From elaborate concepts like Storm Crow Manor, where each room is decked out in nerdy paraphernalia, to secret speakeasy bars complete with hidden doorways (we could name a few but where’s the fun in that?), there’s been waves of design-forward destinations hitting the Toronto dining scene. Even the latest “dive bars” sport elaborate photo walls and props or coy neon signs begging to be Instagrammed.
Whether driven by a mature dining crowd who has outgrown the bare bones bars of the past, or the result of our generation’s social-media-focused narcissism, the uptick in thoughtfully conceptualized hangouts has created yet another reason to drink and dine across the city. Here are our favourite bars and restaurants to feast your eyes on.
Famous for its low-proof cocktails, top-notch Spanish tapas and incredible woodwork, Bar Raval has made it onto many a list of best bars – in Toronto, in Canada and the world over. Co-owned by Grant van Gameren and Robin Goodfellow, this Little Italy bar has an interior that’s a bit like an elevated take on a hobbit house. Reminiscent of the twisting shapes in Gaudi’s architectural works, Bar Raval’s serpentine carvings stretch across 75 different wood panels, all connected for the appearance of one seamless creation. Designed by Partisans, the curves of mahogany are meant to represent muscular, tattooed arms embracing guests.
Set amongst the luxurious boutiques and swish restaurants of Yorkville, Sofia is part up-scale Italian restaurant, part thoughtfully curated art gallery. The rotating selection of paintings ranges from up-and-coming local artists to world-renowned names like Banksy and Warhol – and they’re all for sale. Imagined as a residence, complete with a lush terrace, the restaurant is divided into different areas where deep blue, bold red and stark white contrast to create the feeling of a contemporary home. Studio Munge, the award-winning design firm for hotels, restaurants and homes around the world, was behind the Sofia concept.
Set on the first floor, below upscale sister restaurant Alo, the design choices at Aloette were partially led by the constraints of the space. Going for a layout that would maximize the number of guests, the resulting restaurant arrangement looked like a diner. Running with this aesthetic, the menu was inspired by the diner feel, combined with quality ingredients and high-end items. The long, narrow space, which features tubular panelling that extends down the length of the ceiling, is meant to feel dynamic and transporting. Commute Design Studio is behind the décor, which mimics the feeling of a train’s dining car – located on Spadina, streetcars run parallel to Aloette at all times of day.
You could easily pass this Dundas and Ossington bar without realizing what lurks behind the unassuming façade. A dimly lit, glowing pink bodega sports a shelf of snacks and a few seats, but venture further in and a keyhole-shaped entranceway will transport you to another world. Inspired by 1960s Hong Kong, every aspect of Mahjong Bar plays a role in shaping the experience, from the menu of Asian share plates to the layout, lighting and art (a 36-foot-long mural by Gabriella Lo dominates one wall). Thoughtfully designed in collaboration with Grey North Design, the idea was to reference the hidden and unexpected bars that the owners discovered on their travels in cities like Paris.
After working together on Piano Piano, chef-owner Victor Barry gave famed designer Tiffany Pratt free reign with his next venture, Café Cancan. In the 400-square foot space that once housed the Harbord Room, the duo set out to create a French bistro that would do the former local hangout justice. With Barry’s complete trust, Pratt was able to let her imagination run wild. Known as the “Queen of Colour”, the spunky designer transformed the airy bistro with punchy pink, delicate teal and cheerful mustard yellow. The bustling brunch hot spot oozes Pratt’s standout style and charm.