All photos by Thomas Skrlj
When my editor asked me to find the worst bar in Toronto (inspired by this VICE US article) the rules were simple: pick a bar that I think is the worst, go to that bar, ask another denizen of the boozy depths what they think the worst bar in Toronto is, go to that bar and repeat the process until I am a feeble, drunken mess, face-to-face with the bleak realities of alcohol's demonic influence upon us all.
Where to begin though and what does it mean for a bar to be the worst?
There are of course shit bars. Grungy, anonymous holes in the wall occupied by a smattering of the human equivalents of crunched up empty cigarette packs, nursing corporate lagers and grudges against all who have wronged them whether it's their brother or whatever liberal female politician it's trendy to shit on in MRA circles.
To me though these aren't bad bars. They are merely bars, places for the downtrodden to commiserate. They aren't hurting anybody (metaphorically, I'm sure actually a lot of people have been hurt on their premises). And as Toronto's rapid transformation into a fantasy land for the wealthy continues unopposed, I appreciate the continued existence of these shit bars that act like gnarly food stuck in the shiny condo teeth of the city.
So I wanted to stay away from the dives and the Portuguese sports bars and start at a bar that I truly think is bad for humanity. But where? As I would discover in my travels, determining a bad bar is not always easy but as I sat eating some pizza to gird my stomach for the night to come and wracking my brain for horrible bar experiences I looked up at the TV playing CP24 and there in the background, across the street from the newsroom, was my answer, the first stop on my depraved journey aglow with its own garishness:
EL FURNITURE WAREHOUSE
El Furniture Warehouse if you are fortunate enough to be unaware, is a Canadian chain that specializes in cheap eats, overpriced drinks and an extreme sports/first half of Spring Breakers aesthetic that will make you root for the society destroying effects of climate change.
After waiting in a late afternoon lineup (an afternoon lineup!!!) to get in I saddle up to the bar, order myself a beer and a shot called a Mind Fuck (it was either that or one called Red-Headed Slut) and let myself soak in the ambience, soak being the appropriate verb because it felt like I was being held down and pissed on by a bunch of a marauding jocks. The place is loud and bright with cranked music, hard bodies and retro neon-signs pulsing.
The bartenders are the worst part. They are human surfboards dressed like professional wrestlers who, whenever you order a drink, flip the glass into the air in a bid to astound you with how fucking cool they are. Listen man, I just want a glass of water not front row tickets to the X-Games.
Beside me are two women enjoying some of the the cheap eats who I inform about my mission to find the worst bar. One ignores me completely, while the other is shocked at first that I don't like the place before rethinking and agreeing that the service is both bad and hilariously over the top. She is also the first of a pattern I'll run into throughout the night, people repeatedly unable to name a single bar they don't like and claiming they don't waste their time in bad bars. I drink another pint hoping more time will give her some inspiration for my next destination but she does tell me a story about an Uber driver fucking her over in case I want to write a story about why Uber sucks.
I turn my attention to the young couple on my right. He's from Saskatchewan, has grenade stud earrings and is excited for the upcoming John Mayer concert. She's a student who thinks that the worst bar in Toronto is The Imperial. So I finish my drink, watch one more complementary glass air-flip from the staff and head out on the road alight with the knowledge that El Furniture Warehouse is a blight on the earth and every minute you stay in there you will forget one book you have read.
THE IMPERIAL PUB
My heart dropped when I was sent here because I love this place. I can understand why the young woman who sent me her does not like it, she's young and hence has hope and probably believes in the promise of tomorrow and does not yet understand that existence is continual disappointment carved out of the oblivion that surrounds it on both sides and so does not get the appeal of a place like The Imperial which is comfortably fuzzy, brown and gross like your grandfather's nicotine stained teeth.
Tucked behind the Dundas square and open since 1944, The Imperial Pub is divided into two levels. The bottom consists of a wraparound bar, a fish tank that would give Spielberg nightmares and back room with a stage where I've have had some of my bleakest nights as a stand-up. Upstairs is the library, a big room with a pool table that is ringed by dusty bookshelves and where you can get free popcorn. The clientele is a mixture of faded regulars who may be ghosts and older students from nearby Ryerson University.
I head upstairs, with a headache and shot nerves from El Furniture's party or die atmosphere, and am immediately soothed by the grainy yellow lighting and a vibe of casual despair. There is jazz music playing which is appropriate because this is the kind of place where a jazz musician could find a nice corner to curl up and die in obscurity.
I order a beer and a box of poutine hoping for some of that dish's famed curative properties, and begin scoping out for some people to guide me to the next destination. A crew of solidly regular dudes behind turn out to be a bust as two are from LA and the third is another person who for the life of him can't name a bad bar. "Any bar is good as long as you're drinking,"stated the young man, his logic sound and unassailable. I move on to another group who also have a hard time naming a shitty bar ("Why would you go to bar you don't like?") before one woman asks me if clubs are ok. When I answer in the affirmative she says, much to my delight, that, "Croc Rock is pretty shitty." Yes!
I have been hearing about Toronto's infamous Crocodile Rock since I moved here. Legend has it that Crocodile Rock is where cougars and silver foxes congregate, where the middle aged gather and get freaky, where moms and dads can get away from their kids and grind like there is no tomorrow. I've always been tempted by the appeal of Croc Rock, maybe tonight would be night where I fulfill my destiny to become a kept love-boy for an emotionally aloof divorced mother of one.
When I show up to the Rock though I am appalled to discover tonight this destiny will not prevail because Crocodile Rock is one of the many bars participating in a bar crawl called The Bunny Hop, which is one of Canada's largest bar crawls. I enter Croc Rock (which looks like a combination between a garage and a Batman villain's lair) to find the place teeming with newly legal drinkers dressed in white t-shirts and wearing bunny tails and ears, wasted on cheap shooters and horrific, youthful horniness.
It's a terrifying scene. Sort of "Lord of the Flies" but with a stripper pole instead of a conch. It's the kind of scenario that, if he could have foretold it, would have inspired Al Capone to turn himself in.
At one point while I'm sitting alone at a table taking notes (admittedly a creepy look considering there is more grinding going on around me than in my mouth when I'm asleep) a bouncer comes up to and asks what I'm doing. When I explain my evening he goes, "That makes sense, some people love us and some hate us." Bonus points to Crocodile Rock for having staff that have no illusions about where they work.
I ask the bouncer if he has any suggestions for a worst bar but he's a little busy. I next turn to a middle aged man who is the ringleader of a group of very uncomfortable looking dads. Not my man though, when I ask what the worst bar is in Toronto, he goes, "Life is too short to not have fun. I have a wife and kids at home, tonight I'm having fun," before dragging a miserable looking friend out onto a dancefloor that resembles a club from The Smurf movie universe.
Finally I spot three put upon adults with 'let's get the fuck out of here' printed on their faces. Two are also from out of town ("I've been in Mexico for three months. This is nothing, nobody is naked pouring tequila on themselves.") but the third, a jacked Irishman tells me the worst bar he's been to in Toronto is dbar at the bottom of the Four Seasons in Yorkville. So I say goodbye to Judy Bloom's nightmare and make my way to the tony Yorkville neighbourhood.
Dbar is a fancy bar for the rich as hell. Everything in here glitters: the lights, the glass case displays of Prada clothing and jewellery hanging on the wall, the bar and especially the patrons.
I don't belong in here at all. I feel like I'm walking around wearing garbage bags and that at any moment a huge hand will grab me by the collar and best case scenario throw me out onto the curb and worst case scenario toss me in the kitchen and chop up my poor body and serve me up like carpaccio to the hungry-eyed socialites prowling around.
I go to the bathroom to get my head straight. It's the nicest bathroom I've ever been in with high walls and gauzy warm light. It's less a bathroom and more a mausoleum for your body's waste. The paper towels are insane, thick and soft at the same time. I'm tempted to take a stack and see if I can use them to pay off my student loan.
I go upstairs and get a beer and fearfully wander around, not wanting to stay still long enough to be noticed. My drunken paranoia is soothed when I spot a former customer from my coffee shop days. We greet each other and I tell him that I think I'm going to get kicked out, he reassures me not to worry his uncle just bought the place and I can say I'm with him. Yes! Thank you Liberals and your knowledge economy for the hook up.
Feeling less like a mouse caught out in the open, I turn an appraising eye over my surroundings and am struck by one clear fact: rich people suck at having fun. Oh sure people are getting drunk, going to the bathroom in lines and returning sniffing away, but overall this place is lame. There is some dancing going on but it's reserved and awkward. Everyone is too worried about being seen, about who's here and who's not to enjoy themselves. The DJ actually drops a sincere dance remix of the motherfucking Thong Song and everybody cheers. The Thong Song! Between the awkwardness and social stratification, this place is like if someone invested one hundred million dollars into one of my high school dances.
I finish my beer. I delay my exit in the hopes that my coffee shop acquaintance is going to take me on some whirlwind tour of the sweet life but he soon takes his leave off the place and I am off as well. I'm super-drunk and my head is pounding and I just want to go to sleep and what I've learned tonight is Canadians don't like to admit where and when they have had a bad time, El Furniture Warehouse is still the worst place in the city and that alcohol should be illegal. It would probably make the bars better.
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