Snag a bar-side perch with elevated window view.
Along Ossington Avenue in a part of town sandwiched between the Toronto neighborhoods of Queen West, Ossington and Dundas West, a burst of commercial development has turned what was once a sleepy nook of the city into a heavily-trafficked hotspot. Toronto dive bar Sweaty Betty’s was among the first businesses to not just participate in but spark the wave that has washed over the area, bringing a decidedly unique vibe that has no doubt shaped the developing of the surrounding area.
Opened in 2004, current owner May Brand started managing Sweaty Betty’s in 2008 before assuming ownership of the Toronto bar in 2018. Naturally, Brand was rewarded with the impending arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and turned to the community for help through a GoFundMe campaign in 2021. Over the course of three days, over $25,000 was raised, helping the bar navigate those difficult times that included a $15,000 renovation that complied with COVID-19 restrictions for reopening.
That kind of support is possible only through a strong sense of community between business and neighborhood and it’s easy to see why Sweaty Betty’s has struck such a resonant chord. Beyond the Toronto dive bar’s status as a prominent ally of the LGBTQ+ community, the sheer uniqueness of the space pairs well with the dynamic nature of a city like Toronto. The vibe is so unique that rumor has it Drew Barrymore, Justin Long and Ethan Page visited on the evening of a nearby movie premiere.
Even by dive bar standards, Sweaty Betty’s is fairly dazzling visually, a crimson-painted palette inside a strong contrast against pieces like the ornate chandelier that hangs over the bar and the string lighting that rings the bar’s ceiling. From the street, the intensity of the internal visual display is only hinted at thanks to a bit of neon in the window and a sign reading “An army of lovers will never be defeated.” Decidedly muted sidewalk seating by Sweaty Betty’s standards can be found along Ossington.
But inside is a dense combination of old school antiques and the feeling of a great aunt’s living room. Divided into a pair of interior spaces, the main room includes that main bar and its impressive set of beer taps. Each shelf that supports the bar’s liquor selection is lined with string lights, the lights layering upon each other. Framed photos, many of them black & white, cover the walls in this first area, a handful of drinking ledges available jutting out of the wall opposite the bar.
Up a short staircase, a second more lounge-like room can be found, offering a set of mismatched, aged couches surrounding a small table and another chandelier. The framed photos extend into this room as well, all manner of individual well represented, interspersed with a neon sign depicting the Devil. Small tables, chairs, lamps and other pieces round out the very classic, almost baroque feeling here, a secluded salon of a Toronto dive bar atmosphere.
Brand’s set of connections luckily included a carpenter who reimagined the Toronto dive bar’s rear patio space, a long, wood-lined area somewhat sheltered from the elements by a pergola-style roof. Ample seating and drinking ledge opportunities exist back here and given the density of the city that surrounds Sweaty Betty’s, the seclusion of this back patio area is an accomplishment. Faux and live greenery creeps over some of the wooden walls here, mixing with a set of classic bar signs.