The Tex-Mex bar defiantly stands against gentrification and rising costs in the city

By Kieran Lauzier

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In recent years, it seems like all of downtown Toronto’s “biggest” streets have become, well, bigger.

Walking down Bloor, Queen, and Dundas Streets, you are sure to see a towering apartment complex or two, maybe a giant chain restaurant, or even the busiest shopping centre in all of Canada (looking at you Eaton Centre). 

At first glance College Street feels like an outlier. A building over five storeys is rare. Local bars and businesses line the streets. Sneaky Dee’s, one of Toronto’s most iconic bars, sits humbly on the corner of Bathurst and College streets. 

But College Street is not immune to the towering threat of condominiums. In recent years, many local businesses have been forced to shutter operations due to rising costs, demographic changes, and developmental proposals. At 297 College Street sits a 15 storey apartment complex that sticks out like a sore thumb erected in between a small walk-in clinic and a dry cleaner’s.

In spite of these pressures, Sneaky Dee’s has continuously adapted, evolved, and innovated, in order to stay afloat. A 2020 developmental proposal threatened to close the bar to make way for an apartment complex, and has been in limbo ever since an initial rejection. The proposal would affect a large portion of the block where Sneaky Dee’s is, including 10 neighbouring units, as well as Sneaky Dee’s.

An undisclosed developer was hoping to build a 13 storey “mixed-use” building, which would include over 150 residential units. The proposal was rejected by city planners, due to urban planning guidelines. 

George Diamantouros, manager of the bar for over 10 years, has watched as similarly iconic venues in the area have shut down operations or been bought out by corporate entities. 

“There’s not a lot of Old Toronto left,” said Diamantouros, sipping on a beer at a table at the back of Dee’s. “In the last 20 years, every place I grew up with has disappeared, you know. They rebuilt the Silver Dollar Room and now there’s nothing there.” 

The Silver Dollar Room, found just a seven minute walk away from Dee’s on Spadina Ave. just north of College St., was a small music venue that opened in the late 1950s, and housed some of Toronto’s earliest R&B and rock artists. The venue closed in 2017, and in its place a large 189-unit luxury rental building has been erected. 

Waiting for the 510 streetcar late at night, you can see a giant blue LED sign that reads “Silver Dollar Room” that has been put up as an homage to the former venue. No other tangible traces of the original venue exist today.

The Silver Dollar Room reminds Diamantouros of another iconic venue just a block away, El Mocambo, which, in 2015, sold to multimillionaire and television personality Michael Wekerle. The venue has gone under over $30 million dollars worth of renovations, and is still running today.

“I mean, it’s a cool place. They still have the old sign there, I admire them a lot for keeping that, but it’s never going to be what it used to be. It’s something entirely different now that has the same name,” said Diamantouros. “It’s beautiful. Sounds great. But it’s not a neighbourhood venue anymore. It’s not a place to go to anymore.”

Sneaky Dee’s is unique in this way. Not only has the bar stood the test of time, but it has also remained true to its core as a local punk rock dive. The bar has put down roots in the community, and its patrons are like the graffiti that covers every square inch of the interior of the bar: not going anywhere.

A tour of the west end’s most iconic venues

One evening a few years ago, Calista Herrmann decided to stop into Sneaky Dee’s after recognizing the bar from an appearance in the popular Scott Pilgrim graphic novels. She has been a loyal patron ever since. 

“I have brought everyone I know to this place,” says Herrmann. “Nothing about it is super crazy, but it just has like this charm that I feel like is void in a lot of the bars and restaurants in the city.”

Herrmann first moved to the city five years ago to pursue studies at the University of Toronto. Even in the short period of time that she has lived in the area, she feels as though places like Sneaky Dee’s are getting less and less common. 

“It feels like there’s a Popeye’s opening on every block, which is fine I guess. But when these chains are actively taking up space that used to belong to local places it feels like a shift in the wrong direction,” said Herrmann, before biting into a Sloppy José (Dee’s take on a Sloppy Joe/burrito frankenbaby). 

Dee’s is very aware that it is in direct competition with fast food chains, and as such its food and drink prices are quite inexpensive, with daily and weekly specials (it runs a daily all-day “happy hour” with drinks, bottled beer, shots, and pints all costing $5).

Aside from cheap eats and drinks, Sneaky Dee’s is home to a lot of weekly and monthly events, from local musicians, to its famed Emo Night, to drag brunches, drag bingos, and drag bingo-brunches. 

Once a month, hordes of patrons rush online to buy tickets to the bingo-brunch event, hosted by local drag performer Messy Margaret. The event has seen wild success since its introduction at Dee’s, and consistently sells out. 

“Just having a show in space is so iconic,” says Margaret. “It’s one of the most famous bars in the city, really.”


Dee’s has become an important place for Margaret’s business and work, and the threat of development projects has not been lost on her as a local performer. 

“Honest Ed’s for example, like that was such an iconic space and now that got taken out and now there’s a little village, but it’s just condos, you know what I mean?” says Margaret. “If we just make everything condos and “gentrifiers”, what do we have left? And then there’s no character.”

Honest Ed’s was a historic discount store (located across the street from Sneaky Dee’s original location on Bloor Street). The store ultimately closed down in 2016 and today soaring apartment complexes fill its absence. 

Honest Ed’s is a prime example of how being a historic spot in the city does not always guarantee staying power. Sneaky Dee’s is by all means- an anomaly. 

When asked why he thinks that Sneaky Dee’s specifically has remained so successful over the years, Diamantouros finds himself without an answer. 

“People always tell me what Sneaky Dee’s is. I don’t tell people what Sneaky Dee’s is,” he says. 

“To me, it’s my community,” says Herrmann. “No matter where I have moved in the city, I can always hop on the streetcar and feel like I am close to home.”

“It’s just such an iconic space. It’s been around forever. It has a vibe,” says Margaret. “It is unexplainable, it just is what it is and I love it. It’s unapologetically itself.”

If you are wondering what Sneaky Dee’s is to other people in the community, a quick scan of the graffiti on any solid surface in the venue should find you an answer (or leave you with even more questions).