Toronto's lifeblood is its big, diverse hospitality industry. This city loves hosting major events, whether it's the Olympics (which it would love to welcome) or North America’s first-ever World Pride festival, coming this June. To house visitors, 180-plus hotels dot the town, including the Fairmont Royal York, which claimed status for many years as the British Empire’s tallest building.
Hoteliers and restaurateurs here love to dress for the occasion, so to speak.
As a result, architects and designers get commissions to help attract and awe the throngs. The hotels, bars and eateries compete not just for guests but for bragging rights in design. The latest example is the stunning new Momofuku Toronto four-restaurant complex (image below) at the Shangri-La Hotel Toronto, framed within a three-story glass cube by architect James K.M. Cheng.
Plus there’s something we might call "the Rob Ford factor." (Ford is the city's bigger-than-life mayor.) Design firms in Toronto love to push the edge, merging zany fun and new experiences with dining and drinking. They have all the mayor's joie de vivre, but with a carefully calibrated elegance and cosmopolitan charm the big guy lacks.
These facts all help explain why Toronto is -- by far -- home to the most innovative restaurant designs in the world.
Intimate, cozy and crafted
If we can call it the Toronto School, then the maestro is Yabu Pushelberg, a design duo that first hit the scene with their gorgeous 1998 Monsoon restaurant (now closed, sadly). The two continue to win commissions by “walk[ing] the fine line between edgy and elegant,” says Interior Design magazine, which inducted the two into its design Hall of Fame.
Catching up on George Yabu and Glenn Pushelberg are Toronto's new guard, such as The Design Agency, making headlines lately with its stunning work for Momofuku. The group created four separate eating spaces on three floors, all completely different and totally memorable. The firm also designed the polar opposite: the retro-clubby Soho House interiors of coffered ceilings, wainscoting, mad green plaid and mounted moose heads. (A sample image is below.)
Yet The Design Agency’s Brassaii Restaurant and Lounge (it's the featured image you see with the headline on this article) is truly the design entrée on today's menu. Merging a French renaissance palette with a modern, edge-seeking vibe, this King West District joint is (in my opinion) the best place on earth to enjoy Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
Another up-and-comer is the design firm II by IV, which rocked the fast-food scene recently with its charming McDonalds Canada flagship, among a few others. Yet it's the hyper-modern Scarpetta Dining Pavilion -- a freaky box truss enclosing an al fresco dining interior, designed by II by IV along with architect gh3 (photo below, by Dan Couto) -- that has made waves in the global hospitality industry.
Scarpetta's dining pavilion is amazing, and a crazy outlier. But it's influential, too.
These examples are all in a day's work for Toronto's restaurant design leaders. They routinely charm world travelers, gain critical acclaim -- and influence restaurateurs in hundred of cities worldwide.
Part of their success comes from the intimacy, comfort and originality of the venues. The Toronto School of designers knows cozy -- yet they also know when to make a memorable event out of mere arrival and dining spaces.
For your next visit to Toronto, I've categorized the work of today's great Toronto School restaurant design stars below. Their work falls loosely into four stylistic areas, which I think aptly describe the latest wave of restaurants:1. Rustic Chic
Many of these joints inhabit or have been inspired by the Distillery District, with its Victorian-era timbers and red brick. They have rough finishes and edges that grab at your shirtsleeves, as at Strada 241, and often tough-guy names like The Boiler House (seminal but, sadly, closed).
Toronto designer Munge Leung captured the essence of Toronto rustic chic in Ame, the Japanese restaurant with its mesmerizing shadows and lights, Japanese patterning, natural materials, oversize screens and rustic, workaday materials. Leung worked with Device222, an innovative Toronto graphic design studio, but the brains behind many of Toronto's great wins has been Charles Kabouth, with his 17 nightclubs and dining spots.
2 & 3. Modern flavors: Floral Mod and Severe Mod
Then there Toronto architects and designers who have a proclivity toward two kinds of modern, minimalist expression. Let's call them Floral Mod and Severe Mod.
- Floral Mod
Toronto designers can create the world’s prettiest moments, without being overly precious or matronly. Examples are places like George and Auberge du Pommier, which have been voted the most romantic restaurants in the city. Auberge is an inspired French restaurant that adapts the fireplaces and “rustic vestiges of two 1860s woodcutter cottages" with a neutral color palette and minimal furnishings. The interiors are a breakout project by Anacleto Design.
Another kind of floral mod is Aria, the most photographed new Italian restaurant in the western hemisphere (image below). Tucked into a LEED Gold skyscraper, the design by Urszula Tokarska of Stephen R. Pile Architect features otherworldly hanging installations of delicate light orbs and walnut arabesques (the latter by Dennis Lin).
- Severe Mod
There's also a strong tradition of International Style and super-modern architecture in Toronto, from the Financial District's Toronto-Dominion Centre, Mies van der Rohe's six-tower, midnight-black opus, to the Corbusier-inspired apartment towers of St. James Town. As covered last summer by Spacing magazine, postwar churches and synagogues here shunned traditional styles, and since then "everything from gas stations to medical [centers] to schools were built in the Modernist vein throughout Toronto’s suburban neighborhoods."
Yet much the latest architecture has been relatively sculptural and expressive, whether by Toronto native Frank Gehry, Will Alsop, Norman Foster or Daniel Libeskind. Scarpetta Dining Pavilion is in this vein, a place Lord Foster might like to eat -- if it had a private table.
Yet many restaurants reflect the postwar mod of van der Rohe through I.M. Pei. Favorites include the Asian-fusion BLD (now closed), the loungy, super-cool Jacobs & Co. Steakhouse and the trippy, asymmetrical C5 designed by Daniel Libeskind, housed in the Royal Ontario Museum but now on a temporary hiatus.4. Toronto Authentic
Many of the severely mod restaurants are suffering. Many were designed to reflect the modernist hotels they inhabit, and the power axis of this financial and industrial center.
Toronto natives may love stark, cool modernism for its architectural legacy, but not for its eateries. It's the Rustic Chic designs that draw people in, as well as another kind of endemic styling, which I'll call Toronto authentic. These restaurant design notions are original and derivative -- including the recent spate of hand-wrought and often grubby hipster hangouts opened over the last year or two.
One major protagonist in this school is a design firm called Commute Design, which has designed such decidedly authentic places as Nyood, Tabule, Smith, Madras Pantry at Dosa Restaurant, and even a super-original restaurant at The Ritz-Carlton -- all well worth seeing.
Toronto's authentic, original joints are clearly the genetic imprint of this great design city for foodies.
As George Yabu told Eater.com recently, “Growing up here in Toronto and spending half our time in New York, we find the best restaurants are the down-and-dirty ones, the ethnic ones.”
(Images courtesy of their respective design firms and restaurants.)
Editor's Note: Thanks to the readers who pointed that the while Canada has been the host of several Olympics games, Toronto has still not earned that honor.