The city’s clubbing experience is in need of serious reinvigoration. Nightlife emperor Charles Khabouth is already on it.
Toronto’s current club culture is a bit of a teeming mess. You’ll understand why I say that if you’ve read my colleague DJ Denise Benson’s history lessons on the city’s iconic nightclubs of the ’80s and ’90s. I’m speaking here strictly about clubs— those places that line Richmond Street and are sprinkled along King West. The rise of bottle service and officious attitudes are an instant turn off, and the overuse of labels like exclusive and VIP don’t help. Even less appealing are the entertainment district’s rowdy 905 crowd and its increased police presence. Clearly, we’re suffering from a lack of unique clubbing experiences, and a severe decline in overall quality.
Nightclubs were once on the bleeding edge of fashion, music and dance in this city. Now, you’re lucky if you can find a decent sound system and a cheerful bouncer, let alone a booth to sit in. I’ll avoid generalizing—and I’ll resist romanticizing. Toronto’s best club days, as Benson points out, were a reflection of the social and cultural realities of the time. When nightclubs began as unlicenced, all-ages, after-hours venues, they opened an exciting new realm of possibilities for self-expression.
In the past decade, the scene has continued to move inward to smaller bars and even lounges, often with food service by day and iPod DJs by night. It’s part of the natural cycle of nightlife, argues Benson. Maybe so, but this low point is undeniable.
Thankfully, a renaissance is nigh. This weekend, cultural engineer Charles Khabouth—the owner of Ink Entertainment and its network of venues, including The Guvernment and This is London—is looking to spark change. He’s opening Cube, a retro-infused, modestly decadent nightclub on Queen West, at Spadina. The space used to be Khabouth’s Ultra Supper Club, which he gutted on Jan. 1 after nine successful years. At Cube, the focus will be on the types of musical and social experiences lost in translation over the past decade.
And he should know. In 1987, Khabouth helped pioneer today’s entertainment district with the legendary Stilife at Richmond and Duncan. Along with DJs like Benson, he helped shape an era where “going out” was a combination of art, subversion and exploration. From there, a rave scene exploded in the mid-’90s in large spaces packed 10,000-people strong. I hear the parties were unreal, with big sounds from emerging jockeys. I don’t need to have experienced the “glory days” to know things aren’t the same.
Of course, there have been several attempts to revive the heyday of the Toronto club scene. In 2007, Peter Gatien, a Canadian-turned-Manhattan-club-magnate, opened the multi-storey Circa at Richmond and John to incessant buzz. It was lauded as the return of the mega-club in Toronto. In October, 2010, the place filed for bankruptcy amid rumours of infighting and low attendance.
Cube isn’t quite so ambitious, and with a 500-person capacity, it’s not a mega-club—but it may be just what the scene needs. Last week, Khabouth walked me through his $1-million transformation on the afternoon before his first big staff meeting. Every aspect of the Cube ambiance has been meticulously considered and consulted on, from the black velour walls and the curvy ’70s-inspired booths to the glossy lacquered floors and the bespoke staff uniforms co-designed by Danier Leather. A continuous LED wall will feature erotic pop art of icons like Freddie Mercury. It’s all about a mood.
“We’re downtown Toronto, attracting people who are forever changing, and we have to change with them,” says Khabouth.
He’s also championing a lost appreciation of musical talent and sound: He enlisted local DJs like duo Manzone & Strong to consult on the DJ booth design. There’s a D&B German sound system, and almost $80,000 went to soundproofing every inch of the room. “What people don’t see will end up making them feel a certain way,” he says.
Friday nights will be strictly house music, and Saturdays will be a more familiar mix led by DJ Chris La Roque, who has a stint in Paris behind him. “I’m always looking for the next sound and mix of music,” says Khabouth. “The idea is to play some new tunes on top of an existing sound that everyone knows.”
Khabouth insists that service and music will be paramount, starting from the second you hit the velvet rope. “One of the biggest problems with nightclubs is the front door. If I go to a club, I want to be treated well. What’s also important is that people feel sexy.” Ultimately, you’ll just have to see and judge for yourself. It opens tomorrow.
Cube opens Feb. 24 at 314 Queen St. W. #QNW Doors at 10 p.m. until late, Friday and Saturday nights, $20 cover.