Toronto music mecca Horseshoe Tavern celebrates 70 years

In a city where bars and venues can have fruit fly-like lifespans, the Horseshoe Tavern has been playing host to music legends for 70 years.

From Loretta Lynn to the Ramones, the grungy venue has played host to music legends and up-and-comers alike

An epic 70th birthday party for the Horseshoe Tavern, a long-running, hard-partying staple of Toronto's live music scene. (CBC)

An iconic Toronto music institution celebrated its 70th birthday on Monday night.  

Since 1947, the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street West has drawn generations of music legends to its grungy stage, including Loretta Lynn, the Ramones, Bryan Adams and the Tragically Hip. 

Local musicians and longtime fans gathered Monday night for a birthday bash and shared their memories.  

The often beer-soaked floors described in the Tragically Hip song 'Bobcaygeon.' (CBC)

"Ten years ago on this very week, we booked Joel Plaskett from Halifax, Nova Scotia for a week's residency, and on the middle of his run on the fourth night, he brought Gord [Downie] up to sing a song," remembered owner Jeff Cohen. 

"In the middle of the song, Gord went off track and invented three sentences, but they all rhymed perfectly and people just went ballistic," he said. "It was a magic, magic moment."

The bar was even immortalized in one of the Tragically Hip's most famous songs, Bobcaygeon. "That night in Toronto, with its checkerboard floors," starts the lyric. 

Blue Rodeo bass player Bazil Donovan holds the distinction of having played at the 'Shoe more than any other musician, but he told CBC Toronto some of his favourite memories are of being a spectator. 

"I saw the Rolling Stones here. I'll never forget it," he said. "I kind of couldn't believe I was seeing them in my home bar." 

The Stones legendary 1997 appearance was special in other ways: as they jammed inside, it was comedian Dan Akyroyd who worked security. 

Yep, even them. The Rolling Stones take a drink at the tavern's bar. (CBC)

Donovan also remembers playing at the bar before Blue Rodeo had hit it big, and looking up to see Tom Cruise and Brian Brown on the dance floor, in town to film the movie Cocktail.

"We became his favourite band because we were playing here all the time," he said on Monday. "That type of thing, where you never know who you were going to bump into here. That's what the Horseshoe is all about." 

Country and western start 

Once a blacksmith's shop, the bar began its life as a haven for country and western music fans before bringing in harder-driving rock and roll acts.  

It also made Canadian bar history by being the first to bring in a television set for the 1948 World Series. 

The Horseshoe Tavern in the 1970s. (

These days, it takes more than a TV to keep patrons coming back. 

In an era when a number of live music venues have been forced to shutter, Cohen credits the bar's resilience to "not living on our laurels." 

On any given week, up-and-coming bands from Toronto and beyond are booked alongside well-known acts that span musical genres and generations. 

The Horseshoe's 70th anniversary concert series, which began in September, will wrap up at the end of December.