Attempting to live on a student budget in Toronto is, at the best of times, a financial juggling act of grand proportions. Sure, you may have a short list of bars and restaurants that you’re dying to check out, but more often than not it can feel like a fantasy line-up. If you’re anything like me, when someone asks if you’ve been to the latest spot on Queen West, your go-to response is something like, “I haven’t had a chance yet, but I hear it’s great.” Which has a nicer ring to it than, “I can’t afford more than a single drink there, but I’ve stared longingly at its write-ups and many-filtered Instagram images.”
Last week, I had the opportunity to go to one of my long time wish-spots, the Black Hoof Cocktail Bar. It was a friend’s going away party — the perfect opportunity to splurge and to say something other than my well practiced, “What’s the cheapest thing you have on tap?”
If you’re thinking about going, it now has my “I have actually been there” stamp of approval. Just around the corner from Trinity Bellwoods Park, it’s an almost painfully cute spot that features white washed walls, carefully strewn strings of patio lights, and mason jar flower arrangements. We spent an hour or two there, with each member of our party ordering a single elaborate cocktail which was then passed around the circle for comparison. Afterwards, we made our way up and over to Kensington for cheap pitchers and snacks.
The lesson to be learned here is this: students can reap the benefits of Toronto’s trendy speakeasy scene as long as they are willing to plan ahead. Round up your friends, do a little research, and hit up a bar that pushes you out of your comfort zone. But only for one drink — then retreat to a nearby dive for a night that will be kind to your social life and to your wallet.
815 Bloor Street West
Northwood functions as a café by day and bar by night. It can just as easily serve as a place to enjoy a coffee as it can to sample the bar’s stellar cocktail list. In the evening the lighting is romantic-bordering-on-shadowy, and the crowd tends to be twenty-something up and comers. Not a bad place for a first date, if you want to cozy up together at the bar.
The drink: Going for $11.00, the Choupette is a gin-based concoction with a splash of St.Germain elderflower, rimmed with lemon juice and thyme. It’s unnervingly refreshing, and the perfect thing for a warm summer night.
The back up: Just east of Northwood lies the beloved Clinton’s Tavern. Clinton’s is known for its themed dance events, bad-movie nights, and all-around cheap drinks and cheap food — head on over for a down-to-earth good time.
797 College St.
Bar Isabel is really known for its food as much as its cocktails, but don’t be persuaded — it’s only manageable on a student budget if you stick to your guns and stay for a single round of drinks. Popular enough to make it worth your while to go on a less-busy weekday, or to book in advance, the space feels deeply romantic and smells incredible at any hour of the day.
The drink: “La Guita Manzanilla, Aperol, Lillet Blanc, Summer Sauce, Grapefruit & Lime Juice, Rhubarb Bitters,” reads the ingredient list for this compelling drink, fittingly listed under the “fresh & clean” section of the cocktail menu. For $13.00, The Belle of the Ball is heavy on citrus, and packs a powerful flavour kick. If the use of “rhubarb bitters” didn’t immediately sell you, it really should have.
The back up: There’s no shortage of cheap bars along this stretch of College — the infamous Sneaky Dee’s stands ever sentinel over the corner of College and Bathurst, and every U of T undergrad has made their way into the shadowy confines of the Cloak and Dagger at one point or another. My recommendation for a cheap night out however would have to be Nirvana; the atmosphere is charmingly sketchy, and the pitchers are dirt-cheap.
99 Queen Street East
On a weekday night, the Carbon Bar can feel like the ultimate downtown meat-market; a double meaning in that it seems to always be full of professional-types looking to see and be seen, and that it serves up a posh take on traditional southern barbeque. If you are going for drinks, get there early and head straight for the bar, leaving the dining area for the more serious carnivores. More so than any of the other bars on this list, it is in your best interest to dress up a little to better emulate the older, trendy crowd.
The drink: The Carbon Bar has a list of excellent original cocktails, but in my experience they can also claim one of the best Manhattans in the city. “Home of the 10 Dollar Smokin’ Manhattan” proclaims their menu, and though the frugal student in me initially griped about the $10.00 price tag, my first sip made a quick convert of me.
The back up: Carbon Bar is just off of Church Street, and so wandering north a block or two will find you in the heart of the Village with plenty of great bars to choose from. Statlers, a hub for those trying to make their way in the city’s musical theatre scene, features one of the best open mics in the city, and wonderfully cheap drinks.