A not-so-secret guide to Canada’s best speakeasies

Secret bookcase doors included

Mai Nguyen 0 Premium content image

Don’t be scared off by the unmarked doors, red lights and secret passwords. These bar owners have got $15 cocktails to sling and they want you to bring your friends.

The Libertine, Toronto

1307 Dundas St. W.

Commitment to secrecy: 1/5

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

Despite the fact that there’s nothing but a neon tarot card in its window, owner Forrest Kendlbacher admits his speakeasy is the “worst kept secret” in Toronto. In fact, it’s often booked out for parties thanks to the city’s throng of in-the-know drinkers. And diners: the sleek and modern affair serves up creative comfort cuisine by Momofuku alum Léonie Lilla. Highlights include deep-fried chicken, sliced hanger steak with couscous and bacon brussels sprouts. Come for the in-house fortune teller, stay for the Smoke’n’Mirrors cocktail with bacon marmalade, basil and mescal ($14).


Narrow Lounge, Vancouver

1898 Main St.

Commitment to secrecy: 3/5

(Grant Harder)

(Grant Harder)

Hidden in the back of a furniture store at the corner of Third and Main in Vancouver’s artist district is Narrow Lounge. The tiny 30-seat bar is only open when the red light’s lit. “It’s the price you pay for having the right people,” says manager Rachel Zottenberg. Regulars come for the bar’s moody and intimate vibe (it’s narrow, after all) and stay for shots of bourbon and booze-steeped snacks. Even the mac and cheese is slow-cooked in Guinness, but we’re partial to the tequila-marinated fish tacos ($8) and red-wine chorizo sausage ($9.50)


Big in Japan, Montreal

4175 St. Laurent Blvd.

Commitment to secrecy: 2/5

(Big In Japan)

(Big In Japan)

(Big In Japan)

(Big In Japan)

In Scotland a red door means you’ve paid off the mortgage. In Montreal’s Plateau district it means you’ve found Big in Japan. The brightly painted door simply reads, “Bar,” which of course is an understatement. Big in Japan, an elegant winding bar, specializes in serving top-shelf Japanese whiskies such as the Yamazaki and Nikka single malts by the bottle. And because no one polishes off a bottle in one sitting, Big in Japan hangs them from the ceiling until the owners return.


The Staff Room, Ottawa

315 Somerset St. W.

Commitment to secrecy: 5/5

(Cole Burston)

(Cole Burston)

(Cole Burston)

(Cole Burston)

The Staff Room is located behind a false bookcase inside Union 613 restaurant (already worth a visit for chef Chris Lord’s menu of southern comfort fare). Owner Ivan Gedz is sworn to secrecy over which book patrons must tug to gain access, but crack the case and you’ll find a low-lit bar designed with recycled wood that musters the look and feel of a Kentucky moonshine shack. The decor’s fitting, since the bar list is dominated by an extensive collection of unusual whiskies, including Tennessee’s George Dickel and South Africa’s Three Ships. But since you’re here, might as well try the Polar Bear’s Toenail ($15), a surprisingly tasty concoction of brandy, port, stout, egg, nutty chocolate bitters with a Thai chili kick.


Cold Tea, Toronto

60 Kensington Ave.

Commitment to secrecy: 2/5

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

(Corbin Smith)

Tucked inside the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Kensington mall, Cold Tea plays hard to get (unmarked door, no phone, just Twitter). But rest assured its existence is well-known to the downtown trendsters and suits who make this Chinese-themed bar a regular stop on their weekend crawls and post-work benders. The decor leans toward ’80s Hong Kong film posters, the food consists of an in-house dim sum cart serving $3 pork buns, and the cocktail menu has yet to be committed to paper, but rest assured you’ll leave satisfied. The cognac Manhattan is outstanding. So is Cold Tea’s take on the bourbon sour with honey chamomile syrup made with ingredients found in the market.


Noble, Halifax

1559 Barrington St.

Commitment to secrecy: 4/5

(Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

(Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

(Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

(Aaron McKenzie Fraser)

With its velvet curtains, old-timey apothecary jars and turn-of-the-century piano, you’d never guess this used to be the garbage room. In 2012, married owners Ciaran and Lacey Doherty transformed the basement boiler room of their upscale dessert bar, the Middle Spoon, into a stylish space for their award-winning mixologist Jenner Cormier to serve craft cocktails. To get in, patrons enter through the desserterie and say the week’s secret phrase. One week it was “According to chemistry, alcohol is a solution.” (Don’t worry, it’s on their Twitter page.) Only then can they toss back an Adam’s Apple ($15), a blend of aged amber rum, ginger wine, aperol and sweet vermouth that’s worth blabbing about.

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