The Drake Hotel doubles as a hot spot for entertainment and a wonderful place to stay.
Mon, Dec 27, 2010
Cool Central: Toronto's West Queen West Neighborhood
The city's emerging West Queen West neighborhood is fast becoming one of the finest art and design districts in North America.
Betty Ann Jordan is worked up about her street. Which prompts her to speak in a clipped Canadian staccato and move like a point guard, zigzagging along sidewalks and ducking into shop entrances. I trail a couple paces behind her and try to keep up.
But there’s so much to see in Toronto’s West Queen West neighborhood—bohemian galleries, boutiques, cafés and plenty of what filmmakers might affectionately call grit to give the place atmosphere—I stumble behind like a distracted child.
Jordan is an art and architecture ambassador for the streetcar-lined area, extending 20 short blocks from Bathurst Street to Gladstone Avenue. This is not polished downtown Toronto—the city seen by most visitors to its world-famous film festival. Instead, this is an emerging part of the city where all the big ideas that end up downtown (and in North America and Europe) begin. It’s a cultural lab bubbling with alternative music, fashion, food and art.
The key to discovering West Queen West, says Jordan, is to keep walking. “You will always strike gold here,” she says. “There are sketchy blocks because of the neighborhood’s proximity to the dockyards, but with its artistic backbone—many artists live above shops—you’ll get the sense that this is where creative life begins.”
Hotels as Art
Stepping into the Gladstone Hotel is akin to checking into a gallery that doubles as a place to sleep—with a vintage cage elevator that still works. Various local artists have designed each of the 37 rooms in the Victorian dream, so expect accommodations to feature everything from a woodsy Saskatchewan tableau to a watercolorist’s studio, complete with timber-accent ceilings. (It’s also nice to be able to preview rooms on the hotel’s website, where prices—from $165 a night—are posted.)
And to further boost its artistic cred, the Gladstone employs a director of exhibitions, Britt Welter-Nolan. During my visit, she walks me through some of the galleries, where I see film director Jonathan Demme’s collection of Haitian and Jamaican art. (The Demme exhibit ended last fall. This winter, the Gladstone Gallery celebrates its fifth anniversary with a retrospective Jan. 21–23; a party will be held Jan. 21.)
In January, as an alternative to the mammoth Interior Design Show at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (Jan. 27–30), the Gladstone hosts “Come Up to My Room.” For four days, 11 of the Gladstone’s rooms and 14 public areas are blank canvases for local designers to create wildly inventive, livable spaces. “The competition is pretty intense,” says Nolan, “and the results will absolutely blow you away.” It’s like HGTV on steroids unfolding in front of you.
When visiting the Gladstone, don’t overlook the work of resident artist Bruno Billio, whose sculptures repurpose everyday items (books, furniture) and transform them into tilting art. One look at the precariously leaning skyscraper of stacked tomes in the Gladstone reveals a genius who tests the boundaries of proportion and, indeed, gravity.
On any given night, the 19-room, fabulously restored Drake Hotel (from $189) might host a fashion show, book launch, burlesque revival, indie concert or a spoken-word poetry slam in the Drake Underground. Much like the Gladstone, this is an artistic epicenter that also happens to have rooms where you can crash for the night.
The Drake’s central obsession is film, and when I walk into the lobby, a vintage flick plays on a TV near a fully functioning photo booth. It’s also a place to hold fast to the notion of stardom, real or imagined, as a series of Xs mark the floors for, you know, your close-up.
But when I enter Love Interest, the Drake’s lounge restaurant, I know I’m home. With cushy green banquettes, red faux alligator-skin barstools and a movie screen above the fireplace that rolls classic and independent films, it’s easy to see how the lounge has become a must for anyone measuring the richness of Toronto’s art scene.
Next door is the Drake’s General Store, a trove of kitsch and urban warmth, where manager Carlo Colacci says everything comes from contemporary art shows, local fashion lines, vintage shops and the bottom of long-forgotten attic trunks. It’s fun. Alongside a new Hudson Bay wool blanket ($150), you might find DIY Russian nesting dolls ($20), sterling silver dagger earrings ($80) or Popeye candy sticks ($.50). Much like the sights and sounds of the Drake, the store’s collection changes continually, giving visitors the constant buzz of discovery.
The thrill of walking along Queen Street West is roughly the same as getting lost and stumbling upon the finest bar on the planet, or even those times when you feel as though you’ve discovered a band no one else knows about. They’re yours for the moment. Originals. Such is the vibe on Queen. And such are my thoughts when I stand in front of The Paper Place. In a digital age, why would it be so appealing? Well, for starters, you’ll find a ridiculous collection of journals, albums, cards and invitations. Or you can take a quick workshop on origami or winter printmaking and feel like an artistic rock star.
Two dogs, oblivious to passersby, snooze on the floor of the Katharine Mulherin Gallery , where many paintings and photographs offer uneasy cinematic tales of suburban noir. Mulherin focuses on emerging Canadian and international artists such as Mike Bayne (lonely shopping centers, liquor stores) and Cecilia Berkovic (laundromats, book obsessions).
A short walk away is the Stephen Bulger Gallery, an exhibit and retail/education hangout with 15,000 photographs that focus on a fertile documentary tradition. I browse an impressive photography-book collection and, later, watch a video installation, part of an ever-changing narrative cycle featuring emerging artists. It’s not easy, but Bulger has managed to create something that is at once sophisticated and, yes, museum-like, and yet as casual as an artist’s loft.
When Jordan mentions that the Red Tea Box (696 Queen St. West) is the most unusual restaurant in the city, I’m sold—and duck in for a bite. It feels like shabby royalty sits down to tea with Buddha, which just so happens to be in an intimate space that could double as your eccentric aunt’s parlor. The midday crowd can overwhelm the tight room, but by all means, give it a try. Enter the red door and expect masterful pan-Asian fare with “tea bento” boxes that change each month. On the day I visit, the boxes feature fish pie with dill, ginger-cured salmon and an array of desserts, from scones to maple brown-sugar meringue cake.
Just across the street from Trinity Bellwoods Park, pastry guru Nadège Nourian recently opened Nadège Patisserie. The corner bakery and café deliver the minimalist cool of Paris to the neighborhood, and it works. Pale hardwood floors line a space with stark white walls trimmed in black. A bar sports chrome and white-leather stools; the music is techno, and the catwalk-worthy young women who work the counter wear pink blouses and short gray skirts. Yes, it’s a bit of a daytime scene, but the confections are sublime, including melt-in-your mouth French macarons (blueberry, peach and salted caramel) and chocolate tarts. Everything here is edible art.
And so I linger long into the afternoon, watching Torontonians do what they do best: create and inspire each other to make their slice of the world a little prettier and more meaningful—ready, as always, for their collective close-up.
The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), known as the people’s festival for its accessibility to directors and stars, now has a new year-round home: the Tiff Bell Lightbox . The five-story complex is a visual knockout, with a three-story public atrium, a restaurant, a lounge and big, comfortable public theaters. Visitors don’t have to wait until September’s film festival to visit—it’s open year-round with roughly 4,000 events planned, including lectures, concerts and movie-themed celebrations.
Where to Stay
Fairmont Royal York (from $279). The grand dame of downtown, the 1,365-room behemoth still has many features from its 1929 debut, including travertine pillars and crystal chandeliers. The Fairmont has been featured in a number of films, including last fall’s Helen Mirren and John Malkovich smash “Red” and Russell Crowe’s “Cinderella Man.” But despite this polished history, the hotel has an edge. Case in point: It launched a beekeeping initiative on the hotel’s 14th story—sort of an outdoor condo for Toronto’s bees. Says Executive Chef David Garcelon, who helms Canada’s largest kitchen and whose menu employs plenty of honey, “You can’t find a supplier much closer than your own roof.”
Hazelton Hotel (from $520). All right, so it’s over the top, but as hospitality eye candy, it is unmatched in Toronto. Located on trendy Yorkville Avenue downtown, the hotel is Hollywood North during the Toronto Film Festival. If the price tag for accommodations is too steep, consider getting a taste of the scene by visiting One Restaurant, helmed by chef Andrew Ellerby. Menu bliss: lobster spoons butter-braised with vermouth, and seared day-boat scallops with pork belly.
Nonstop flights on Air Canada, Continental and United Airlines to Toronto from Washington Dulles International Airport and on Air Canada and United Airlines from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.