Frosty mugs and hot dogs solve a lot of problems.
While it may be true that dive bars are customarily the result of communal decree and the ravages of time, there are exceptions to be made on occasion for newer entries into the dive bar fraternity. Toronto’s Swan Dive is the city’s Dundas West neighborhood is one such worthy exception, founded in 2016 by co-owner Abra Shiner as more of an alternatively-minded place to grab a drink amongst vintage knick-knacks than rustic, time-weathered dive bar.
Dundas West is one of Toronto’s many attractive, walkable neighborhoods and the arrival of Swan Dive in 2016 was a good way to cut into the upscale dining & drinking trend sweeping through the area at that time. The Toronto dive bar is nestled into a brick building, windows on an angel, under an aqua blue sign with you guessed it, a picture of someone doing a swan dive. The exterior is understated as far as Toronto dive bar landmarks go (looking at you Bovine Sex Club), but the interior makes up for it with a haphazard array of old furniture at snippets of art installations.
The pandemic endangered Swan Dive as it did many bars across North America, leading Shiner to post a plea to Instagram imploring the bar’s patrons and fans to buy up the deep stock of beer on hand. The community came through, because of course they did, buying up over 90 cases of beer across a handful of days, providing Swan Dive the funding needed to keep the bar afloat and navigate the closures and reopenings that were part of life during COVID-19.
Original artwork mingles with faded movie posters amid a tumbling waterfall of disassembled doll parts cascading from the ceiling above the bar. The bar itself is lined with colorful, faux currency that somehow fits in seamlessly with abandoned Halloween decorations and a classical statute holding up a disco ball. It should come as no shock that artists are welcome here, including through the occasional pop-up artists market that sometimes takes over the Swan Dive space.
Aside from art-focused pop-up events, rotating DJ sets make up the majority of the Swan Dive event calendar, musical genres spanning from post-punk to old school rap represented. The black and white checkerboard tile floor mixes well with the pitch black walls, pillars, stools and nearly everything else to create a perfect back drop to a last night DJ set and day drinking session alike. Pops of color come from light blue, vintage wire chairs that make up the bulk of the bar’s seating outside of the bar itself.
Under a beaded half-curtain, the bar’s pool table sits in the rear of the Swan Dive, a free-to-play table difficult to snag thanks to its popularity and price point. The bar’s other notable entertainment opportunity is the Twilight Zone pinball table in the Swan Dive main space, a piece with a years-long waiting list navigated the Swan Dive ownership. Food is available here in the form of snacks and hot dogs thanks to the roller tray behind the bar.
The drink selection is a bit more diverse than the usual dive bar set up, with themed cocktails often concocted in line with the day’s events (Queens of the Stone Age in town? Queens of the Stone Age cocktail it is). Selections that include a number of local brewery beer options mix with classic Canadian dive bar-friendly domestics in addition to espresso and Cappuccino thanks to the requisite hardware also found behind the bar. While supplies last, beers are sold with a frosty mug pairing, a hard combination to pass up especially during Toronto’s precious summer months.