Highlight: An absolute gem. The Dakota is ranked number one because of its sheer reliability. I have lived in Toronto for 11 years and I spent three of them living a block away at Shaw and Dundas, yet, I have never seen a bad show there.
Décor: The Dakota is a Cowboy bar to the naked eye. Nestled in a basement just north of Dundas and Ossington, The Dakota Tavern is mostly recognizable by the huge lines and the sign advertising Whiskey, Beer and Music. The bar's focal point is the stage, adorned with a cow skull, old posters and big white Christmas lights.
Music: The music ranges widely from country, roots, rockabilly, jazz, pop and bluesy rock to a consistently excellent bluegrass brunch. Clientele: This is a place where people care more about music than their phones working. You don’t go to the Dakota to talk. Late nights at the Dakota are for rock outs and make outs. Aside from their amazing roster of regular musicians, it is also a bar where you might just see a secret performance from Feist or a member of Broken Social Scene. I’ve also spotted many random Toronto celebrities, and left them alone, anyone from George Stroumboulopoulos to Margaret Atwood.
Highlight: Lee’s Palace is my favorite medium sized venue in Toronto. Almost anyone can play there. What I mean by that is, to a large band it is a perfect place for a small show and for a small band it's the perfect place for a large show. The venue also has an amazing history. Bands ranging from The Rolling Stones to The Gang of Four have graced the stage of Lee’s Palace. Décor: Lee’s is black. It has a club feel to it, but that association is voided once you notice the lowered pit and the raised stage. For this reason every artist you see there receives subconscious respect, simply because you have to look up at them. Think about it, picture a celebrity you respect, are you looking up at them or looking down at them?
Music: The music at Lee’s does not conform to any one mold, it's a great place to go if you want to be surprised. They feature every variety of Rock and Roll, Punk, Gypsy, Country and Metal. I could keep naming genres, but you get the idea. They recently hosted a secret show from Mumford and Sons. No big deal.
Highlight: A legendary Venue in Toronto. A place every self respecting music fan in Toronto knows well. I have personally seen Black Joe Lewis, The Pack AD, Monster Truck and Terra Lightfoot there in the past year.
Décor: The front is a long stretch of bar, the back is a big stage, that is all.
Music: Quite frankly, read the music description for Lee’s Palace again. I am not being lazy; both venues are booked by Collective Concerts, a fantastic agency that brings talent to small venues in Toronto.
Highlight: This place is always a good stop for a pint and the discovery of a new band. They also have two rooms in the venue so there are often two shows going on at the same time.
Décor: The stage in the front is best described as a sea of burgundy and velvet. There is a gorgeous wood bar, there is always amazing art on the walls and there is a ridiculously beautiful old ceiling that nobody notices because of the constant music. The back is more of a classic black box.
Music: The Cameron House is home to Cameron House Records. That’s right, there, where so many amazing roots musicians are playing constantly, they created a record label. The Cameron House specializes in roots rock, country and folk. They have hosted bands from Holly Cole to The Barenaked Ladies.
Highlight: A Family owned business, The Rex is one of those place that your Dad cannot believe is still open and is still cool.
Décor: The Rex has a 70’s dive feel to it, although it was opened in the 1980s. The stage is nestled in the south wall.
Music: The Rex is Toronto's preeminent Jazz bar; It has live music not just every day of the year, but 19 times a week. You may also see some blues or big band music on occasion. Artists from Ani Difranco to Harry Connick Jr. have graced their stage.
Highlight: Hidden away at the north of Roncesvalles, Hugh’s Room has a magnetic pull. Not only is it a great place to sit down for a great meal, but also the music is without reproach.
Décor: It has the look of a classic New York jazz club, dark lighting, small round tables, table cloths and well dressed staff.
Music: Folk, Roots and Jazz dominate this classy little venue. In fact, they have hosted a tribute night to the music of Gordon Lightfoot for the last 13 years and the last time the man himself showed up. I also saw Canadian World-Blues legend Harry Manx there last year.
Highlight: As with the entirety of hipster bars, Cherry Cola's does not have a sign, it is marked only by its huge lines, throbbing music and countless burlesque nights. It also happens to be Jack White’s favorite hangout in town and the last time I was there I got to meet Serena Ryder.
Décor: “The crimson walls and leopard furniture of the venue gives you the feeling of being in a Mae West character’s den of iniquity.” A quote from one of our reviewers Andrea Holz, from a review of The Anti Queens is the best way to describe the venue.
Music: a mix of funk, rock and punk usually, of course I have seen lots of rockabilly, pop and hip-hop there. They have trouble conforming to one genre, like most excellent venues. Of course you have to check out hard rocking Wednesday nights hosted by Matt Groopie.
Highlight: There are not many venues that create an illusion, but every time I walk into the Rivoli’s back room I forget how small it is. This is because the experiences I have in there are always so big that I only ever remember looking back on the memories of a seemingly endless crowd mobbing the stage.
Décor: Upscale bar with a huge pool hall on top of it. The music venue is hidden away at the back and is an all purpose black box jam room with a big raised stage at the back.
Music: Rock, Hip-Hop, Funk and everything in between.
Highlight: My favorite dive bar in Toronto. A wonderful dank situated in between the brothel that is the hotel Waiverly and the mission on Spadina just north of College.
Décor: It is dark, so I do not really know. The stage is the focus of this bar.
Music: It is home to excellent current rock, punk and grungy music shows of all varieties. The silver dollar is also a historic Toronto landmark. Members of The Band played weekly in the early sixties as The Hawks, Ronnie Hawkins back up band. They also have amazing bluegrass from The Crazy Strings every Wednesday, and have for years.
Highlight: The name and the décor. Also, some people actually avoid this awesome little queen west venue because they think it is a sex club. It is not.
Décor: The Bovine Sex Club looks like a packrat hobo’s dream apartment. It is strewn with old Christmas lights, bike tires, and what looks to be the random fruition of dumpster diving.
Music: The Bovine is all about the heavy tunes, anything from Motown, Hard Rock or Punk to Hip-Hop or Metal.
Massey Hall - An absolutely gorgeous seated auditorium. It is a classic place for an intimate show from an artist who usually plays stadiums. Thank goodness they're licensed to serve during intermission.
The Danforth Music Hall – A converted theatre with no seating, the best part is that they kept the gradient in the floor, so there is not a bad spot in the house.
The Phoenix Concert Hall – Lee’s Palace’s big brother in the east end. The only reason it did not make the list is that it is more of a club then a bar.
The Great Hall – Its name is pretty self explanatory, it is also a photographers dream, because of a second level to the auditorium, making it ideal for topographical musical photographs.
The El Mocombo – I honestly do not have to much current attachment to this venue, but it gets an honourable mention for history. Having hosted every blues man this side of the Mississippi over the last 40 years. The venue is constantly going out of business and then being saved by one well to do philanthropist or another with nostalgia.
The Painted Lady – An eclectic, tiny, little venue. This is actually where I go after the Dakota Tavern (it is across the street). They often have an amazing range of live music such as hip-hop, rock, blues or electronica. Also, they generally have a burlesque dancer atop the bar.
The Drake – A Toronto institution, The Drake is a great place to take a date and see some talented musicians, which may or may not match the classy décor.
Not My Dog – This tiny little Queen West venue is off of most people's radar, but they have amazing acoustic music almost every night of the week and amazingly friendly staff.
The Central - A classy little venue covered in wood, ten people would fill it, but that doesn’t stop them from booking amazing musicians. The Central is actually where I first saw The Dead South.
The Garrison – Another fabulous place to see music around Dundas and Ossington, they host anything from funk to punk. It is not a great place to take pictures; I call it Toronto’s darkest venue.
I Hope You enjoyed exploring TMR's Best Bars for Live Music in Toronto.
Article and Pictures (except The Rex pic) by: Gideon Greenbaum-Shinder
Edited by: Jesse Kline