# 5 – Cherry Cola’s Rock N’ Rolla Cabaret Lounge
Undoubtedly one of the finest but least known venues in the city, Cherry Cola’s is hard to find for those who haven’t been there before, (They don’t have a sign outside) but unforgettable for those who have. Its unassuming entrance is at 200 Bathurst street. While this is the smallest of the top five venues, it provides an intimate setting where fans and artists can literally brush shoulders. The inside is decorated just like a 19th century French cabaret theatre, with red walls, large mirrors, chandeliers and upholstered crimson antique furniture.
The stage is very low so you can get right up close to the band and see everything the musicians are playing from up close without having to stretch your neck or watch the concert through a video screen. The staff are polite, the drinks are reasonably priced, the washrooms are clean and between sets a woman dressed like a cabaret dancer crawls around on the bar top in a corset and fishnet stockings.
For $9 you can buy a “Cherry Cola” with two ounces of vodka and coke topped off with a single red cherry on ice. All of these features really give Cherry Cola’s an authentic, unique, old time burlesque atmosphere. It is famous for hosting underground shows and their stage has been graced by the likes of NYC No Wave legend Lydia Lunch, Weasel Walter, illscarlet, Green Jelly, Square Nails and Sista Fista playing there since it opened its doors in 2010.
# 4 – Lee’s Palace
First opened in 1985 and located at 529 Bloor Street West, Lee’s Palace is another hidden gem for music fans in Toronto. They specialize in less mainstream music and it is a well known venue for intimate, up close punk, goth rock, alternative and indie shows as well as for its excellent natural acoustics. Patrons have to climb stairs to reach the venue and its bathrooms. It is the only one of the five venues to have a gender neutral bathroom as well as men and women’s bathrooms. There is a dance “cave” at the very top of the stairs where fans of dance music can let loose.
The drinks are more expensive than at Cherry Cola’s but the venue and stage are also much larger. The stage is at the back and while you can get close to the front there is a sectioned off gap between the fans and the stage, which is much higher allowing fans at the back a better view of the performance. Since it opened Lee’s Palace has been visited by many well respected artists like the NYC punk group, Television, Nirvana, Blue Rodeo, Oasis and The Verve are among the many acts to have played here.
# 3 – The Rivoli
The Rivoli is a quadruple threat; a bar, pool hall, restaurant and live music venue. marked by a large yellow sign it’s hard to miss the place, which is located at 332 Queen Street West in the heart of downtown Toronto. The restaurant is a bit pricey but the food and staff are both excellent. You can play rounds of pool to pass the time and the drinks cost an average $7-$12 dollars each. The venue and stage are located at the back in an entirely separate room from the downstairs bar, restaurant and pool tables but they have a bar located specifically in the music area so you won’t have to miss any of the show if you want to grab a drink during a set.
The Rivoli holds regular comedy shows and caters to a wide variety of musical styles and lesser known, yet highly influential groups such as New York’s Bush Tetras, local band Left by Snakes and many other artists and events.
# 2 – The Horseshoe Tavern
This venue is located at 370 Queen Street West, only a few buildings away from the Rivoli. There are two sections, one just for the bar patrons and a stage for music in the back. There are bars located in both sections and the bartenders are friendly and fast and the drinks are cheap compared to bigger venues at $6 a beer and $7 a shot. The bathrooms are located in the basement and are kept clean. There is also a small patio area just outside the door where patrons can sit and enjoy the outdoors.
The Horseshoe is one of Toronto’s oldest and longest running venues and it first opened its doors in 1947. It has played host to a legendary and diverse group of musicians over the years including the country superstars Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings as well as Canadian music icons such as the Band and Stompin’ Tom Connors. In the 70’s the Horseshoe was famous for booking punk and New Wave acts like The Cramps, MC5 and the Talking Heads.
A riot, nicknamed “The Last Pogo” broke out during a police raid on a punk rock show that featured punk rock legends such as the Viletones and Teenage Head. Other notable bands that have performed at the Horseshoe over the years include The Watchmen, The Bare Naked Ladies, Bright Eyes, The Strokes and many other acts. It’s definitely worth the visit, whether you’re just stopping by for a drink or coming to see a show.
# 1 – Massey Hall
While not necessarily small, no list of Toronto venues could be complete without mentioning the world famous Massey Hall. Though it is much larger than the other venues described above it is still a far more intimate concert setting than the Molson Amphitheatre or Air Canada Centre and its design gives it wonderful acoustics. Found at 178 Victoria Street, Massey Hall was built in 1895 and has been a concert hall and entertainment venue for its entire existence. It is the only seated venue on this list and it is by far the cleanest and the most secure. There are bars located just outside the concert hall, though the drinks can get pretty expensive.
The inside of the hall is beautifully decorated in a neoclassical style and there are balcony seats available for some events. After being open for over a century Massey Hall has had some of the most famous people in history on its storied stage, from blues legends like B.B. King & Buddy Guy to Lucinda Williams, Winston Churchill, Bob Dylan, King George V of England, The Dalai Llama, Cream and perhaps most notably Neil Young, who’s solo album Live at Massey Hall 1971 earned him praise from critics and fans alike and remains a staple Neil Young album for fans to this day.
Toronto is a huge city and these are only a sample of the small and intimate music venues it has to offer. There are bands and artists playing somewhere every night of the week in the city, you just need to know where to look and you’ll discover a treasure trove of underground music in intimate venues that will bring you closer to your favourite bands than any stadium show for a fraction of the cost. So if you’re in Toronto check out these venues and see who’s playing.