Staffers past and present reflect upon their time at the dive-turned-boutique hotel that, back in February 2004, transformed Toronto’s west end forevermore.
On February 14, 2004, The Drake Hotel opened its freshly installed doors—under culturally clairvoyant new-money management—to usher in the next phase of its century-plus history. Now, six million dollars, 10 years, 200 employees, three general stores, one fancy resto-pub outpost, a behemoth of press, and a country inn later, the modest 19-room “hotbed for culture” at 1150 Queen St. W. can breathe a sigh of relief that it might yet outlive all the legitimately luxury hotels that have risen to tower over us—and hold our tourism hostage—in the past five years alone.
Over the next week, The Drake will celebrate this big milestone by celebrating its own mythology and the culture it has imported by the pint to West Queen West. There will be balloons. There will be prizes. There will be $10 Drake Burgers, and all diners get 10 per cent off at the Drake General Store. Better yet, a portion of proceeds from this week’s happenings will benefit Sketch, the youth arts charity, and the Parkdale Community Food Bank. The excitement culminates with a big $10 birthday bash next Thursday (Feb. 20) featuring performances by Ice Cream, The Cruelty Party, and headliners Hooded Fang.
But, first, a brief oral history of how a beat-up hotel beat us all to the punch.
Part I: How a multi-millionaire internet magnate sought to model an unremarkable, somewhat questionable neighbourhood into his own cultural kingdom
Full disclosure: This writer started working the front desk at The Drake in late spring of 2007. Before the day of my interview, I had never set foot inside the place, nor was I aware of what this obscure art project meant to anyone, or that it was something to be taken seriously. It was engrossing, sure, but I was a stupid kid pairing a t-shirt with a vest looking for a summer job that wasn’t Canada’s Wonderland. Soon enough, I found out what made the Drake special, how it began to make its corner of the city tick. And churn. And gestate. Not unlike the many whom I’ve talked to, both on and off the record, The Drake quickly transformed from a place for a good drink, or a good night’s rest, into a building of exhilarating, enamouring experiences.
Jeff Stober (founder and owner, The Drake Hotel): It’s 10 years already? What a fabulous start. And I mean that in a most sincere context, because we set out in 2004 to build a cultural institution that was deeply rooted in the community from the get-go.
Jen McNeely (publicist and, briefly, door girl, 2003-2004; founder, SheDoesTheCity.com): It was definitely art from the beginning. We had a tour of the building in mid-renovation. Jeff [Stober] walked us through and talked about the design details that would be incorporated into the different spaces. During that tour, people were writing on the walls and making art before the drywall, or whatever, was even in place. It was clear that he had a huge vision from the beginning that was multi-disciplinary.
Bill Simpson (general manager, chief development officer, 2004-present): A friend, who was also a headhunter, suggested I look into this new, large cultural venture. I knew right from the start that the Drake was different; I think we all knew that it was going to set the city on fire. I’ve been with Drake since the beginning, including two years before we opened the doors in 2004.
THE FIRST YEAR
Mia Nielsen (curator, 2006-present): For me, [the beginning] isn’t opening night, but the pre-construction party, around fall 2002. The building was really raw at the time—there weren’t even working bathrooms. That night, the cafe was filled with a row of portable toilets. There were installations in the Lounge, and the old, unrenovated hotel rooms, including a great piece by Will Munro. The Underground was little more than a concrete shell—it was deafening when the band played. That party was epic.
Asia Viera (server, 2004-present): Bill [Simpson] approached me to say he was working on something pretty awesome that he knew I would be interested in. I quit my serving job, and then signed on with Drake. I was curious to see what the old Stardust—where I had gone to some seedy raves—looked like after renovations.
Gord Hannah (bartender, summer 2004-present): The first time I walked in, I knew that this was a game changer. In 2004, The Drake was a destination location. It was really all alone. There were no spots in the ‘hood to grab a drink, a bite, see a DJ, or to watch live music. There was now a stop between College and King, between downtown and the west end. The Drake was a part of town that I had never been to, or thought about, before it opened up. It was a complete no-brainer: In the first six months of operation, The Drake had already gained a reputation as the new hotspot.
Shinan Govani (National Post‘s society columnist, 2001-2013): I do remember distinctly that you couldn’t get a cab on that stretch of Queen Street before The Drake came along, let alone find a hot-to-trot Belinda Stronach showing up in a long-stretch limo, with a posse of friends, as she and her gang had one quick drink and then slipped back into the idling limo one casual weekday, just after it opened. I remember watching this occur, and thinking: We’re Not In Kansas Anymore.
Stefanie Purificati (music programmer, 2005-2007; talent agent at The Agency Group): I moved to Queen and Lisgar a few months before The Drake opened. I remember the boarded-up, spray-painted windows, and the old sign outside. The vibe was very bohemian, for lack of a better word, with all those artists living in the lofts across the street [at 48 Abell], and the nightlife consisting mainly of crazy after-hours parties at 99 Sudbury. The neighbourhood was edgy and a little scary, a little dark, but never boring. A pre-makeover Saigon Flower was the best place to get late-night food before the poutine/burrito crazes were even the vaguest of concepts.
Mia Neilsen: The neighbourhood was certainly scrappier 10 years ago. The first Starbucks was a shock and now there are two of them within a block or so. Ossington Avenue was a bit of a “no man’s” land of karaoke bars and artist studios; [that strip has been] the biggest change for me over the last decade. There was lots going on at the old warehouse at 48 Abell, from working studios to after-parties. They were torn down a few years ago, and now it’s the site of a condo building.
Bill Simpson: It was a very diverse group of people that were working, living, and developing the area, which made for an exciting neighbourhood. This is when Queen West became a recognized art scene; a cultural district of galleries quickly emerged. There was room for growth, a lot of potential and our neighbours—like The Beaver Café and Addis Ababa—were here to welcome us.
Jen McNeely: Although I lived in a loft at Richmond and Spadina at the time, I barely ventured west of Bathurst. Working on the PR team, and helping to write those first press releases, was thrilling as it opened my eyes up to a part of Toronto I had not yet really discovered.
Asia Viera: I grew up near Parkdale, so West Queen West has always been familiar to me. Obviously, there was not even close to as many pedestrians in 2004 as there are today. In high school [at Parkdale Collegiate Institute], we would swear by the french fries at Skyline along with the various roti shops. West Queen West/Parkdale was not exactly a destination. It was just an area you bypass on your way to the shopping, starting at Queen and Spadina.
Gord Hannah: The neighbourhood was always alive with art and great people during the day, but it did not have a nightlife. Jeff Stober really gave the people a place to gather at night. It acted a bridge between different parts of town.
PART II: How to succeed in the business of art, music, and debaucherous fun—and leave them wanting more while doing it
As any pre-2008 partygoer would expect,“the good ol’ days” is a phrase you’d heard in excess when talking to those, like myself, who have since moved on. The backlash against the Drake came swift, and quickly, but never saw momentum as the foot traffic and Starbucks moved faster. The noise complains came, but BFD. The 905-ers came, and, well, whatever. The consensus is evident: The Drake has changed. And what of it? If I bother to shift through the morning-afters long enough, I like to imagine that I was able to soak up The Drake’s once-liberating innocence, or its exhilarating, half-baked attitude, before the silverware was polished and the lobster was served. The Drake was so very good to me, as it was good to the majority of people who have since abandoned it—for other cities, for other streets, for others. But, like any good lover, it spoiled us. I still laugh when I come in contact with a “famous” person because it will never, ever feel the way it felt when I met Kelly Clarkson, or Zac Efron, or, hell, even Peaches, who once gifted me a guitar pick with her face on it at a time when I would have easily let her sit on mine.
Jen McNeely: There was huge buzz. There were two opening-night parties and everyone wanted in. For me, it sounded like nothing Toronto had ever had. I suppose I initially thought of it as a sort of Studio 54, but more community-driven versus nightclub: A place that artistic folks of all walks of life could connect.
Bill Simpson: I will never forget the line-up on our first night, and feeling that energy. I knew we had started something different. We dove-in right from the start, and haven’t looked back since.
Raul Barreneche (Travel + Leisure magazine, April 2007): “In many ways, the Drake embodies the spirit percolating in Toronto, even if it’s so totally now it feels art-directed, like a reality-TV show. (The hotel even has its own in-house curator). Almost as soon as it opened, the Drake became a magnet for bohemian types and cool-hunters from all over town. ‘It’s oxymoronic: building a hotel for the neighbourhood that would attract global travelers,’ Stober tells me. ‘I wanted them to benefit from what’s happening here in Toronto, but it’s also about giving back to the community.’”
THE MUSIC & THE ART
Stefanie Purificati: I was really excited about the idea of working at the Drake. Back in March 2005, [the Hotel] was still an unknown entity with a grand vision and great PR, but [it] barely had a track record. I knew I was getting in on the ground level of something that was going to be a big deal, and I felt lucky to be a part of it. I was also mildly terrified for the same reason: I knew it was sink-or-swim, and there was no way I was sinking. It was my first real ‘music-industry professional’ job and I had a lot to prove.
Gord Hannah: I know you’re looking for a name like Drake, Dave Chappelle, Penelope Cruz, Kevin Bacon, or Keanu Reeves—all of whom have been here—but my answer [for most memorable appearance] is Paul Murphy, a.k.a. Skratch Bastid. The first party he threw here blew my mind. A red-haired kid form Nova Scotia played the best hip-hop DJ set that I have ever heard. I knew him from way back in Halifax, and it took me a second to realize that this was the same guy. Since that night, he has been part of the family. He is now one of the biggest DJs in the world—he’s played with Wu Tang! Celebrities will come and go, but to see someone achieve greatness in front of you is something special.
Stefanie Purificati: Gogol Bordello, in February 2006, was our first big show with a big touring act. They were on a tour bus with a trailer, so I had to sweet-talk the owners of the Price Chopper a few blocks away to let us use their parking lot. The show was beyond sold out and there were very tough-looking Russian dudes trying to grease my door guy with $300 to let them in. Eugene Hutz crowd-surfed on a bass drum and the place was a powder keg ready to go off.
Bill Simpson: I had cocktails with Maya Arulpragasam—back in 2005, maybe? And this was also before her days of being famously known as M.I.A. The ‘Paper Plane’ cocktail now exists on our menu.”
Mia Nielsen: Programming has definitely evolved over the past 10 years. In the early days, it was very experimental and locally driven, including incredible performance works by Istvan Kantor. At that time, the Drake felt like an elaborate artist’s studio. It had a great energy: anything could happen here at anytime. Those were exciting times, but I think our audience was focussed more directly to the creative community. Over the years, we’ve welcomed wider and wider audiences, so in some ways programming has become more formal with more large-scale installations in public spaces. We’ve also developed an international reputation and that has allowed us to bring in artists and performers from other countries, such as Maya Hayuk, who has a mural in our private dining room. But it isn’t all white glove. We still do big performances, like the Peaches building-wide event with TIFF. [Ed. Note: We were there, and a good time was had by all.]
THE FOOD & DRINK
Gord Hannah: Some of the most well-respected drink slingers in the city have been a part of our team. Mike Webster, Christina Kuypers, Aja Sax, Quenton Fortune, Josh Lindley, and Cameron Hutton are a few names that keep showing up in print all over the city. On the food side, Cory Vitiello, David Christian, Beman Chan, and Anthony Rose are a just a few that carry the same badge of honour. I am not saying that the Drake breeds champions, but I will say that we are all very proud to be a part of the journey that led to so many successes.
Laura Doherty (hostess, 2011-2012): On my first day I was a “vegetarian.” My first staff meal was a very non-vegetarian burger. I’ve never looked back—thank you, Chef Rose.
PART III: How to subdue a neighbourhood in flux and overcome growing pains with bright lights, big stars, deep wallets, and loud parties
What I seem to remember most about the Drake is how much, at one point, I came to hate it. I hated the clientele it began to attract, and the spectacle it would create that barred you from taking the 501 home, and the way its insides treated your friends. The memories, though, will endure, as will the story of how one man’s manic idea transformed a neigbourhood, and how that idea might one day become a neighbourhood’s martyr. Still, anyone who expected a refurbished relic of Toronto history to remain the same should have never deserved a seat on the Sky Yard, an urban alfresco so necessary in Toronto before Trinity Bellwoods was even a thing (for you 20-year-olds reading this). And that’s it: I’m sad, albeit selfishly happy, that this past decade hasn’t brought us something comparable to what the Drake has ever, or could ever, offer any young person worth their weight in free Jäger shots. Soon, those bountiful bathroom breaks, live shows, and coveted chain-smoking Sky Yard seats morphed into a string of nights that simply became more beautiful, more addictive, more insipid, and almost irrelevant.
THE (IN)FAMOUS CLIENTELE
Laura Doherty: The vibe was amazing when I first started. I thought that it would be intimidating, but, more or less, I immediately felt a sense of belonging and quickly became part of the strange, incestuous family. The vibe stretched further than just the Drake itself—it enveloped the entire Parkdale area. It’s probably fair to say that a lot of the ‘vibe’ was tied up in a heavy drinking culture, but I certainly welcomed the sudden ability to get free drinks all across Queen West, simply because I’d gotten my face known in the area. Being from Scotland, I was far from home, so it was a massive comfort to suddenly have a new gang of fun, creative people up for a drink at pretty much any time.
Asia Viera: During the weekend, [the clientele] changes all the time, year-to-year. On the weekdays, I still see people that have come in for the past 10 years, and I’ll gladly have a cocktail with them once I am done [my shift]. The people I work with believe in what they do and actually give a shit—which I think is quite incredible.
Mr. & Mrs. Smith (The Telegraph, December 2008): “Definitely a hotel for thrill-seekers, perfect also for party-lovers, and certainly a stay for culture vultures. Just not for wallflowers.”
Kat T. (The Drake’s first Yelp reviewer, August 2008): “The Drake Hotel started it all making West Queen West near Parkdale THE cool area to be. The renovation of this old Hotel is amazing. The rooftop patio is cool with good weather. More heaters are needed often. The brunch is delicious. Inside, the restaurant is very good food, but waiting may not be worth it. The Raw Bar is amazing though the sushi has been downsized of late. Still some of the best in town. The drinks change with the seasons, but are also interesting. Great DJ’s, great atmosphere. The place for yuppie, hipster, young and old.”
Laura Doherty: I loved the majority of our regulars and [industry visits]. But a lot of the patrons were unbearable. Lots of self-important bodies who wanted to be there to be seen. Now, the bar and serving staff make a lot of money, so they can largely tolerate being objectified by douchebag guys, or getting attitude from insecure twats. There was a lot of money coming through the doors, but it was cash with very little class attached. The weekends were becoming insanely busy—often reaching capacity by 11 p.m.—with people literally fighting to get into the Sky Yard every Friday and Saturday night.
Gord Hannah: Our clientele has changed with the community. The truth is that the type of person that comes here has always changed by the hour. The first people that pop in for a coffee at 7 a.m. are radically different than the people who walked out of the building four hours earlier. The underground crowd during a poetry slam is very different than the crowd that shows up for Ivy Knights’ 86’d Mondays (pictured below). There is a time and a place for everyone.
THE TIFF HUB
Asia Viera: Each Film Festival, I think to myself, “Hey, this Drake is really a big thing.’”
Shinan Govani: I remember Adrienne Clarkson shaking her booty there during one particular visit, during TIFF. On another night, a (pre-Scarlett) Ryan Reynolds dining there with his then-fiancée Alanis Morrissette. Hard to imagine those two were together—it seems so long ago.
Bill Simpson: After a particularly raucous TIFF soiree, I was escorting Adrienne Clarkson, then Governor-General, and her husband, John Ralston Saul, to their limo. This was a legendary Drake party, with Hollywood ever-present and renowned artist, Istvan Kantor, delivering a spectacular, performance-art tour de force on top of a vehicle perched in front of the Drake. [At that moment], a full-on, naked streaker mounted the roof of a taxicab and began a gyrating dance in the form of an early twerking rendition. In her self-effacing manner, Her Excellency drew me close and said, “Bill, that is why I absolutely love the Drake—you just never know what is going to happen around here!” We both chuckled, and thankfully she just missed the boys from 14 Division pulling up to ‘inspire the artist’ to put her clothes back on.
LIGHTS, CAMERAS, MORE MEMORIES
Asia Viera: During the first or second year, we had a performance artist in the lounge. Her art piece consisted of her dragging a large filing cabinet into the centre of the lounge and pretending to have rough sex with it. Tommy Lee from Mötley Crüe happened to be eating in the dining room at the time, but decided to get out of his seat to watch. He stood beside me watching this woman attempt to mount a grey filing cabinet, and all he said was, “That’s some weird ass shit.”
Kayla Rocca (front desk, server, 2008-2013; photographer): A memorable moment involves eating and drinking with Woody Harrelson and Owen Wilson. For hours and hours. And hours.
Shinan Govani (from a 2005 edition of his column, “Scene”): “Not only has the twice-divorced [Kim] Cattrall been linked once more to a young, promising Toronto sous-chef whom she met when she was here earlier this year shooting, as others have chirped. Horse’s-mouth, it all went, when I ran into the actress’s good friend Allan Wyse at the Drake Hotel a few weeks back. He was standing in his office, i.e. the kitchen. I, myself, was in the kitchen of the Drake because, well, I’m not sure. Jeff Stober, the party-ready owner of the hip hotel had, I think, dragged me in there for some impromptu testings of the taste sort. When I was introduced to the very blond Wyse—who looks not unlike Cattrall’s former on-screen paramour Jason Lewis, but with a rugged dash of Owen Wilsonness—he told me it was actually his last night at The Drake…’I'm moving to New York,’ he replied.”
Mia Nielsen: “The Peaches performance was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, let alone had a hand in organizing, philanthropist Jim Fleck introducing Vag Halen at a fundraiser for Shary Boyle’s Venice Biennale was pretty great.”
Laura Doherty: Working at the Drake is like herpes: It’s for life. Even if you don’t work there anymore, you’ll always be a Drake-er.
THE EVOLUTION OF WEST QUEEN WEST
The Street Artists (November 2005, upon learning a Starbucks was opening at Dovercourt): “DRAKE YOU HO THIS IS ALL YOUR FAULT.”
Jeff Stober (to BlogTO, November 2009): “We feel deeply connected to this neighbourhood, have lived through many of its urban twists and turns over the last decade, and are ecstatic about continuing to be a major anchor in the years to come. We’ve been working very hard over the last year, in consultation with the city, neighbourhood and a myriad of planners, heritage architects and municipal professionals to devise a plan that will allow us to continue developing our historic property, in a modest yet community-enriching context.”
Stefanie Purificati: I firmly believe that the Drake opened up the city’s west end, both culturally and socially. For a while, it was the only real venue that bridged the gap between the Horseshoe and the Cadillac Lounge. I don’t think places like Wrongbar, Parts & Labour, and The Great Hall would have come about when they did if it wasn’t for Drake. I’m not saying they would never exist, just that it would have taken a longer time to get there.”
Laura Doherty: I think that I missed The Drake’s heyday. I think The Drake might be a bit ‘over’ in terms of cultural impact: The programming is pretty uninspired on the whole, and can’t really compete with other venues. The food and beverage community will forever be drawn there, which is cool—Ivy Knight does an amazing job on 86′d Mondays. But it’s the kind of place that was probably unspeakably cool 10 years ago. The regular clientele who have been coming since the beginning are testament to that, and sometimes at 1:30 a.m. on a weeknight, it can still feel like a bit of a social hub. The weekends are a jungle and not representative of 99 per cent of what makes The Drake what it is. Weekday drinking is where it’s at, if you ask me.
PART IV: Brace for impact—Year 11
Sure, it’s easy to tease and dismiss The Drake as a bloated empire with pretty walls and a straighter edge, but it’s part of our empire, now bigger than any one building. We would only be so lucky to have The Drake Hotel around in 2090, not only as a reminder of a city where artists were struggling and rents were low(er), but also as a reminder of city with humble, moderately earnest, beginnings. (I simply hope the irony that founder Jeff Stober hails from Montreal isn’t lost on any of self-respecting Torontonian.)
Shinan Govani: I don’t think anything really made as much of a splash [as The Drake] until Soho House, in 2012.
Asia Viera: I just want people to remember that some of us live here, so be respectful of the neighbourhood. I want a good green grocer in West Queen West as much as I want people to pick up after themselves in Trinity. It is not fun taking chicken bones and empty beer cans away from my dog.
Bill Simpson: Adrienne Clarkson was correct: we have always marched to a different drummer here. Ten years later, the beat goes on and we continue the never-ending story of how a small hotel in the wilds of West Queen West could be so instrumental in building a to-be-continued legacy of culture, community, and hospitality.
Jen McNeely: The Drake has helped make Toronto look cool to the rest of the world. When people visit here from other countries, leaders in art and culture, it leaves a lasting impression. I think it has successfully merged hospitality and community with art, design and music in a way that no other institution has in Toronto. The programming is outstanding, as is the attention to detail.
Jeff Stober: We’ve always been focussed on the long-term, and we take our mandate of converging world-class hospitality with forward-leaning culture very seriously—and we are thrilled with the reception received to date. We are very excited about our new Drake offerings and continue to stay true to that central mission that was born on the corner of Queen and Beaconsfield.
Laura Doherty: I hope it never loses the core staff who make it what it is. I think it’ll always be a success because it’s such an institution. But Helen Mirren is also an institution, and she still keeps it tight. What I’m really saying is: Don’t get lazy, 1150 Queen West. Keep. It. Tight.
The Drake Hotel celebrates its 10th anniversary with a week-long party featuring $10 rooms, prizes, special events and artwork, and a massive birthday prize pack, culminating in a blowout on February 20, 9 p.m., $10. Complete listings here.