I grew up in a suburb outside of Toronto, and have lived in the city proper for the bulk of my adult life. My decade of Torontonianism has been broken by stints in bigger, cooler, more glamorous cities; in the months I spent looking forward to those moves, I would spit all over Toronto in my head: “It’s second-rate,” I thought, “It’s drab. We have no culture here. I am bored of having my life take place alongside block after block of boring brown Brutalist office buildings built in 1982.” And then I’d move away, to some major international city chock-a-block with rickety old-timey brownstones plastered with placards saying some important dead playwright lived there 200 years ago, and it was romantic, and magnificent… but I always longed for home. I missed the heart, the scruff, and the fiery kid-sister gumption of my beloved hometown.
Toronto is a city defined by its crippling inferiority complex: we are resented by the rest of our country for our perceived “New Yorkiness,” yet seen as a relative small-fry on the “major international city” scene. “Are we a major international city?” the average Torontonian desperately asks herself, “I think we are… but… I know we’re not.”
The truth is: it doesn’t matter. We’re not the New York of Canada, we’re motherfucking Toronto. We’re the 2019 NBA Champions, the cleanest city you ever did see. We’re wild and sparkling in the summer, morose and contemplative in the winter, despondent in the spring, and anxious in the fall. Our food scene is radiant, inspired, and ardently multicultural; our wine community is inclusive, supportive, and thriving. In our province of Ontario, all liquor and wine sales are government-subsidized; we have no independent, lovingly-curated wine shops, and have no choice but to purchase wine from the LCBO, a big-box bureaucratic institution that seems hell-bent on making sure Ontarians drink nothing but Yellowtail Shiraz.
But we Canadians are an optimistic folk, and loving wine from within this desperate and often depressing condition affords our wine bars and wine-focused restaurants a level of prestige and reverence that no Toronto wine professional takes for granted. Of course, our savviest wine consumers have learned to navigate the LCBO labyrinth with finesse, but for most Torontonians, the only places to nab a decent bottle are as follows:
First things first: the name is cheekily inaccurate. In a city rife with kitschy, adorable old-school French bistros, Paris Paris is decidedly the least Parisian wine bar in town. With its breezy interior, cool teak fixtures and walls of macramé plant-holders, Paris Paris would more effectively be called “Los Angeles Los Angeles,” or, with its peacocky, Cocktails & Dreams-inspired neon sign, “Miami Miami.”
And oh god how I love it for that. Paris Paris, in the year and a bit it’s been open (founded in 2018), has become the great Cheers of my life: a place where everybody knows my name (as it were). It’s a place to see and be seen, a place to get fucking lit on by-the-glass Patrick Bottex Bugey-Cerdon with your best friend while simultaneously ignoring every dude you’ve ever never texted back. General Manager, sommelier, and all-around angel-sent-from-heaven-above Krysta Oben maintains a list that is at once gentle and aggressive: “A glass of sparkling while you think” is listed at an entry-level price point alongside heavy-hitting bottles of vintage grower Champagne.
I have lived some of the best and worst nights of my life at Paris Paris: if there’s a wine you like it doesn’t offer, that’s on you.
Brothers Food and Wine
Awkwardly-situated right next door to the Bay Street subway station, Brothers is a breath of smoggy grey city-fresh air in Toronto’s bougiest neighbourhood: Yorkville, home of our fair city’s Whole Foods, Equinox, Goop store, 17 Anthropologies, 85,000 juice bars, and an endless parade of Shiba Inus named, like, Chanel.
When it first opened, “It’s so New York,” raved 85,000 Torontonians who had never been to New York, but now it’s been open for a couple of years, so no one talks about it anymore. Brothers belongs only to those who know, and also 85,000 Ladies Who Lunch, whose impeccably-toned upper arms I will spend the rest of my life trying to attain.
The space is chic and lean, colored in matte pale pinks and dull greys, and the food is a tongue-in-cheek sort of austere: the last time I dined there, I ran chunks of pouchy white sourdough through brackish tonnato sauce, halved chunks of yellow tomato with the side of my fork, and Instagrammed the hell out of a plate of ham splayed into origami-like folds, confidently accompanied by a rough-chopped salsa verde and wedges of fresh peach.
The wine list is similarly, stunningly cold: like a parent who’s approval you spend your entire life vying for. There’s a heavy emphasis on grim, astringent Italian whites, rosés and sparklings: sneak a cheeky glass with their infamous sweetbreads before SoulCycle at 5:00.
Of all the Toronto wine bars, Archive’s list is the most cerebral: it’s the wine bar equivalent of some unlistenable math-rock Spotify playlist the dude you’re sweet on made to impress you.
I go to Archive when I want to drink some fucking wine. They tend to offer Coravin pours of wine-nerd deep-cuts (Remi Jobard Meursault; library Marcel Lapierre; etc). The full by the bottle list is presented in a primary-colored Duo-Tang, and thoughtfully broken up into user-friendly categories a la “Light, Crisp, Minerally Whites,” and so on. And, best of all, mark-ups on higher-end bottles are sacrilegiously low. Archive makes weird, geeky wine accessible and unintimidating to those who haven’t devoted their entire lives to it, yet also provides those who have with an oasis of nerdy glee.
In the southeast corner of the restaurant you’ll find an isosceles triangle-shaped booth jutting straight out onto the city street; if you get there at the right moment, around 5:00 or 6:00PM, the sun will shine directly into your line of vision, so hot you could even get a tan. I urge you to sit there and order the ceviche with plantain chips and a big fat glass of gummi, floral BlankBottle ‘Orbitofrontal Cortex.’ This is the spot where you will write 95% of all the best words you will ever write. A spot to think, and be, without being distracted by a group of strangers yammering on next to you about the latest episode of 90-Day Fiancé.
Midfield Wine Bar
Midfield is my platonic ideal of a wine bar. It’s cozy, candlelit, and romantic, with a charismatically meandering wine list that reads more like an E.E. Cummings poem than any given sommelier’s coherent statement. There aren’t many places like Midfield left in the world, independent businesses that exist to spread joy rather than turn a profit. It’s a tiny bit disheveled—half the time I order a bottle there, the staff run around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to find it, only to discover that it’s sold out—the mania only adds to its charm. There’s a scrawny side patio where the air smells delightfully of vanilla milk fat and burnt hazelnut—the Cadbury factory is half a block away—but Midfield really hits its stride in the wintertime, when it snugly scoops you up and offers you a safe warm haven from the cold. While gazing out its windows, the snow suddenly seems storybook-esque. And, as an added bonus, they have the best French fries in the city—and what wine doesn’t pair well with French fries? (Seriously. Find me one wine.)
Côte de Boeuf
In a city rife with kitschy, adorable old-school French bistros, Côte de Boeuf is the only one that truly feels like France. It’s not just some half-baked North American approximation of a tried-and-true restaurant concept: walking through the front door of Côte de Boeuf feels like you just walked into some Narnia-esque portal into an almost unbearably perfect France that, up until that moment, only existed in your head. It’s clanky, tiny, and crammed sardine-can full of all the most beautiful objects imaginable: imported tins and jars of saffron, Pommery mustard, and Sweety Drop peppers, and hardy ceramic bowls of Saucisson Sec, mouse-melons and yellow tomatoes.
The front window functions as a butcher’s shop, with all cuts sourced locally and butchered in-house; the dining room walls are stacked with glass cases of Orangina, French cheeses and house-made charcuterie. And of course: the wine! The list here is half-Bistro classic (Bordeaux, Sancerre, Cremant), half-wacky glou-glou (natty Loire, Bojo, and SW France), and always feels authentic, lackadaisical, and heartfelt. All bottles are half-price on Sunday, and I plan on spending every Sunday for the rest of my life here, falling in love with the person sitting across from me, my plate of steak tartare and duck fat toast, or maybe just with life itself.
Favorites: For lush, pungent Thai food that burns the skin off your tongue, gracefully and intelligent paired with a list full of spunky Jolly Rancher Rieslings and jovial pink bubbles.
Lake Inez: For modish Asian comfort food & a delightfully idiosyncratic wine list.
Sakai Bar: For somber, elegant Japanese and a bone-chillingly brilliant sake selection.
Birreria Volo: For lowkey vibes, excellent people-watching and damn good beer.
Toronto may be lacking in independent wine shop culture, but we do have some amazing wine importers who sell their wine to consumers by the case: I love Nicholas Pearce, who focus on plucky, peppy bottles that sound like three-minute pop songs, Cosecha Imports for the real-deal Spanish stuff, Context for off-the-grid Italian, and BarrelSelect for classical French. And the newly-minted Grapewitches Wine Club offers Torontonians monthly subscriptions to mixed-bottle cases of international unicorns from hot-button producers a la Martha Stoumen and Gut Oggau.
And, when desperate times call for desperate measures, and I am forced to purchase wine at the dreaded LCBO, I like to hit up the Greek flagship store on the Danforth (200 Danforth Ave) for wack-attack bottles of sparkling bottle-fermented orange; the Bay and Bloor location (55 Bloor Street West) for sleek Italian and the occasional Nova 7 (literally the best bottle of wine this country has to offer), and the infamous, massively-out-of-the-way “Store Zero,” (2625d Weston Road) where all the unsellable bottles from across the province go to die, or, in my case—regain new life.