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When my local LCBO store redesigned its interior a few weeks ago, I was pleased. The previous space, located on the ground floor of the St. Clair/Bathurst Loblaws was always horribly cramped and crowded. (Hey, it caters to the residents of Forest Hill and we all know how much the rich like to drink.)

A few small changes and a little more space would make all the difference. Or so I thought.

The truth is this: while the store is now somewhat less cramped than it was, and while it's definitely more organized, it's a really disappointing store. In addition to having very little in the way of good wine, and a bare bones stock of hard liquor, members of the staff are terribly rude. One middle aged woman, in partular, is so abrasive, I've wanted to walk out without my purchase numerous times, just to spite her. She also insists on carding me every time I'm in there (which I've been regularly for the past several years) even though she knows me, knows I'm more than a decade past being underage, and despite the fact that I'm often overloaded with groceries. She seems to take pleasure in making me struggle and fumble for my ID while I juggle my bags. Once, she actually laughed.

A liquor store is a basic thing. As long as you can get your booze, you really can't complain about much, but this store is lame. Will I stop shopping there? No. It's the closest booze-broker I've got, and a girl needs her social lubricant. Sometimes, no matter what it costs.

LCBO Store # 2
St. Clair & Bathurst Loblaws (Forest Hill)
296 st. Clair Ave W
Toronto, ON M4P 3N3
(416) 653-0220

 
 
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Okay, so I might generate some hate-heat here, but I think BMB sucks. It sucks the proverbial bag. I'm a lover of private-room karaoke, and ostensibly, that's exactly what BMB offers, but my last experience there was literally the worst karaoke night of my life.

Fact: The rooms are far from sound proof. This means everybody and their granny can hear you belting your off-key Celine.

Fact: They don't even have Celine. (Well, no, not really. But they don't have a LOT.) The song list at this place is seriously limited.

Fact: The Korean song book is way bigger than the English one, which is great if you like that sort of thing and are familiar with Korean pop, but kind of lame if you're in Canada just looking to be one with Bryan Adams originals.

Fact: Scary stinky spray air fresheners are the norm in bathrooms and hallways (with snake, deeply, frighteningly into the basement). Hold your breath lest you inhale the poison.

People who like this place have said that a good thing about BMB is the fact that they stop the music when you're time is up, meaning you can't "over sing" but I don't think this is an upside. You literally CAN'T over sing, even if you wanted to. Because you pay in advance, even if you're having the time of your life, they kick you out when your time is up if anyone is waiting, and trust me when I say that people are generally always waiting.

What can I say? I didn't have fun.

BMB Karaoke
593 Bloor Street W
Toronto, ON M6G 1K5
(416) 533-8786
 
 
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Bar Plus (Bar +, actually) offers the best private-room karaoke in the city, in my not-so-humble opinion.

This place has big, clean rooms, decked out in black and red leather, great song books and selection, decent drinks, posh (and well-maintained) johns, and a nice long bar in the entry area, which means you likely won't have to wait long for your song-bird booze fuel.

It's not a well known establishment, being not-particularly well located on the second floor of a nondescript strip of Yonge Street (above a Swiss Chalet, in fact), but more and more people are finding out about it and it's not unlikely to find the place booked up on a Friday or Saturday night, so you might want to reserve space in advance.

One of Bar+'s best features is their website. You can search the song book online to better ready yourself for the experience. This means you can practice your "Papa Don't Preach" and "Son of a Preacher Man" at home.

Seriously. Do it. Practice, I mean. My Carly Simon "You're So Vain" - perfected in the shower - brought the house down. Sure, the house was six of my nearest and dearest friends, but so what?

Bottom line? Bar+ Karaoke is rad. It puts the XO and BMB to shame. Go immediately.

Bar+
2nd Floor - 360 Yonge St.
Toronto, ON M5B 1S5
(416) 340-7154

*Sunglasses worn to protect the innocent, and because they're rad.

 
 
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Okay, so it's not the cleanest place in the world. So what? What the Green Room IS is a Toronto classic. I used to go there in high school (because they never checked our ID, but to be fair, we never ordered beer) and after moving away and returning ten-years later, going back was like entering a time warp. The GR had the same dim atmosphere, the same saggy Salvation Army furniture, the same Christmas-lights-a-twinklin' crazily along the walls (even in July). I loved it.

The Green Room, for me, is all about drinks. The Pad Thai is yummy and people rave about the Brie, but for me, it's about the cheap wine and good, cozy conversation. Every once in awhile, I also head in their for their ultra-cheap breakfast, but in the light of day, it's just not the same. The GR is a night-time sort of place.Good for new dates, and deep convos. I've done some lavalife-ing there. It worked. Also, I find it's a good test of someone's character. If they're put off by the grunge, I know they're probably going to be too uptight for me.

There are things you hear about: rats, bad food preparation, etc. But don't heed the haters. If you're unsure just don't eat. Drink and be merry instead. Think of the 1960s. It's impossible not to.

Green Room
296 Brunswick Ave
Toronto, ON M5S 2M7
(416) 929-3253

*Photo by Adam Jaworski, from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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I would never, NEVER call XO Karaoke the best in the city. It's good, but not great. The best thing about it is that it's relatively inexpensive and the song books/lists are decent and pretty extensive.

The worst things about it are that it's small, the rooms are pretty ghetto, and drinks aren't cheap.

The last time I was at the XO, I busted out some Jon Bon (always a crowd pleaser) I enjoyed myself, and I spent a literal fortune on drinks. Because let's face it: for most of us, social lubrication is absolutely necessary if you're going to sing in public. There was puke in the ladies room, and we had to wait a long time for a free space to sing.

That said, I always enjoy myself at the XO. It's a little ghetto, which means you can crowd friends into a room that is technically supposed to be reserved for smaller parties. You can order drinks that are brought right into your private space by waitstaff, and you can belt your heart out with abandon, knowing that you're not spending an excessive amount on the actual room. (Pre-drink. That's the way to go if you want to save money.)

But is it the best karaoke in the city? No way. It's merely good.

XO Karaoke
693 Bloor Street W
Toronto, ON M6G 1L5
(416) 535-3734

*Image by Moi Cody from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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I like the Velvet. I don't care what anyone says. It's grungy and dark and often empty when you want it to be full and full when you want it to be empty, but it's great for dancing, there are pool tables (generally without a wait) to keep your non-dancing man happy, drinks (beer especially) are cheap, and as long as there's no band, there tends to be no line and no cover. Oh, and you can wear literally anything you want, judgment free. The last time I was there, I had galoshes on and I received nary a hairy eyeball (unheard of in Toronto clubs as a rule). What's not to like?

Standard songs include some hardcore Tool and the like, which isn't my fave. but crowd-pleasers by the Killers are likely, and Metric's Dead Disco has played every time I've been there. They also tend to play The Bravery's An Honest Mistake, which is enjoyable, as well as an odd mix of other stuff, both new and nineties. (A little No Doubt, a little 80s, a little indie, all danceable, but no techno or house. It's all lyric-driven stuff.)

Andy the bartender (also mentioned by other reviewers) remains on staff and in the past, has been nice enough to hide my coat behind the bar so I wouldn't have to bother with the coat-check thing. Regardless, though, I generally just leave my jacket balled up on a chair or in a corner and I've never had a problem.

Another thing I like about the Velvet is that people tend to leave you alone and let you dance. If you're looking to pick up, I'm sure you could, but if you just want to head out for some fun with friends, you're unlikely to be harassed at the Velvet, and that's a great, invaluable thing. Sure, dudes will occasionally "get all up in your dance space," as they say (and as bar-going-guys they tend to do), but gentle rebuffs will send them packing, leaving you free to dance on.

It's not a club-like club, and it's not a bar-like bar. The Velvet is your basic, dark, dance hole. It's nothing special, but it's not bad either. I approve.

The Velvet Underground
510 Queen Street W
Toronto, ON M5V 2B3
(416) 504-6688

*Photo by Tim Duffels from Stock Xchng.


 
 
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Meh? Talk about MEH. I was at the Stonegrill for a birthday party awhile back, and frankly, it sucked. I'd have given it a single star but for the fact that the ambiance is indeed nice, and the place didn't intend to suck, and to be fair, my taste isn't everyone's taste.

But still. I thought it sucked.

Problem 1: Terrible service. While the wait staff were really pleasant, they took forever (like, over an hour) to bring even our appetizers. The actual dinner wait was epic too.

Problem 2: The concept doesn't really work, in my opinion. You order meat or fish. It comes on a hot stone and sort of cooks in front of you. In their own words "your meat will never become overdone" but I beg to differ. My steak was woefully overdone in MINUTES. Had I known how quickly the stone would cook the meat, I would have removed my steak from the tablet as soon as it arrived on the table. Even the two minutes it took for the waitress to provide an explanation of the whole deal was long enough to ruin my meat. I was unimpressed.

Problem 3: WAY too salty! My cooking stone was covered (and I mean COVERED) with rock salt. It was all over my meat in a really overboard sort of way. And I LIKE salt. I have been known to eat STRAIGHT salt. (I have a problem. My arteries are hardening as I type.) But this amount of salt was too much even for me, and that's saying a lot.

Anyway, all in all my visit to Stonegrill was a serious bummer. In addition to the aforementioned complaints, portion sizes were tiny for the price. I got about three mouthfuls of soup, and four bites of veggies along with my teeny weenie (super salty, overdone) steak.

It's a well decorated, trendy space with nice atmosphere, but frankly, when I go out for dinner, I'm more invested in the food. This place let me down.

Stonegrill on Winchester
51 Winchester Street
Toronto, ON M4X 1A8
(416) 967-6565

*Photo by ilker from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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There are plenty of reviews of Clinton's in Toronto's ether, so I don't really see the need to re-ring that bell, but I recently found out something about this Bloor West classic that I did not previously know: they have BOARD GAMES and most recently, 90s DANCE PARTIES on select Friday nights.

Yes. Board games. (Am I a dork? Do you think I'm a dork now? Well suck it. I like board games.) And dance parties? Come ON.

I'd previously only bothered with Clinton's as a friend-chosen beer hall. Good for a couple of pints and little else. Now, I'm much happier. The Board Game thing has swayed me. The other night, I was there with a few couples, making slightly awkward couples conversation, which could easily have become tiresome, but then, we got into some Trivial Pursuit, and all was well. The cider tasted more delicious. The awkwardness evaporated. We had something to focus on and talk about so conversation flowed more easily. It was good all around.

As for the 90s dance party thing, well ... what can I say? I love that sort of thing. They still do the Shake a Tail oldies thing on Saturdays, as far as I know, but the 90s music is new and for me, way more fun. If you don't dance, you might not be into it, but if you're pushing 30, it might be just the thing.

Clinton's Pub
693 Bloor Street W
Toronto, ON M6G 1L5
(416) 535-9541

*Photo by by John Siebert from Stock Xchng.

 
 
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Annex dwellers all noticed when Quebec-owned Metro finally got around to rebranding their Ontario Dominion stores about a year ago. (They bought the Dominons years ago, but were slow to face lift.)

Alas, the fancy-pants Annex Metro (just a block West of Spadina, on Bloor), formerly one of the worst chain grocery stores EVER, did not improve.

The Annex Metro, while cleaner and better stocked with baskets and carts that it used to be (and a wee bit more appealing as a result), remains craptacular.

Prices are high, aisles are overcrowded and lines are endlessly long, particular post-work on weekdays and on the weekends during the daytime. Sure, it's open all night, and having the 24hr option feels nice in theory, but realistically, are you going to stock up on Cheerios at 3am? I think not.

I don't like that things are stocked way too high on some shelves, meaning shorties like me have to wait for long-armed men to help (and frankly, I'm not into the damsel thing) and worst of all, they carry only the most limited selection of products. One kind of garlic sauce, for example. Very few brands.

Frankly, as this is really the only full grocery store in the neighbourhood and many Annex-apartment-dwellers don't drive, I think the chain knows it can get away with anything. We all need groceries, and often the most convenient option wins out. This Metro is convenient, but that's about all I can say about it.

Boo. BOO, I say!

Metro
425 Bloor St. West
Toronto, ON M5S 1X6
(416) 923-9099

 
 
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Atlas Ave. did not always have Atlas One. When I was a little girl, the place was a dry-cleaner/tailoring shop, owned by my friend's mom. I spent hours there as a little girl, playing among the buttons and the spools. But fond memories aside, I am much happier with this location's cafe incarnation.

Atlas One is a great addition to this Little Italy/Little Portugal north neighbourhood. They offer yummy middle-eastern-inspired food (kebabs, etc.) and drinks. I recommend going for some quiet patio time in the summer. Atlas is a chillaxed street, but Atlas One is just off St. Clair, so you're still near the action. Order wine, and maybe some oysters (which is what I had the last time I was there) and soak in the real Toronto atmosphere. I hear they also offer belly dancing and/or jazz bands on some summer nights, but I have not experienced that. I think of Atlas One as a quiet place, good for dates.

Ultimately, what I love about this little place is that it's a truly local establishment, one that feels very home-grown. Try it now. Or wait until Patio season when you're likely to enjoy it even more.

Atlas One Cafe
820 St. Clair W.
Toronto, ON M6C 1B6
(416) 656-4817

*Photo by Dominic Morel from Stock Xchng.

UPDATE 2013: Atlas One is closed. In place is another place called Statione or something. Oh well.