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Best Restaurant Bar Award 2024

Bar Isabel

“Let’s just swing by Isabel and eat at the bar.”

This was, for the better part of five years, my weekend. Each time my wife and I would promise ourselves that we would not make the same glorious mistake as the weekend before. And yet, every time, it was the same — a walk down Ossington, early evening peckishness, the suggestion of a quick pan con tomate and a cocktail, and then the inevitable…a rambling epic of patatas bravas, razor clams, Manchego, white asparagus, López de Heredia and, as cliché as it is delicious, the now iconic Basque cake. The disappearance of yet another Saturday evening into the warm glow above the wood bar at 797 College Street.

Isabel is still the grande dame of College Street

Now, 11 years and an unknown number of glasses of Tio Pepe later, the visits are less frequent. Parenthood will do that. But Isabel is still the grande dame of College Street, and the long wood bar is as tactile and welcoming as ever. It is a place of marvellous, near-magical serendipity — the kind of place where you find the last bottle of birth-year Rioja on the eve of your 40th birthday. Like any great bar, the characters are half the fun. The dapper older man beside the inked-up young lady in the Commes des F**kdown cap? A published poet, eating his weekly octopus. The couple beside you? Oh, writers from the Globe, quietly celebrating tomorrow morning’s publication of the latest Doug Ford exposé.

And at the helm of it all, head barman George Fellows, a puckish Brit who has been shaking cocktails behind the bar for almost as long as I have been drinking them. With a mediocre beard and an abundance of charm and wit, George is the bar’s full belly, shrunken liver and beating heart. The man you happily blame for Sunday morning’s hangover.

My friend Matt runs the show at Quetzal, but we first met when he served me drinks across the bar at Isabel. It’s that kind of place. Shortly before the deadline for this article, we met for dinner. I suggested: “Let’s just swing by Isabel and eat at the bar.” His answer was a joyful yes. Because, of course, in this city, in this country, we both know what this magazine has finally recognized: This is the best restaurant bar in Canada.


Photography by Rick O’Brien

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