Come for the music, stay for the Mai Tai.
Few dive bars are as integral to city’s music scene as Bovine Sex Club, the deviously-named Toronto dive bar that has been a staple in the city’s punk, rock and metal live music scene since opening in 1991. Along with nearby mainstay Sneaky Dee’s, Bovine Sex Club has endured decades of rent increases, economic downturns and even a pandemic to keep live music alive in Toronto, with a little help from a rooftop Tiki bar.
Owner Darryl Fine opened Bovine Sex Club in 1991 with co-founders Wesley Thuro and Chris Sheppard. Though both co-founders have since exited the business, Fine has long pointed to Thuro and Sheppard as catalysts for the bar’s existence, Sheppard lending his reputation as a prominent local DJ to help market and promote the Queen Street West dive bar. Live music took on additional emphasis when Fine took over sole ownership of the space, ultimately resulting in a schedule that pre-pandemic included over 250 live music shows a year spanning thousands of bands.
Name aside, Bovine Sex Club is hard to miss thanks to the massive sculpture attached to the building above the front door crafted by local artists Dave Grieveson and Great Bob Scott. Commissioned by Fine and the original co-founders to add some visual appeal to the building, Grieveson and Scott went on a nearly two-week spree of location discarded items throughout the city of Toronto that would make for a compelling sculpture. The result is a sort of artistic bike crash above the bar’s front door the looks like gnarly, twisted metal punctuated with tires and string lights.
So taken with the exterior sculpture, Grieveson and Scott were given the green light to continue decorating the interior of Bovine Sex Club as well, creating a chaotic but cohesive look both inside and out. The vibe of the interior decorations, complete with Star Wars memorabilia, ancient Plymouth car parts and creepy, discarded toys fits well with the often metal- and rock-focused live music sets that take place on the small stage on the bar’s ground floor. Famously, the Bovine Sex Club sound system has remained almost fully intact since opening, parts swapped out when needed but not “upgraded,” resulting in a vintage sound that harkens back to late-1990s live music.
As with many great dive bars, the walls and ceiling almost feel like they’re slowly but persistently creeping on the available space within Bovine Sex Club. A stripper pole once installed toward the rear of the space has sadly been removed, but its absence leaves no shortage of dazzling visual elements, most of them punctuated by a string light of some variety. Hub caps, stickers, chain link fencing, even a row of empty Jägermeister bottles, there is no end to the intricacy of the Bovine Sex Club interior design.
Thanks to its longevity, Heritage Toronto has provided Bovine Sex Club with ‘heritage site’ protection, ensuring some level of insulation from gentrification. But the realities of rent and a changing Toronto landscape have prompted Bovine Sex Club to seek out new revenue sources more than once, most recently through opening an upstairs Tiki bar in 2013. The rooftop patio bar provides a wildly different experience to the rock venue below, intentional on the part of Fine in an attempt to appeal to more than one kind of customer.
Parts of the upstairs patio are covered but most of the rooftop bar is left open to the Toronto elements, making it one of the hidden gem patios within a city full of great options. Signature Tiki drinks including all of the usual suspects you would expect are available upstairs and even when cover is charged downstairs for live music, no cover is charged to visit this Bovine Sex Club alternative experience. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Tiki mural that adorns the staircase to the bar’s roof.