Ten years ago, Jeff Stober earned fans and foes by opening the Drake Hotel on a relatively un-gentrified strip of Queen West. Today, the Drake is a neigbourhood institution and its fearless leader is bringing the brand’s artsy sensibility to the boys (and girls) of Bay Street. We sat down with Stober at the new Drake One Fifty restaurant to talk aesthetics, hipster backlash, and why you’re not going to find him on social media any time soon.
Until now, your brand has been very much linked with hipster culture and Queen West. Did the jump to Bay Street give you some pause?
Not really. I remember [when the Drake opened] people said I was too far off the downtown grid, and I was like, “Are you kidding? It’s five blocks!” The notion of coming into unexpected neighbourhoods is something we’re really into, whether that’s this area or the Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County [Stober’s new country-inn location set to open next spring]. Being downtown is a reminder that we live in a vertical city. If Toronto aspires to be world class, part of that reality is urban densification. It’s time to celebrate our skyscrapers!
So you haven’t gotten any hipster backlash for opening at the intersection of business suit and BlackBerry?
You need to keep in mind that you’re here at 1 p.m. on a Monday. Just like at the Drake Hotel, the clientele changes a lot throughout the day and the week. We’ve already had a lot of our more traditional west end crowd come in to check out the new place. In recent history, this area hasn’t been associated with dining and cocktails on Friday or Saturday, but that has already changed a lot with Momofuku and Soho House and Chase, which have opened up in the last year or so. It’s just the beginning. Any movement takes time—we’re just doing what we do.
It wouldn’t be the first time you’ve dealt with hipster backlash.
I read somewhere that the “Drake you ho this is all your fault” graffiti [that appeared on the Starbucks at Queen and Dovercourt] is considered the most infamous scrawl in local history.
I think that form of dialogue is the clash of the bourgeois and the bohemian, which is what our brand is all about. Everyone has an opinion, but [even back in those early days] we really felt like we were in it for the long haul to make a positive contribution to the city. I definitely feel like we’ve been vindicated.
You attended the launch of the Drake One Fifty with your mom. That’s pretty cute.
It was actually my mom and my dad. My parents are my nearest and dearest. They just celebrated their 60th anniversary. I have such an unbelievable appreciation for the gift that brings to my life.
Were they influential in terms of your career path?
There was always an aesthetic eye in my home. My dad had clothing stores in Montreal and my mom taught children’s theatre. My brother is a photographer. I’ve been surrounded by art and design for my whole life, and now my parents love taking part in the latest Drake festivities.
Both of your properties have photo booths. Why do you think people go nuts for them even when they have a camera-phone in their pocket?
I think it’s an appreciation for things that are tangible and authentic. We’re living in the age of information. We hide behind our laptops and our tech toys, and then, on the flip side, we still crave authentic human experience. It’s a push pull thing, or point/counterpoint.
So the photo booth is the counterpoint of technological overkill?
Well, yeah. You can take a hundred pictures on your phone, but we want to hold onto everything old school to remind ourselves that we’re just human after all.
Speaking of photos, I noticed that you’re not on Twitter or Instagram.
Nope. I’m totally old school. I love writing, taking pictures, and telling a story, but I want to live my life in real time. That’s my personal choice.
For a public figure, you are actually surprisingly mysterious. When I Googled “Jeff Stober” and “gossip” the only thing that came up was a story about how Heather Graham cozied up to you in 2004.
I’m not trying to be difficult, I just embrace the idea that part of all of this new technology is being able to share what we want to and keep other things to ourselves.
You mentioned The Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County, which has been in the works for a while. Any particular hold-up?
When I bought the property we were planning on a speedy cleanup, but we quickly realized that it wasn’t structurally sound. Once we added a new building to butt up against the heritage building, the project just took on a life of its own. What’s amazing to me is how many people ask me about it. I don’t think that [has to do with] the Drake. I think it’s about what’s important to us—holding onto our past and what’s real. People love the idea of being able to have a weekend getaway. It’s the counterpoint to technology.
You should make it a social media–free zone. You can collect all of the gadgets and return them at check-out.
I like that. Maybe I will.
Homemade fruit smoothie.
Spinning and the gym.
Negronis and cheeseburgers.
Favourite article of clothing?
My leather jacket.
Favourite international city?
New York, Paris, Berlin, Buenos Aires, London, Rio, Montreal, Shanghai.
Who would play you in a movie?