On Oct. 5, the Four Seasons Hotel opened its doors at the corner of Bay Street and Yorkville Avenue, hailing a new era for the iconic five-star brand, which emerged in 1961 in the midst of Toronto’s booming business and cultural scenes. The newly relocated hotel now rises 55 storeys tall, with a 30,000-square-foot spa and residential units starting at $1.9 million. It also includes dbar—designed by acclaimed firm Yabu Pushelberg and featuring 20-foot ceilings, panoramic street views, and a floating stone staircase leading to the eagerly awaited Café Boulud. On opening weekend, the wait time for a spot in the bar was longer than it was for the restaurant. The hotel’s reincarnation cements the second coming of Toronto’s hotel bar culture.
Over the past year, one luxury hotel property after another has staked a claim in Toronto’s ripening downtown core. With them comes an influx of new outlets for cocktail hour and beyond. There’s the illustrious Ritz-Carlton on Wellington. It’s home to the striking Ritz Bar, with a patio overlooking Metro Hall Park and Roy Thomson Hall. The hotel also houses DEQ, an “urban outdoor oasis,” with views of the CN Tower. Continue to Bay Street and you’ll find the love-it-or-hate-it Trump Tower, where Suits Lobby Lounge anchors a hive for financial power players (and power drinkers) and their subordinates. Here, the barkeeps are rigorously trained in premium scotch, cognac, and tequila to best serve the globetrotting spirit snob. The hotel also has Stock, another hangout with a 31st-floor view.
Suits Lobby Lounge at the Trump Tower
To understand this resurgence is to understand Toronto’s seminal infatuation with hotels. Opened in 1929, the Royal York Hotel’s Imperial Room became one of the country’s most celebrated nightclubs, featuring talents like Ella Fitzgerald and Tony Bennett. “It was the toast of the town who came to the Royal York,” says Alina Budzinski, a 37-year veteran of the hotel. Consider, too, the King Edward, where Richard Burton proposed to Elizabeth Taylor, and John and Yoko stayed—the penthouse Crystal Ballroom was once more prominent than Casa Loma. Stefano Sabbatini, mixologist extraordinaire at the lobby’s Consort Bar, has worked the circuit for 30 years, including time at the Royal York. “It was sensational,” he says of the heyday. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, every establishment had its own defined character, its own trends.” Sabbatini says private restaurants catered to discerning clientele that pushed business gatherings into hotel lobbies, which turned into late nights. “In the mid-’80s, more restaurants started opening up and people started snubbing the hotels because they likened it to a stale, boring lounge,” he recalls. “People wanted to be part of something happening, something successful.”
Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel
That social showmanship is in the air again. At University and Adelaide, Singapore import Shangri-La Hotel features a 90-seat Lobby Lounge and Bar—dubbed “an urban living room”—with two-storey windows, a fireplace, sculptural art, and an Italian handcrafted Fazioli piano inscribed with the lyrics to Joni Mitchell’s “My Old Man.” On a recent Thursday night outing, the leather sofas were overloaded with patrons (and not just the suit-and-tie type) ordering off a menu of ’30s-era cocktails. This scene isn’t uncommon. The new lobby bars make sense not only for a retreating club scene but also for a city in transition.
The 2010 opening of the Thompson Toronto, the first international expansion from the New York hotel chain, is often credited with being the catalyst for this new wave. Not so. I think back to when I worked at the Drake Hotel in 2007. Together with the neighbouring Gladstone, the renovated venues combined flophouse-chic lodging with an unprecedented nightlife fusion that was one part bar, one part live music and dance club, and one part arts port. The ingredients combined to form a place worth migrating to for business and pleasure. Looking back, the Drake had crafted an Imperial Room for a new generation.
Alina Budzinski at the Royal York (Photo: Courtesy of Norm Betts)
The hotel revival seems poised to serve a maturing crowd raised on clubbing as its younger, poorer successors cram into niche Dundas West bars. Crowds are now slowly but steadily congregating to socialize and ogle with ease. Dancing? An afterthought. So, sure, lobby bars may not be the most exciting thing, since most aren’t open past 1 a.m., but it’s certainly the more civilized route. At the very least, the odd melange of tourists and locals makes for serendipitous nights. A few weeks ago, I went to Hazelton’s One Bar and found a $100 bill on the washroom floor. And you never know who might buy you that $375 martini with a gold-flake rim (caviar and truffles come on the side) at the King Eddy. Plus, guest lists are scarce and there’s not much of a dress code as long as you have a credit card and aren’t wearing Lululemon. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
RELATED: A survey of Toronto’s swank new hotel restaurants.