Top hotels open secondary concepts, boasting bold new looks and casual elegance
Over the course of the past two years, we’ve heard that the hotel restaurant is back. It’s a rumour borne out by numerous examples across the country, from perennial Michelin sweetheart Jean-Georges Vongerichten opening his first Canadian kitchen in Vancouver’s Shangri-La last year, to an assortment of celebrity names being bandied about in Toronto.
However, hotels are turning to secondary restaurant concepts to keep guests’ palates piqued, as well as attracting interest from passersby and local residents. Usually quite different from the tasting menus and test-de-vin-toting sommeliers of the main restaurant, these secondary outlets strive to be relaxed and hip, while staying true to the hotel’s overall image.
Thompson Twins The newest best-of-both-worlds arrival is the Thompson Toronto, which recently opened in the city’s trendy King West neighbourhood. Co-owner Tony Cohen didn’t waste time soliciting the services of New York’s Scott Conant, who will open a Scarpetta location in the hotel later this summer. But while Conant’s crew will soon be dishing out high-end Italian fare at the hotel’s signature resto, Cohen says the local area was also desperate for The Counter, a 105-seat, 24-hour diner-style offering. “Where we’re located, there’s a lot of nightlife,” says Cohen. “What’s lacking in the area, or even in the city, is a really great place to get a late-night meal. Toronto has a few dive spots, but across North America there are truly great diners, and we just didn’t have one.”
To achieve The Counter’s throwback vibe, the Thompson team turned to Brenda Bent and Karen Gable of Bent & Gable to bring the design to life. “They wanted that old traditional diner feel, but our take on that was, we can’t stand the look of a 1950s diner, so we had to go back to the original lunch car,” says Gable. “For the ceiling, we chose to use curved wood, as that was used in many of the original lunch-car diners at the turn of the century. We wanted to add some intimacy to the room and accentuate the long, narrow feel of those old diners.” But the ceiling isn’t the only design element that harkens back to the origin of the diner.
“We also based the look of the mirrored wall on historical elements from the turn of the century, where etched mirrors were used quite frequently,” says Gable. “Instead of etched glass, we used the ‘rubbing-off’ technique, and removed the mirroring to expose worn looking, slightly surreal, pretty images of the 18th century. It’s a modern, yet vintage look.”
A unique challenge, however, was the resto’s 24-hour concept, which means an unusual amount of use and abuse. To that extent, Gable says the flooring material as well as the seating fabric is a nod to logistical reality, while also staying true to the vibe. “The floor is cement patterned tile, handmade the way they did a century ago, and it’s based on historical Cuban design,” she says. “We wanted the floor to represent, not only the historical elements of a diner, but also the modern revamped look we were trying to achieve. And, because it has to stand-up to 24-hour use, we went with a hard surface, with a pattern that will wear well. It will basically last forever.”
Hall Pass Speaking of built to last, west of Toronto in Cambridge Ont., sits a Canadian culinary gem. Langdon Hall, an 18th-century estate, is home to one of two Canadian restaurants recently named to Restaurant magazine’s prestigious San Pellegrino Top 100 list (it was ranked number 77 in the world). Overseeing this Relais & Châteaux food and beverage program is executive chef Jonathan Gushue, who says the hotel dining game has certainly changed, but it’s easily a change for the better. “It’s about being accessible,” says the affable young chef. “I think we saw a bit of a lull through the 1980s, because people thought dinner at a hotel was only for grandma’s birthday; but today that’s changing. We want people to feel as though they can come here whenever they want, and be comfortable.”
Apart from its main dining room, perfectly emblematic of a pastoral English country estate — with soaring ceilings and rich cream tones contrasted by golden padded, dark-wood chairs and enormous windows over looking the terrace — another offering on the property, Wik’s Bar, provides a less-formal respite. Guests favouring a more casual evening flock to the pseudo backroom pub, complete with a dark-wood bar, beer taps, moss-coloured wall accents, small intimate tables and a menu to match. “The whole point of the bar is to be able to offer the guests something a little more relaxed, if they’re not in the mood for the dining room,” says Gushue.
Langdon Hall is also debuting a new concept for summer: a barbecue series featuring a rotating cast of notable chefs. The popular evenings are hosted around the hotel’s outdoor garden and pool space, and, what the simple white tent set-up lacks in ostentation is more than made up for by the poolside setting, a cross between a bucolic British manor pool and modern spa. Rustic, century-old grey stone walls and dark green hedgerows separate the pool area from the immense flower and vegetable gardens, lending the scene an aristocratic flare, while massive poolside planting urns, clean-lined umbrellas and modern, cushioned deck chairs keep the setting firmly in this century. Come dinner time, red picnic table cloths remind guests that barbecues are supposed to be fun, light-hearted affairs after all.
Coffee Talk While most top-flight hotels have formal lunch and dinner service down to a fine art, quick coffee and sandwich sales are usually seceded to the local Starbucks. Not so for Giovane at Vancouver’s Fairmont Pacific Rim, a trendy café and bakery concept. “We wanted to develop a contrast between the Old World-style café and the new, so Giovane has modern decor and trendy music, blended with the tradition of extraordinary coffee and handmade pastries,” says F&B director Mark Steenge.
When it came to designing what’s become an immensely popular space with Vancouver’s notoriously coffee-crazed citizenry, Fairmont turned to familiar faces at McFarlane, Green, Biggar, the firm that designed the property’s signature restaurant Oro. “The project was interesting, because it had to be designed so it didn’t feel like a hotel cafeteria, but at the same time, it does carry the sundry items of the hotel, and had to fit certain standards,” says Michelle Biggar, principal with MGB. “Our design approach is to keep things simplistic, so we reduced the number of materials used, to give it a timeless feel. I also try and keep spaces to one strong statement — in Giovane, that’s the 68-foot long millwork, walnut-veneer wall that wraps up onto the ceiling. It really draws people in.”
Attracting even more customers are huge windows that can be fully opened along Cordova St. to provide indoor and outdoor seating during the warmer months. “The restaurant is done in a very minimal palette,” says Biggar, “but features like the millwork wall and the large open windows make it modern and urban.”
At the end of the day, it’s about options. Whether it’s a poolside barbecue in the Ontario countryside, morning coffee in downtown Vancouver or a 3 a.m. plate of poutine in Toronto’s hottest new hotel, more and more properties are attracting guests and locals alike with fun and casual offerings alongside their respective signature restaurants.