Taking the List-Makers to Task

By Stephen Beaumont for Good Food Revolution

June 16, 2022



Lists are, by their very nature, inclined towards controversy, particularly in our modern, social media-fuelled society. Write up a selection of, say, the ten prettiest homes on your twenty-one house street and someone will most certainly chastise you for including the Jones place when that of the Smiths is so obviously better. Publish it online and people will be calling for your head on a platter.  

As such, arguing against what is included in almost any particular list, or defending same, is a fool’s errand, and as the saying goes, my mama didn’t raise any fools. It is quite different, however, when the basic premise upon which a list is built is structurally flawed.

Such is the case with two lists that have recently made waves in the Canadian bar world. The first, unveiled with great pageantry in New York City, is the World’s 50 Best Bars’ list of North America’s top bars. This was followed quickly – at least in my world; a hard copy arrived with my morning Globe and Mail the day after the New York ceremony – by Canada’s 100 Best’s list of the country’s 50 Best Bars. 

There will be, as noted above, people who take issue with entries and elements of both lists, perhaps even those who dispute the positioning of Toronto’s Civil Liberties as the best Canadian bar on both. For me, though, the problem is much more fundamental than who is in and who is out. My issue resides in the criteria used for each. 

(Full disclosure, after a fashion, at least: Dick Snyder, who writes for this publication and is someone I’ve known and worked with for many years, acted as Managing Editor for the Canada’s 100 Best list, while Christine Sismondo, with whom I co-authored Canadian Spirits, is Academy Chair: Canada East for the World’s 50 ranking and also contributed to the Canada’s 100 effort.)

The problem with both is made blatantly evident by the graphics they use for the vast majority of the bars they feature, probably about 80-90% of the total, which are photos of cocktails. Yes, with scant exceptions in the Canada’s 100 list – Calgary’s Ship & Anchor (#38) and Bannerman Brewing in St. John’s (#45) among them – and so far as I can tell, none in the World’s 50 Best list, all the quote-unquote ‘best bars’ in this country are cocktail bars. 

Now, if either of these lists had been trumpeting Canada’s Best Cocktail Bars, I would have scanned each, made note of a few locations I should have on my radar – hey, I like a solid, creative cocktail as much as the next guy! – and moved along. But each is claiming to list the country’s best bars, period, and that just ain’t on!

Having been prowling bars and pubs, brasseries and beer halls, since long before the Ontario government considered me to be of legal drinking age, I have a fair few years of experience in drinking establishments not just across Canada, but around the world, and I’m here to tell you that a good cocktail program, as admirable as it may be, is only part of what makes a bar great. 

For example, up the road from me resides a cozy little boîte called Bar Hop, where my wife can get a beautifully crafted martini, negroni, or any of several cocktails created in-house, served in elegant glassware, or a wine from their eclectic and rotating selection, and I can have my choice of 25 impressive local and imported beers and ciders on draught, plus dozens of others in the bottle or can. I’m not saying that Bar Hop is necessarily one of the best bars in the country – although it is a favourite of mine, and not simply because of its proximity – but with all due respect to Civil Liberties, you just can’t do that there!

And what of the Granite Brewery at Mt. Pleasant and Eglinton in Toronto or Victoria’s storied Spinnakers, each of which offers cask-conditioned ale at a level of freshness and quality you’d be happy to find in London, England, and does so in a comfortable, welcoming setting? Or Calgary’s Hayden Block, which I admittedly have yet to visit, but which boasts a simply spectacular American whiskey menu and nineteen beers on tap to chase your Pappy Van Winkle 23 year old. Or the Joe Beef-led Vin Papillon in Montréal, which appears on the Canada’s 100 restaurant list (at #52), but is arguable more sophisticated brasserie-style wine bar than semi-vegetarian restaurant. 

I could, of course, go on, but what is being served is only part of what makes a bar great. You will note above that I sprinkled in words like ‘cozy,’ ‘sophisticated,’ and ‘welcoming,’ which to me strike at the heart of a bar. I remember a long-standing San Francisco spot where the owner/bartender, who has since joined the great majority, was famed for his acerbic nature and brusque delivery of drinks. Which is fine for novelty’s sake, but if I’m going to regularly patronize a place I want it to feel like a home away from home, the ‘public house’ that the British eventually shortened to ‘pub.’

Which is not to say that it need be polished and refined – another San Francisco institution, the much-loved Toronado, has a bathroom that would give anyone pause – but a comfortable stool or chair and a friendly vibe go a long way to creating bar greatness. I’ve been in wonderful cocktail bars where the welcome has been spectacular and the warmth divine, but also some where they are so pleased with what they are doing, be it the faux speakeasy look or the bizarre ingredients in the cocktails, that they forget the ‘hospitality’ part of ‘hospitality industry.  

Now, admittedly, the above are the elements of a bar that are important to me and perhaps me alone, and since I’ve not (yet) patronized all of the bars on each list, I must likewise admit that there is every chance they may well be present in all of the bars considered to be among the ‘best.’ But pardon me if I remain somewhat sceptical.

A short time ago, Dick Snyder wrote in this space that his measure of a bar was its ability to make him a proper sidecar, an all-too-simple cocktail which, I will agree, many bartenders still somehow screw up. (I could say the same about a negroni, but that’s another rant entirely.) And with regard to a cocktail bar, I would agree with him absolutely. 

However, the last time he and I got together socially for a drink, it was at Wvrst, a beer hall-ish spot in downtown Toronto with great sausages, the best pretzel in the city, and an enviable selection of beer, cider, and wine. Wvrst is also a terrific bar for all but the most unwaveringly German-phobic, although through my many, many visits over the years, I do not recall ever seeing anyone order a cocktail there, or in fact remember what if anything they may have available in terms of spirits beyond the Jägermeister and bourbon offered on tap. Dick and I both drank draught that day, and neither of us uttered or heard a disparaging word.