Best Indie Bars to Watch Bands Perform Live Music in Toronto

It’s Friday or Saturday night and you want to check out the best live music in Toronto.

Tickets for Beyonce or Radiohead at the Rogers Centre and Scotiabank Arena out of your budget? Luckily there are tons of intimate indie venues in Toronto that keep the music flowing non-stop.

Whether you want to check out The Sadies crush it at the Horseshoe Tavern or Lorne Lofsky blow your mind at The Rex, our guide to live music in Toronto will keep your ears happy and toes tapping.

Live Music in Toronto

Toronto offers incredible live music every night of the week, it’s just a matter of taste.

There is a rich jazz scene thanks to the music programs at York University, University of Toronto and Humber College. These celebrated music schools produce a steady stream of talented graduates (not to mention the faculty, who are unbelievable).

Blues, bluegrass and country is easily accessible with award winning venues such as The Dakota, The Hole in the Wall, Junction City Music Hall, Castro’s Lounge and the Cameron House putting on everything from old-time country to blues rock bands.

Latin music (greatly supported by the Lula Lounge) is also an important part of Toronto diverse and multicultural music scene. You can enjoy truly fantastic Brazilian and Cuban music at the Lula Lounge almost every night of the week.

Live music in Toronto is everywhere; the scene is yours to discover!

10 Bars To Enjoy Live Music in Toronto

So you may be wondering…who is this person writing about the best Toronto music venues?

My name is Ryan Carr and I am professional musician living in Toronto. I studied music at York University and after receiving my degree moved to London, England where I had the opportunity to tour Europe and the US with various bands. After three years abroad I moved back to Toronto to settle down, book some gigs and open Barn Owl Music, my music school. I have 18 years performing and teaching experience and I have to say, I love every minute of it. Well, maybe not the long drives in a van to a gig 9 hours away, but the rest of it is great.

Support Canada’s best bands by dancing your way through these indie live music bars in Toronto.

Live Music in Toronto: Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip at Horseshoe Tavern.
Live Music in Toronto: Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip at Horseshoe Tavern.

Horseshoe Tavern

370 Queen Street West, 416-598-4226

The Legendary Horseshoe Tavern (or “The Shoe” for most locals) has been around since 1947. It would be easier to list who hasn’t played here than who has. Acts such as The Tragically Hip, The Rolling Stones, The Police and Stompin’ Tom Connors have graced the stage at Horseshoe Tavern over the years and more recently The Dirty Nil, Hollerado and Snarky Puppy.

Don’t be fooled though, they don’t just do rock, they do punk, ska, funk, metal, R&B and Hip-Hop too. I even saw a jazz gig this past December when I bought tickets for Julian Lage performing with his trio and it was awesome. Great sound, great crowd, great time.

That being said, if you are looking to blow off some steam on a Friday or Saturday the Horseshoe can’t be beat. You can order from their expansive beer list and get a burger from a window that connects to the A&W right next door. Hang out, see some great music all while in you best pair of ripped jeans and leather jacket.

Horseshoe Tavern Hours: Monday to Sunday, 12pm – 2am

Horseshoe Tavern Tickets: $7 – $40

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes

Live Music in Toronto: Salsa dancing at Lula Lounge.
Live Music in Toronto: Salsa dancing at Lula Lounge.

Lula Lounge

1585 Dundas Street West, 416-588-0307

Lula Lounge is the epicentre of Cuban and Brazilian culture in Toronto. You can enjoy Latin music from south of the equator almost every night of the week. They are one of the only music venues in all of North America to have a live 9 – 16 piece salsa band every Friday and Saturday night all year round.

Don’t know how to dance salsa? Lula Lounge offers beginner lessons from 9 – 10pm before the band hits the stage from 10pm until the wee hours of the morning.

Charangon del Norte, Ricky Franco, Sean Bellaviti & Conjunto Lacalu are just a few of the incredible acts you can see regularly at Lula Lounge. The salsa bar even has their own project, The Lula All-Stars (how many venues have their own bands?!).

Friday nights Lula Lounge has hosts a Global Afterwork Party starting at 7:30pm, a free entry show featuring small ensembles with musical roots in tropical centres such as Havana, Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans. Featured artists include Aline Morales, Roberta Hunt and Guaracha y Son.

Dinner and Dancing at Lula Lounge

Lula Lounge is perhaps most famous for its dinner and dance packages, a great date night idea in Toronto. On weekends Lula Lounge’s dinner package is $59 per person and includes a choice of appetizer, main course, dessert, a dance lesson and two sets of live music (including the bonus early set on Friday.)

Lula Lounge offers a full tropical fusion menu with popular dishes including crab cake with sweet peppers, corn and cilantro and the chefs signature jerk chicken, both specialties of their Jamaican chef, Randal Harrison.

The kitchen’s most popular entree is the Chimichurri Rib Eye Steak, a 14oz cut served with horseradish mash, vegetable and a braised cipollini onions. Vegan options include a kale and tri-coloured quinoa salsa with dried cherries, apricots, cranberries, orange slices, roasted almonds in a citrus mango dressing. Another vegetarian favourite is the Berenjena Media Luna, which is a roasted, halved & hollowed out eggplant stuffed with a Creole stew of black beans, tomato, spinach and hominy corn.

For those who just want to dance, Lula Lounge offers a tapas menu that includes crispy buttermilk-soaked calamari with a lemon aioli as well as a dip trio that features their house roasted tomato salsa, refried bean dip, guacamole and freshly-made tortilla and plantain chips.

Lula Lounge also offers a semi-regular Sunday drag brunch for $45 per person that includes latin-inspired brunch dishes and an entertaining drag show. If you are feeling reckless, upgrade to a bottomless mimosa.

Lula Lounge Hours:

Tuesday to Thursday and Sundays: 6:30pm – 12am

Friday and Saturday 6:30pm – 2:30am

Lula Lounge Tickets: Free – $30, dinner/brunch packages vary ($50 per person approx)

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes

Live Music in Toronto: The Rex on Queen West is the city's most famous jazz club.
Live Music in Toronto: The Rex on Queen West is the city’s most famous jazz club.

The Rex Hotel

194 Queen Street West, 416-598-2475

The Rex Hotel is the jazz mecca of Toronto. Jazz greats from all over the world have performed there including Kurt Elling, Randy Brecker and Wynton Marsalis. It supports the burgeoning Toronto music scene with up to 19 shows per week.

I once saw Donny McCaslin, Ben Monder, Scott Colley and Antonio Sanchez perform and it was so good I had to go back the next night. It was an incredible show with almost every jazz musician in the city in attendance. I also have to admit, I have spent many, many late nights at their Tuesday jam session when I was studying music at university. It’s a great experience to see jazz musicians do what they do best, improvise.

They serve pub style fare and have a “Jazz Package” where guests at the hotel can add two appetizers, two entrees, two desserts, and 2 show covers to their stay. Oh and I forgot to mention, it has been in the Ross family since the 1950’s so it’s an institution as well as a family business.

Hours: Monday – Sunday the restaurant opens at 7am and closes just after 12am

Ticket Pricing: PWYC until 9pm, $10 – $15 for acts starting 9pm and later

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes

Live Music in Toronto: A local band performing on stage at The Cameron House.
Live Music in Toronto: A local band performing on stage at The Cameron House.

The Cameron House

408 Queen Street West, 416-703-0811

The Cameron House has been in the family since 1981 when it was turned into an arts and music hang out. I believe they have stayed true to their origins because there are often as many musicians in the audience as there are on stage on any given night.

The Cameron House offers live music 7 nights a week with at least two shows in the front room, 6pm and 10pm start times. At The Cameron House you can see the rising stars of the Toronto music scene with acts like, Devin Cuddy Band, Corin Raymond, and Ferraro making regular appearances, sometimes at the end of the night on their way back from other gigs.

They have an eclectic mix of genres on stage and you can see folk, country, jazz, blues and rock often in the course of one evening. The Cameron House even has its own record label to help promote Toronto talent. They have great local beers on tap and are know for their crantini if cocktails are more your jam.

Front Room or Back Room?

One of the great features of the Cameron House is that they have two rooms that cater to different types of performance. The front room never has cover, just a tip jar, so you can wander in, have a drink and check out some music if you are in the neighbourhood. It’s all very casual and it is a great place to kill some time.

The back room is generally more geared towards shows. You buy tickets or pay to get in (around $10) to see specific acts that are booked there. Often it will be a night with two or three acts taking the stage. Both rooms are small, cozy and feel like hanging at your friends house who invited a bunch of musicians over.

Hours: Monday – Saturday 4pm – 2am, Sunday 6pm – 1am

Ticket Pricing: Front room is always free (tip jar goes around a few times per band), back room $10 approx (depends on the show)

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes but the washrooms are tight

Live Music in Toronto: Magical lights decorate the stage at The Dakota Tavern.
Live Music in Toronto: Magical lights decorate the stage at The Dakota Tavern.

The Dakota Tavern

249 Ossington Avenue, 416-850-4579

The Dakota Tavern originally opened when I lived in the neighbourhood and quickly gained legendary status when The Beauties would pack the place week after week on a Sunday night. You read that right, Sunday.

As you walk down the steps into the venue it’s like you are transported to North Dakota; Barnboard walls, cattle skulls and washboards decorate the walls. It’s a serious venue to see blues, honky-tonk, country, and rockabilly. Some of the local acts you can catch here are The Mercenaries, Communism, Run With Kittens, and The Conor Gains Band. Tuesday’s at 6pm they host a jam session for those who want to test their mettle on stage.

The Dakota Tavern offers food on Friday’s and Saturday’s and on Sunday they have a popular bluegrass brunch that is family friendly. If you are looking for a venue where beards and cowboy boots are in an abundance then The Dakota Tavern will fit the bill.

Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 6pm – 2am (there is an occasional Saturday matinee at 1pm), Sunday 11am – 2am.

Ticket Pricing: $10 approx

Wheelchair Accessible: No

Live Music in Toronto: A guitar player performs at Junction City Music Hall.
Live Music in Toronto: A guitar player performs at Junction City Music Hall.

Junction City Music Hall

Junction City Music Hall is the youngest venue on this list and definitely one of my favourites. Tucked away underneath storefronts in the middle of The Junction you will probably wonder where the hell you are going until you get downstairs. That only serves to reinforce the venue’s history where rumour has it that it was a speakeasy when The Junction was a dry neighbourhood until 2000. It even has a sealed secret entrance to validate this rumour.

Lucky for us, prohibition has been lifted so you can enjoy one of Junction City Music Hall’s 20+ craft beers or their famous house lager, The Golden Rat, all while catching some live music. JCMH books serious music with acts as big as BA Johston taking the stage and they tend to vet the local talent. There is always something worth seeing like Emily Raquel or The Mip Power Trio. JCMH’s sibling venue is The Hole in the Wall so they offer free entrance with a receipt from the Hole.

Junction City Music Hall serves some snack food at the bar, my favourite being their high school cafeteria burgers. Nostalgia for the win. They have live karaoke monthly with the Good Enough Karaoke Band as well a a 90’s cover band once a month. All in all, Junction City Music Hall is a gem of a venue. If you haven’t been, check it out.

Hours: Thursday 7pm – 1am, Friday and Saturday 7pm – 2:30am, occasionally Wednesday and Sunday 7pm – 1am

Ticket Pricing: $0 – $10 approx

Wheelchair Accessible: No

Live Music in Toronto: The Piston is an intimate venue with an incredible lighting rig.
Live Music in Toronto: The Piston is an intimate venue with an incredible lighting rig.

The Piston

937 Bloor Street West, 416-532-3989
The Piston is an intimate venue with the most epic lighting rig and stage you have probably ever seen. It’s owned by two musicians who decided to open a venue that they would want to go to.

The Piston has hosted such illustrious artists as Ron Sexsmith, Sloan, Gene Simmons for an episode of Family Jewels, Lights, Zeus, Joydrop, and July Talk. They offer live music every night with doors opening at 8 or 9pm and on weekends they have a DJ dance party that starts at 10pm.

The Piston also supports local up and coming talent by putting on an indie night every Tuesday where they host new local acts. They also recently have been approved by the city of Toronto for a capacity increase and hope to bring bigger acts in with the extra numbers. They have taken part in Canadian Music Week and North by Northeast.

The Piston doesn’t offer food, just bar snacks, but they do occasionally have a pop-up kitchen. The Piston is a great, great music venue and they have done an incredible job in making a local, accessible indie music venue appealing to some real big fish.

Hours: Tuesday – Saturday 5pm – 2am, Sunday and Monday only for special events

Ticket Pricing: $5 – $10 approx

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes

Live Music in Toronto: Jerry Leger and the Situation at Castro's Lounge.
Live Music in Toronto: Jerry Leger and the Situation at Castro’s Lounge.

Castro’s Lounge

2116 Queen Street East,  416-699-8272
I like to think that if Fidel was alive and lived in Toronto you would see him hanging out here having a pint and a burrito on a Friday night. Castro’s Lounge is a small venue in the east end of the city with a serious focus on beer, food and music. They don’t mess around when it comes to beer with 4 cask handpumps, 8 draught taps and 110 bottles and cans to choose from. Castro’s Lounge easily have the most extensive selection out of all the venues on this list.

Castro’s Lounge also offers great food, their specialty being burritos, of which they have interesting options including butter paneer and adobo jackfruit. If you’re feeling less adventurous you can just order nachos and pizza to have with your pint.

You can see a mix of acts at Castro’s Lounge that lean toward bluegrass, jazz, rockabilly, and alt-country. Some of the bands you can see here include The Del Fi’s, Communism, Big Rude Jake, Fraser & Daley, Thelonious Hank. In the warmer months they open their garage-style door and I can honestly say, happiness is a cool breeze on a hot summer night with friends, drinks and music at Castro’s Lounge.

The venue has a great community following and lots of regulars know each other well so the overall vibe of the place is friendly. Even if you go alone you will probably know everyone on a first name basis by the end of the night.

Hours: Monday – Thursday 3pm – 2am, Friday 12pm – 2am, Saturday and Sunday 1pm – 2am

Ticket Pricing: PWYC (pay what you can)

Wheelchair Accessible: No

Live Music in Toronto: The Hole in the Wall is a shrine to food, drink and music.
Live Music in Toronto: The Hole in the Wall is a shrine to food, drink and music.

The Hole in the Wall

2867A Dundas Street West, 647-350-3564

The Hole in the Wall should read The Hole in the Wall. Now before the internet pounces on me I admit that there are more pubs in the world than one sharing it’s namesake but it truly is unique and deserves to be Toronto’s Hole in the Wall.

What can I say about the smallest venue on this list? It feels like walking on to the set of Cheers. It hosts great musicians. The bartenders are competent, knowledgeable and approachable. The food is incredible (the tostada is amazing). I know these are serious accolades for a venue but I can honestly say that everyone in the Junction loves this place and wants to keep it a secret.

The Hole in the Wall in Toronto has live music Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday that starts at 10pm. The stage is tight so they often have 2 – 3 piece blues, country and folk bands. Some of the local talent you can see at “The Hole” includes Lucas Stagg, Chris Stagg and the Marquee Players, The Barrel Boys, Kenny Yoshioka, and James Carroll. On Monday nights they host an open mic so those with aspirations of performing can get up on stage and have a go.

Drinks and Eats

The Hole in the Wall more so than any other place on this list is the place to go if you are serious about food, drink and music. They have a small but tasty menu and do brunch on the weekends. It’s fairly simple fare – burgers, ribs, calamari – but done so well you will remember why they call it comfort food.

They have 16 craft beers on tap, almost all of them from Ontario breweries. The have a solid wine list and all the classic cocktails plus the bartenders can pretty much make you anything you want. If you are looking for a night of serious eating and drinking as well as catching some local talent than The Hole in the Wall is the place to go.

Hours: Monday – Friday 4pm – 2am, Saturday and Sunday 11am – 2am

Ticket Pricing: Free entry (tip jar goes around when bands are performing)

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes but very tight. No universal bathroom.

Live Music in Toronto: The main hall at The Tranzac Club.
Live Music in Toronto: The main hall at The Tranzac Club.

Tranzac Club

292 Brunswick Avenue, 416-923-8137

The Tranzac Club stands for Toronto Australia New Zealand Club and its origins date back to the year 1931, when a small group of Australians and New Zealanders met in the Bay Street offices of J.W. Collins, the New Zealand Trade Commissioner. I know, I know, it sounds like a joke from Flight of the Concords. That being said, Tranzac Club is one of the most avante-garde music venues in Toronto.

The Tranzac Club will host everything from old-time Appalachian mountain music to free jazz and they will do it all in the course of one evening. They truly support musicians and are the most open-minded when it comes to booking you can find in the city. They host a jam session every Monday and Houndstooth, a popular local bluegrass band, perform every Thursday night at 7:30pm.

They don’t serve food, just bar snacks, but they are pretty laid back about bringing food in from nearby restaurants. The Tranzac is probably the most family friendly venue on this list and I would recommend it to parents who want to take their children to live music but don’t want to end up at a dive bar. It has a real casual vibe and the regulars are incredibly friendly. The Tranzac Club has a very loyal following of musicians and fans that do their absolute best to make it a positive space.

The Southern Cross, The Tiki Room and The Main Hall

The Tranzac Club has three rooms that all cater to different events. The Southern Cross offers live music almost non-stop all week and it’s also the most used room of the venue. A significant portion of the room is covered in instruments and gear for the musicians that are constantly in and out.

The Tiki Room feels like a hippie’s living room; it’s cozy and comfortable and hosts all kinds of special events from poetry to jazz jams to Irish sessions. In fact I often book the space to host my music school’s jam sessions and recitals.

The Main Hall is the largest of the three rooms by far and is only used when events that require significantly more space than the other two rooms offer. Often they host fundraisers and touring acts in the Main Hall as well as they host a weekly ukulele jam.

Hours: Weekdays 5pm – 2am, Weekends 12pm – 2am

Ticket Pricing: Southern Cross and Tiki Room are mostly PWYC (pay what you can), Main Hall depends on the event

Wheelchair Accessible: Yes (except for the Main Hall stage and the magazine library upstairs)

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