Eating out in Toronto has never looked better
1 month ago
1 month ago
Beyond the Michelin-starred plates, the remarkable chefs, and the return of euphorically packed dining rooms, Toronto's eateries have an added attraction of late that's impossible to ignore. Simply put, they're gorgeous. From opulent upscale locales to neighbourhood gems molded by chefs' unambiguous visions, Toronto's restaurants are increasingly becoming about more than what's found on your plate. Today, a fresh coat of paint and a scattering of haphazardly-placed decorations just won't cut it. Whether it's our collective desire to be wowed, our love of polish and style, our hunger to experience magical moments in memorable rooms, or the simple result of a modern world where exposure to competition and inspiration is endless, design has become king. We demand bespoke millwork, magnificent materials, thoughtful colour palettes and seamless rooms that enrich every interaction. Happily, thanks to the city's ever-increasing celebrity, a wealth of top designers and architects are eager to join in the fun. Eating out in Toronto has never tasted, or looked, better.
The dining room at VELA.
The Ace Hotel's restaurant Alder, helmed by chef Patrick Kriss.
At some Toronto spots, splendid style is a given. High-profile restaurants — the ones that receive the most accolades and attention — are consistently the ones flaunting designs that make us swoon. Head to King West's Vela, and it's hard to ignore the effect of the room's overhead strip of glowing neon lights. Beyond the dreamy cocktails, and enticing menu, PARTISANS' undulating design tints every interaction at the restaurant in an old-world hue. At Minami, DesignAgency merged traditional art, dramatic lighting, and an arched backlit screen into a brilliant room that mimics the glow of preparing the restaurant's signature, flame-seared creations. A monochromatic, reverential setting by Omar Ghandi Architects, is an ideal backdrop to Matty Matheson's adulatory approach to premium ingredients at Prime Seafood Palace. Nestled below the lobby of The Ace Hotel, Patrick Kriss' Alder smoulders thanks to its wood fire, and copper-toned aura, meticulously orchestrated by Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. At these, and countless others, big names, big budgets, and bigger expectations result in pushed boundaries, and unforgettable rooms that awe. Still, especially of late, it seems that noteworthy design is seeping into every corner of Toronto's restaurant scene. It's found in intimate eateries, and food halls, in modern, fast-casual joints and chef-driven restaurants where food, design, and overall atmosphere mesh to brilliant effect.
Does Toronto have its own style? I don't think so. I think Toronto has really good style, good taste in general. But I think the way our city works, it's very much a melting pot of ideas.
"The business of designing restaurants has evolved," says Hamid Samad, Principal at Commute Design Studio, an interdisciplinary design firm based in Toronto. "There was a period when we first got into this business when most restaurateurs had confidence to design a restaurant without hiring a designer," he says. Thanks to competition from other countries, the '90s was a period of "organic growth," adds Samad. Restaurateurs, "needed to up their game, and then they engaged with designers." The end result, was better floor plans, along with improved customer experiences, for visitors dining alone as well as those in large groups. Still, "I think the evolution came about in the early 2000s," explains Samad. During that time, "a lot of people doing franchises — such as Milestones, The Keg, etc. — they all upped their games by hiring better designers, and better design firms." The industry shift led to independent restaurateurs also readjusting their focus, realizing the importance of, not just the food, but the look and feel of their eateries.
Managing Partner and Designer Shae-Lynn Mathers and Principal Designer and Founder Ian Rydberg of Solid Design Creative.
Today, compelling restaurant design isn't just found in flashy, corporate spots where ceilings soar as high as budgets. "We've done some very small concepts that are very well designed and are very successful," says Ian Rydberg, Founder and Principal Designer of Solid Design Creative. "There's some really amazing design that's not just found in those huge, large, big-budget places," adds Solid Design Creative Managing Partner, Shae-Lynn Mathers. "If you look at some of our top restaurants, they're not all those huge locations. They're small." Rydberg agrees, noting an increase in smaller venues that feature beautiful design, and have incredible food. "I think with the population growing, the demand is there for larger-scale restaurants. There's also a big demand for that quaint, 30-60 person, really cool, off-the-beaten path restaurant."
The gelato cart inside Oretta's bright and vibrant space.
At Commute, a company known for high-profile sites such as Alo and Aloette, Oretta and Byblos, the team does "not want to open boxes for a living." Instead, the idea is to "create spaces that cater to all five senses," through a comprehensive approach that includes in-house designed and locally-made fixtures, textiles, furniture, and large-scale environmental elements. "In order for us to engage with clients," says Samad, "they have to be willing to give us, not just the design of the floor plan, and the finishes and millwork." A Commute design involves every detail, from the walls and flooring to the lighting, the chairs, accents, and more. "We like to customize things so that it has a really organic feel for the client, that they're opening up a restaurant that's uniquely theirs, that they can grow with, that they can evolve with, and that they can own."
Aloette's club-car vibe dining space.
The team's compelling spaces aren't just adored by Commute's clients. From Oretta's swooping arches and gilded finishes to Aloette's woody, warm, club-car vibe, restaurants designed by Commute are some of the city's most timeless and most popular. Each feels specific and cohesive — a tiny world where everything is in perfect harmony, and diners are invited to enjoy the happy marriage of aesthetics and incredible food. "You have to do it for the end users," explains Samad. "You have to be willing to understand that they have a very high standard and you can't lower your standard," he adds. "I tell my clients, if you want to know what your restaurant is not going to look like, you should go to the best food court. Because if I give you the same tear sheets and palettes as the best food court, then I'm giving you something that's going to have longevity of five years, or three years. I want to give you something that's greater, for longer."
For Mathers, of Solid Design Creative, the city's rising star has helped to inspire more thoughtful restaurant design. "I'd say we're a more world-class city compared to 10 years ago. The level of food and chefs and money in Toronto is a lot more elevated now. Look at Michelin, you wouldn't have seen them here 10 years ago."
Combined with the city's multiculturalism and diversity, it's no wonder that restaurants here run the gamut when it comes to design. "Toronto takes a lot of its notes from other cities, but we're so multicultural," explains Rydberg. "It's like grabbing concepts and ideas and notions from many different places around the world because we're such a multicultural city." For Rydberg, the result is an inimitable mingling of ideals and approaches. "Does Toronto have its own style? I don't think so. I think Toronto has really good style, good taste in general. But I think the way our city works, it's very much a melting pot of ideas." He adds, "is there a specific food that screams Toronto? I can't think of one. There are many items that Toronto does really, really well."
Solid Design Creative's renderings of the Queen's Cross Food Hall at the Toronto Eaton Centre.
Since 2013, Solid Design Creative has helped shape the striking aesthetic of Toronto's restaurant scene. For Rydberg and his team, creating the vision for a space includes layouts and interior design along with exteriors, custom lighting, furniture, artworks, and installations, all in consultation with chefs and owners. "The best designs are when we receive a lot of feedback from the client," explains Rydberg. With every project — from DaiLo and Maison Selby to Bitter Melon and the soon-to-be-revealed Queen's Cross Food Hall, at the Toronto Eaton Centre — the team aims "to create spaces that are going to stand the test of time," explains Rydberg. "Our goal when we design a space," he adds, "is if it feels like it was always there, then we've done our job."
Inside Bitter Melon, designed by Solid Design Creative.
DaiLo's dining room.
At each eatery the team works on, Rydberg and his team strive to "create a forever design that you just feel good in. And that you want to come back to," he explains. "Every time you come back, you experience something new. … It's all about the level of detail we create in every space we work on. You're always unravelling something new." From hand-aged custom murals at Dailo to Bitter Melon's raw, lantern lit interiors, and custom design moments, every choice lends its space timeless appeal, and unquestionable sense of place. At Dailo, one of the group's most enduring spots, Rydberg spent countless hours with chef Nick Liu, "trying to figure out what he was trying to achieve." From there, everything clicked. "We knew exactly what we were doing. That was a perfect marrying of his vision as a chef and our job as a design firm to really tell that story and bring it out in the room as well as in the food."
Beyond bringing concepts to life, today's designers have trends — along with the general state of the world — to contend with for each design. For Rydberg, a self-described "anti-designer, designer," avoiding fads is always top of mind. "If it's trendy, I'm not doing it," he laughs. Adding, "sometimes we can't avoid it, if it's what the client wants." Still, it's impossible to avoid certain leanings in the industry, such as how spaces are used. At the team's latest projects, Rydberg has seen the appearance of more restaurants offering "morning to night experiences. Cafés turning to wine bars, etc." In an effort to appeal to consumers throughout the day, while also maximizing their rent, restaurateurs are increasingly interested in designs that transition from daytime to evening hours. A prime example is Café Paradise. Designed by Solid Design Creative, the spot opened on Bloor Street West, last fall. At the café, a menu of family-friendly offerings includes items as varied as early-morning, espresso-based beverages served alongside breakfast staples, and homey dinners of roast chicken and saucy, house-made pastas. Bathed in sunlight during the day, the airy room is clean and welcoming. In essence, it's a perfect backdrop to whatever you require: a refuge to work in, a comfortable lunch escape, or a relaxed place to reset over wholesome plates and restorative sips of wine.
If ever there was a time to look up from your crudo, your massaman curry, your slow-braised oxtail or your chilaquiles and take in the details that surround you, that time is now.
Every bit as influential when it comes to today's most contemporary designs is the recent global pandemic that touched so many aspects of life. "Covid has really, really, really changed, everything," says Commute's Hamid Samad. "Designers have to be extremely sensitive to the end users. … We're going to see a lot of organic growth in the industry, from operators and, I think, a lot of what we're going to see coming down is the end user." Rydberg echoes the sentiment. "Restaurateurs want a little more space in the dining room, to create social distancing and that kind of thing," he says. "The layouts have changed, the ergonomics." More important than ever, he adds, is restaurant delivery. "A lot of the new designs that we're doing now have a separate entrance for delivery and pickup … to filter people in and out of the space in a more user-friendly manner." Here to stay, "the delivery service approach to most restaurants has become such a huge part that we have to figure out ways to make it work more seamlessly," he adds.
Already en vogue pre-pandemic, chef-driven food halls have also re-surfaced as roomy alternatives to single-cuisine restaurants, or cafés. "People want to be able to go somewhere and order five different things and sit down with their friends. Again, it's that multicultural sort of trend of food and offerings that Toronto has. You can get the best of everything," says Rydberg. In addition, large spaces offer plenty of opportunities for people to dine with those in their bubble, while remaining socially distant from others. "When doing those large-scale concepts, it's all about creating those pockets or areas where people can feel sort of separated," adds Rydberg. "There are ways to do it that make people feel more comfortable and a way to relook at the layout of those environments and allow people to flow in and around them." Solid Design Creative's approach will soon be on full display at the 18,000-square foot Queen's Cross Food Hall, opening this summer at the Toronto Eaton Centre. City diners will also be able to soak in the thoughtful designs and varied offerings at the new restaurants in The Well and Waterworks Food Hall, both scheduled to open later this year.
An ever-evolving realm, deft restaurant design is fundamental to any splendid night out. It's a field affected by fads, by culture, by the whims of diners, the wants of chefs, and by the skill and creativity of those envisioning each and every room. It's also inextricably linked to the city in which its conceived. "Toronto is really on the way to make a mark for itself," enthuses Samad. "Toronto, we are the underdog. We have to compete with Europe, with Paris, London, Berlin, Copenhagen. And then we have New York, L.A., Chicago. And we know our competition, that's the first thing. We know who we have to beat. … And we're good at it." As Toronto's restaurant culture matures, beguiling boîtes, detailed food halls and shimmering culinary shrines are now competing for our attention. "That's what makes it so incredible to go out in Toronto. It's so varied," says Mathers. "You could spend a night, even just go to Ossington, and go to four different places in one night and they'd all be extremely varied in terms of design and look and feel and vibe." If ever there was a time to look up from your crudo, your massaman curry, your slow-braised oxtail or your chilaquiles and take in the details that surround you, that time is now. "I think Toronto is in a great place," affirms Samad. "And it's only going to get better, and better." From where we're sitting, we couldn't agree more.