Where to eat and drink in Toronto: West Queen West
By Dick Snyder
West Queen West is one of the most fun neighbourhoods in Toronto. It was recognized by Vogue magazine as one of the "coolest" neighbourhoods in the world. It's got hopping nightlife, unique owner-operated boutiques, globally inspired restaurants and all manner of bars, taverns and dives, along with quirky shops, art galleries, barber shops, music venues... pretty much everything except big-box stores, office towers and gas stations. Abbreviated as WQW, the neighbourhood is part of the Fashion & Design District, a designation you'll see on some street signs.
WQW runs along Queen Street from Bathurst to Gladstone, which is just under 2 kilometres (and just over a mile). So you can walk it in a leisurely afternoon, stopping along the way to enjoy snacks and drinks, ice cream or other treats, some great shopping and people watching. And also dog watching.
Don't miss hanging out with the locals in Trinity Bellwoods Park. This urban oasis houses a recreation centre, tennis courts, playground, off-leash dog area, and a gazillion trees. This place is hipster ground zero, so the people watching is A+. Just note that you are not legally allowed to enjoy an alcoholic beverage in the park, but that fact doesn't stop anyone. However, you are welcome to enjoy all the cannabis you like in whatever form you like... Welcome to Canada! "Our home and native land.... true patriot love... etc."
OK, enough singing. Below, we'll take your from the west end to the east of WQW, calling out some of our favourite eating and drinking spots along the way.
The Gladstone Hotel
The oldest continually operating hotel in Toronto, the Gladstone has a lounge/restaurant that's open all day for meals, snacks, coffee and drinks. Ontario wines dominate the short list, along with local brews and solid cocktails. The menus are seasonal and globally inspired, with ingredients coming from local farms. The Melody Bar has performance and karaoke. Artistic endeavours are the Gladstone's forte — check out their events calendar for details. The building soars over the corner at Gladstone, and it's worth taking a good look from the south side of Queen. It's a beautiful sight (and site).
Vibe: Artsy and earnest, but with a sense of humour. A community hub, full of artists of all ages and the folks who love them and want to be near them.
The Drake Hotel
It's hipster central at the self-proclaimed "hotbed for culture." The Drake is generally an inviting place, except on weekends nights when the velvet rope appears out front and us mere mortals can have a bit of trouble getting in. The rest of the time, this is a great spot for hanging out and partaking of some of the city's best cocktails. Look for the ones designed by Sandy De Almeida, Toronto's goddess of drink (they will be noted on the cocktail list). The food is reliable, especially the sushi. But it's really about the scene and the drinks here. The Underground (read: basement) performance space hosts cutting edge "underground" (get it?) acts — see them here before they get too big for their boots.
Vibe: Bustling and occasionally a bit too cool for school. But certainly a fun place to check out.
The latest and hottest little bar to open on the strip, Bar Piquette is a wine bar in its purest form: that is, the by-the-glass list is on a chalk board. Wines are esoteric but not achingly obscure, as one might fear. If you're up for a bottle, check out the glass wall cabinet full of bottles with hand-written hang tags describing the style to expect, plus a few inside jokes. There's no menu, but expect all the usual Euro-style wine bar yummies, like steak tartare and a mortadella sandwich, plus snacky salads and veggie things. And, of course, olives — and these ones are damned good. Open from 3 p.m. everyday, this is a cute little spot (and it really is little, just one row of tables and a long bar) with maximum date potential. That is, if you don't arrive with one, you have a good chance of leaving with one.
Vibe: Cozy and cute with a social vibe and friendly service. You get the feeling everyone's happy to be here.
The Good Son Restaurant
Fantastic Italian and global fare, with killer pastas and pizza (via a wood-fired Italian oven), plus top-notch cocktails and a smart wine list. If you're on your own, the bar is a perfect perch: it's long and action packed, and you have a great view of the entire room, form the open kitchen to the dimly lit nooks that are tailor made for canoodling. Chef-owner Vittorio Colacitti hails from Toronto, and he worked with some of the city's top chefs including Lorenzo Loseto (George) and Didier Leroy (The Fifth). The walls are covered in all manner of homey decor, like clocks, family portraits, plates and assorted bric-a-brac. In the winter, this place is dark and cozy, and in the summer the massive glass windows are opened up to the bustling street. The Good Son has buzz in spades and is a must-visit, even for just a snack and a quick glass.
Vibe: This is a first-date kind of place, it's that beautiful and comfortable. The long bar is a great place for singles, and a massive harvest table in the centre of the action can host 20 with ease.
Antikka Cafe and Records
Antikka stocks vinyl records and Armenian coffee, plus tasty pastries. You could score a first-pressing Van Halen II to go with your baklava, or pick up the latest Jenny Lewis. Cool!
Vibe: Casual and relaxed. Great for grab-and-go. Or snag one of a few seats and relax. Surprisingly for a record store, the music is not too loud. You can have a nice chat.
Guy Rawlings and Kim Montgomery — a team in life and restaurants — run Toronto's most resolutely local and ethically responsible restaurant. The dishes here are joyously un-fussy and there's passion and dedication on every plate. There's no cocktail program at Montgomery's. It's all wine all the time. Small-production wines from family-owned wineries... mostly ones you've never heard of. But they are all great. This is not a preachy place: you won't be lectured on the provenance of your dish. Unless you ask. And if you do, the chef himself will happily explain. And you can pop in and chat with him at any time because the kitchen is fully open and located right next to the front door. So, meet Guy... he's your chef. He owns the place, has a garden on the roof, and he makes some of the tastiest and most honest food in Toronto.
Vibe: Cool, low-key and comfortable, with lots of teak. The music is low, the lighting is low, and the vibe is full-on joyous. It's a poser-free space.
Pretty much the top Spanish restaurant in the city, owned by Barcelona native Veronica Laudes. A beautiful bar and the front welcomes you to Carmen, and you might not make it past this spot if you're just dropping in for a snack of pintxos or tapas along with a tinto di verano (red wine and lemon). Linger over the signature Paella del Carmen or a whole barbecued octopus in the gorgeous dining room or, in summer, the garden patio. Cocktails are strong here, as is the all-Spanish wine list.
Vibe: Boisterous and decidedly Spanish... a fun place for gatherings of friends. Lots of delicious snacks and menu options, so everyone will be happy.
Mother Cocktail Bar
The newest little bar on the strip is just that: little. Just 36 seats means you get to enjoy the full attention of a keen and finely honed crew. Cocktails are the focus here. Top notch classics and out-of-this world inventions. The folks at Mother make their own ferments, tinctures, bitters and other potions — and you can assemble your own cocktail by picking from available ingredients. Full meals or snacks, all prepared with love and considerable skill. Get there early on weekends, or go earlier in the week to enjoy the full experience sans distractions.
Vibe: Chic and elegant but quite welcoming and casual. Good place to hang out with pals or meet new ones.
In its 20th year, Oyster Boy maintains a well-earned reputation for top-quality seafood and oysters, served in a comfortable and modest space right next to Trinity Bellwoods Park. Families, friends, first dates, last dates... they're all here. On weekends, dashing to OB for a quick half-dozen and a beer between Frisbie tosses in the park is the mark of a sophisticated hipster. Owner Adam Colquhoun (pronounced "cal-hoon") is one of the city's pioneering proponents of conscientious food sourcing, sustainability, farm-to-table and all that good stuff. Nice Ontario wines too.
Vibe: Urban oyster bar with rustic seaside trappings. An easy vibe and a great little bar to lean on.
Before Vogue magazine discovered what we already knew about West Queen West, Noce was sowing the seeds of coolness. Back in the day — you know, pre-2000 — when you couldn't get a well-made Negroni anywhere else in the city, you could find one here. And late in the evening, after serving the best central-Italian cuisine west of La Marche, Noce's back room would turn into an after-hours speakeasy for all sorts of all-night and ill-advised shenanigans. While those days are over – and that back room is now a respectable cocktail bar – Noce is still setting the bar (very high, mind you) for fine dining and great coctkails, wine and late-night snacks. Check out their wood-oven pizzas. Outstanding.
Vibe: Gorgeous decor and artwork and some of the comfiest banquettes in town (in the Octopus Lounge). Three different rooms offer varying atmospheres, so there's something for everyone.
For a little fine dining break, Canis is an elegant but unpretentious little spot turning out inventive locally focused and seasonal cuisine with a global and often Asian-inflected sensibility. Chef Jeff Kang hails from Vancouver and his precise, almost minimalist cuisine is nonetheless packed with excitement. Prices are reasonable and the wines creatively curated. Also worth a try is Après, Kang's wine bar located further west on Queen.
Vibe: Fine dining in a serene and wood-accented atmosphere. Quiet and cozy, but not stuffy.
Celebrating 15 years in 2020, Banu is an Iranian restaurant serving up Persian dishes and cocktails. The food is lively, packed with flavours and exotic spices and the room is convivial and welcoming. Dishes range from marinated olives and charred eggplant to braised Persian-spiced lamb shank. Feeling adventurious? Try "The Offal Truth" -- cow heart and lamb testicles. Not to worry, there are plenty of more accessible dishes on the extensive menu.
Vibe: Just a fun and easygoing place, great for families, friends, dates, ex-lovers... etc.