An Insider’s Guide to the Best Bars in Toronto

Civil Liberties is Toronto and Canada’s top-ranked bar. Here’s where its co-founder and senior executive barback drinks on his nights off.

June 19, 2024 5:01 pm
Located in the lobby of the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Library Bar has an air of good-natured sophistication.
Located in the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, Library Bar has an air of good-natured sophistication.
Library Bar

Whether it’s for business, a Maple Leafs game, the annual film festival or the culinary cornucopia that is its food scene, there are several reasons you might find yourself in Toronto. Whatever it is that brings you here, one thing remains the same: you should pepper your stay with visits to several of Toronto’s many worthy watering holes. And while there are seemingly endless bars to choose from, none is more lauded than Civil Liberties

Opened in 2014, Civil Liberties has not only spent a decade as a local favorite, it’s currently ranked as the 21st best bar in North America and 73rd best bar in the world, according to 50 Best (accolades which make it both the highest ranked bar in Toronto and all of Canada). With such accomplishments, you’d assume Civil Liberties would boast a meticulously crafted cocktail program, and it does. But here’s the kicker — this bar has no menu. Imbibing here simply involves a bartender asking you what you like (think: choosing a base spirit and/or flavor like sweet, herbaceous or sour) then creating a bespoke cocktail for you on the spot. All this, by the way, is done without pretense in a casual, homey space with old tin ceilings, a bar top inlaid with a few thousand Canadian pennies, mellower weeknight energy and lively, loud weekend vibes. In other words, Civil Liberties is the neighborhood bar you wish was down the street.

Nick Kennedy: co-founder and senior executive barback of Civil Liberties and permanent staple of Toronto's bar scene.
Nick Kennedy: co-founder and permanent staple of Toronto’s bar scene
Civil Liberties

Much of Civil Liberties’s effortless excellence can be attributed to Nick Kennedy, the bar’s co-founder and senior executive barback. Now a staple of Toronto’s bar scene, Nick began his bartending career while studying neuroscience at the University of Toronto and has long been fascinated by the intersection of booze and people. To help illustrate what that means, Kennedy, who has spoken at various events and conferences, once moderated a panel at Tales of the Cocktail called Braintending: Cognition Across The Bar, which discussed the use of “current research in the fields of cognitive science, psychology and biology to explore the underpinnings of what makes a great night out for our guests.” Basically, he cares a lot about crafting incredible hospitality experiences, and he’s crafted several. 

In the time since opening Civil Liberties, Kennedy and his business partners have gone on to open Vietnamese restaurant Vit Beo (it’s a few doors down from Civil Liberties if you need a pre or post-cocktail bite), the yearly Christmas-themed pop-up bar Miracle, vacuum distillation operation Civil Pours (which makes and kegs ready-to-pour cocktails) and Electric Bill, Toronto’s first Australian-inspired bar which opened in February (this bar does have a menu and each cocktail is named after one of Australia’s famously ridiculous slang terms like durry muncher and budgie smuggler). Not one to horde his accumulated entrepreneurial and cocktail knowledge, Kennedy has put on a free series of seminars for members of the Toronto hospitality community to share everything he knows about opening bars on the cheap and occasionally hosts Bar School cocktail classes (keep tabs on their Instagram to find out about upcoming events).

All that said, it should come as no surprise that there’s no one better than Kennedy to give us the inside track on Toronto’s best bars. And given the generous, Toronto and bar-loving man he is, he was happy to oblige. 

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Nick Kennedy’s Top 5 Toronto Bars

A note from Kennedy: “Most cocktail bartenders hit dive bars on their days off (and I have a great list of dives, dumps and locals), but I think those are best discovered on a whim rather than having someone, even an enthusiast like myself, point you towards them. I do, however, still love going to cocktail bars — even after 15 years of cocktail bartending. I love seeing what my peers are working on, busting their chops about dumb shaking techniques or new haircuts and, in general, being a bit of an unruly guest in very proper places. The bars I’ve chosen below are the bars I might go to over the span of two weeks or, occasionally, during the course of one evening. And if you choose to make this a single-day bar crawl, all I have to say is start early, eat lots, drink plenty of water and don’t call me hungover in the morning.”

Library Bar

“Library Bar at the Fairmont Royal York has long been a Toronto classic and go-to Martini spot,” Kennedy says. “The space got a major revamp at the end of 2021 and is now under the supervision of the obnoxiously good looking James Grant. I’ll often order a riff on an Espresso Martini from Joe Dorio (who is one of the hardest working and most sincere bartenders in town) and drink it while feeling bad about being chronically underdressed and reassured by the hotel staff not to worry about it. The Library bar is a great first stop when getting off the train across the street at Union Station. It opens early and closes late, yet somehow it always feels like the same time when you’re sitting at the bar (which likely has something to do with the sophisticated, timeless vibe).”

100 Front St W

Mother features a "Symbiosis" menu which allows guests to design their own drinks with the help of the bar team
Mother features a “Symbiosis,” menu which allows guests to design their own drinks with the help of the bar team.


“My favorite time to visit Mother is right when it opens at 6 p.m.,” Kennedy says. “This is just before the bar totally fills and the team behind the bar is most receptive to shots of Fernet and a ribbing. The owner, Massi, is irreverent while also being so committed to their particular style of service that I find myself coming back just to bug him. The whole team is consistently striving to impress guests with clever menu tweaks, unique fermentations and their list of barrel-aged cocktails. In terms of my order, I gravitate toward the Symbiosis section of the menu, where the bar team works with guests to make something improvisational based on the guest’s spirit of choice and a selection from their seasonal ingredients list (which changes weekly based on what’s most in season).”

874 Queen St W

Hidden behind a functioning art gallery, Cry Baby Gallery is a speakeasy-style bar with an industrial vibe.
Cry Baby Gallery is a speakeasy-style bar with an industrial vibe.
Rick O’Brien @rickettes

“Located in Toronto’s Little Portugal neighbourhood, Cry Baby Gallery is a speakeasy-style bar with an industrial, New York City vibe (think raw concrete floors, old brick walls, lots of metal),” Kennedy says. “It’s also accessed through a small, functioning art gallery, which always makes it feel like a fun discovery. The single-room space is sexy and dimly lit with no pomp or pretense, and owners Rob and Steven, along with the whole team, offer up great drinks (most of which I’ve consumed, as I’ve been famously drunk here after many Civil staff parties). If I’m just stopping in for one drink, I go for the now off-the-menu Lychee Martini. And if I’m stopping in for two, it’s that and a Zombie.”

1468 Dundas St W

Bar Mordecai is an incredibly lush and inclusive space reflective of the diversity and beauty of Toronto.
Bar Mordecai is a lush and inclusive space.
Bar Mordecai

Bar Mordecai 

“Bar Mordecai is located just down the street from Cry Baby, which makes them a perfect one-two punch if a full bar crawl isn’t in the cards,” Kennedy says. “Christina, Emily and Josh run one of the broadest programs in North America, excelling at dinner service, banging cocktails, karaoke and great DJ sets. Mordecai is also an incredibly lush and inclusive space that best reflects the diversity and beauty of the city in which we live. I’ll usually stop in and eat something off the great new menu from chef Suman Ali Sayed, finish with a soft serve cocktail like their Miami Vice, then have whatever the general manager Dylan is drinking/will let me still have. Plus, the team is always down to pretend my jokes are funny and that I can dance, which is a real kindness, especially in regards to the dancing.”

1272 Dundas St W

Bar Pompette 

“Pompette is probably the tightest cocktail bar in the country in terms of execution of concept,” Kennedy says. “Owners Hugo and Max are French AF, and the entire program follows suit, even when the staff on shift are Irish nationals like general manager Simmon and bartender ‘Handsome Nick.’ My go-to-every-damn-time drink is the 11 a.m. In Marseille (Ricard, toasted almond orgeat, beeswax, lemon and egg white), which is an absolute stud of a cocktail. I will pair this with some tiny French sausages and usually wrap it all up with a shot of Calvados with the team. There’s also a great little patio out back, which is a perfect spot to imbibe during warmer weather.”

Writer’s Note: Bar Pompette currently ranks number 29 on the North America’s 50 Best Bars list.

607 College St


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