In the hotel restaurant, it’s not just food that has to be exquisite.

On a recent evening in Toronto, two ladies peered through a glass enclosure where fat wheels of cheese were propped on wood shelves. Lit just so, they looked like museum specimens — they’re not. The fromagerie is the cheese cave at the Ritz-Carlton’s new 136-seat restaurant Toca by Tom Brodi.

The cave holds 200 varieties of fromage, 80 per cent of which is Canadian and comes from the esteemed local Cheese Boutique. The entire establishment pays homage to Canada, from the name — a mash-up of Toronto and Canada — to the artwork and turndown service in the hotel rooms that includes organic maple sugar candy and, of course, the food, courtesy of Brodi, the former chef de cuisine of Canoe.

To get to the restaurant, enter through the lobby and pass over the marble floors embossed with bronzed maple leaves. To the left: a lively bar, then up the steps is the dining room, bathed in a golden halo. Wrapped in honeyed wood, low ceilings impart intimacy while bright ball-shaped pendant lights cast a flattering glow. The room is the picture of refinement.

Despite its nearly 3,700 square feet, Toca’s design firm, Atlanta-based Hirsch Bender and Associates (HBA), in collaboration with Ritz-Carlton, created a cosy feel, a 5,000-bottle wine cellar, a private dining room and a resplendent open kitchen.

Such a design statement is par for the course in luxury hotel restaurants, where a conventional interior — tables dressed in tired white linens and candles with framed art on the walls — isn’t enough to satisfy the world-weary traveller. The design has to attract attention and be as tasty as the food itself.

“Toca’s design is very interactive,” says Tim Terceira, the Ritz’s general manager. “Everything is open and visible. The cheese cave is a big hit,” he says. But you don’t have to be aged cheddar to lounge in a display case. In the 12-seat private dining room, the elite enjoy their meals behind walls of glass. “What we love about the room — it’s a restaurant within a restaurant — is that you’re private, but you feel part of the action,” the GM says. The glass and red-padded leather wall also helps manage acoustics, he adds.

Another distinct zone — and totally different in terms of dining experience — is the 10-seat chef’s table in the kitchen, where diners are immersed in the rambunctious dinner service. “Chef Brodi and our sommelier will speak with guests to ask about allergies and customizing the menu,” Terceira notes. “They even have the privilege of signing the wall with permanent marker. It adds to the fun and the sense of exclusivity.”

Each Ritz is designed with a sense of “sonography” (a.k.a. sense of place), thus eschewing the cookie-cutter approach. For instance, the new Toronto Ritz is downtown, so it has a refined contemporary dining room, Terceira explains. And the artwork does not simply say Canada — it’s specific to Ontario. Chosen by Graywood Development president and art aficionado Garnet Watchorn, the 450 pieces come from artists who work in and are inspired by the province.

The restaurant has the feel of stand-alone eatery, which is what the Ritz team wanted. In fact, even the staff are hotel rookies, including GM Joanne Chimenti, formerly of Canoe, as well as the servers. “We didn’t want to be the place people check into, then leave to check out another restaurant,” Terceira explains, pointing out the fate suffered at many hotels. Here most of the diners are locals.

Moving eastward, when you think high design, Atlantic Canada may not immediately spring to mind, but then you haven’t considered the 320-room Sheraton in St. John’s, N.L. Renovated in 2009, the property has had several incarnations — it was once a Fairmont and Canadian Pacific Hotel. Nevertheless, the people in the neighbourhood have always lovingly referred to it as “the hotel.” This presented a problem for Toronto-based Moncur Design Associates, the hotel-restaurant designers. There are two eating- and-tippling spots, located adjacent to each other — Oppidan, the restaurant, and Bivver, the lounge. (Oppidan means “of the town,” while Bivver means “to shiver.”)

“Our overarching goal for the renovation was to ensure it remained the hotel,” say Kevin Woodbury, director of Hospitality and Operations for Atlantic Canada. “We wanted to draw back the local clientele and restore it as a popular establishment,” he says. “We needed something modern and contemporary that wouldn’t be out of style in a year.”

Since Newfoundland’s climate can be harsh, the design had to be warm, yet cosmopolitan, to address the business traveller. Moreover, as the only four-and-half star hotel in St. John’s, it had to retain its status. Mission accomplished. At Bivver, stools encircle a round bar that is caged in floor-to-ceiling walnut posts; patrons can check out their hairdos in the reflective silver globe lights that dangle over the bar.

“The feedback has been great,” says Woodbury, adding that both lounge and restaurant attract locals and business travellers. At Oppidan, guests can enjoy Roary MacPherson’s regional cuisine, although unlike Bivver, there are no banquettes. “We wanted to have maximum flexibility to change up the seating, especially for locals,” he says of the room where the cuisine is also flexible — guests have the opportunity to order a standard entrée or select two ($28) or three ($42) smaller portions of those same dishes. And, whether it’s one entrée or three, diners enjoy their gourmet fare while seated on comfy walnut-strapped chairs. There’s also a chic horizontal fireplace surrounded by coarse-cut stone that’s proven to be the hottest seat in the house.

A challenge for the owners of hotel-restos is attracting the same guests for breakfast and dinner. Adjusting the lights and making small changes to transform the décor works at Oppidan. “Staff will change up the napkins, remove the placemats and even use different glassware,” adds Woodbury.

Cheers to that.


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