tavern

Chinatown/Kensington Market
Established in 1943, Grossman’s is one of the city’s longest-running live music venues, with a focus on jazz, rock, blues, folk, and roots. Cheap pitchers of questionable draft, locals that look like they haven’t moved from their bar stools in a decade, and a timeless quality make Grossman’s the place to be for coming across a random jazz or blues show or just having a wallet-friendly pint in one of the oldest bars in the city.

Best dive with a misleading name: Bovine Sex Club

Queen West
If you’re looking for sex with your beer you’ve come to the wrong place (despite the name). Open since 1991, the Bovine has been packing in patrons for its rock and punk shows and kitschy atmosphere ever since. A lot has changed on the Bovine’s stretch of Queen over the years -- except the Bovine. It has attracted, and likely will continue to attract, a wide variety of clientele who just want to listen to music or drink in a place that’s completely unpretentious.

Best dive bar nachos: Sneaky Dee’s

Little Italy
We’ve written about Sneaky Dee’s before but it’s well worth adding to this list. Sneaks is one of Toronto’s quintessential dives and sure, it’s well known for live shows, but the real claim to fame here are heaping plates of nachos perfect for soaking up cheap pitchers of beer. The enormous “King’s Crown” is a perennial crowd favourite and gets you corn tortilla chips covered with salsa roja, frijoles, ground beef, tomatoes, onions, mixed peppers, jalapeños, melted cheese, guacamole, AND sour cream.

Best, as in oldest, Toronto dive: Wheat Sheaf

King West
The Wheat Sheaf can be counted among the city’s oldest bars, with a beer-slinging history that predates confederation. There are no frills here, just dark wood tables, a long bar perfect for lingering over a pint undisturbed, and a menu of standard pub classics.

Best we-don’t-care-what-else-is-around-us dive: Ted’s Collision

Little Italy
Toronto’s Little Italy isn’t, as the name would suggest, all Italian joints like it used to be. The area is currently an eclectic mix of upscale watering holes and eateries with swank condos being built on a few corners. But no matter what happens to Little Italy, one mainstay has been Ted’s Collision, a dive that steadfastly holds onto its divey roots no matter what’s going on around it. As fancy as the cocktails may be up the street, Ted’s will always be no fuss and all beer.

Best small music venue dive: The Silver Dollar

Sometimes dive bars offer so much more that anonymity and cheap drinks. Sometimes they provide really good music and that’s the name of the game at Silver Dollar. What began as the cocktail lounge for adjacent Hotel Waverly is now one of the best small live music venues in the city, going strong for over 50 years. The iconic spot was recently at risk for being torn down, to be replaced by a high rise, but was saved (for now) after being deemed a property “of cultural heritage value or interest” by the city council.

Best dive for a curry with your beer: Stella

This dive in Bloordale eschews your standard pub eats for a decidedly more Indian twist. Dark (as any good dive should be) and decorated with mismatched furniture, Stella is a dive bar in the best way possible, in that it feels like you’ve stumbled upon a secret that you may or may not let your friends in on. The back wall features a menu of various curries, of which we can vouch for the veggie option. There’s also a side patio featuring picnic tables for communal drinking.

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Jessica Padykula is a Toronto writer who has never been asked to kindly leave any of these establishments. Follow her on Twitter to see how long she keeps that up.