Drake Hotel, Toronto
It’s 1976. I’m five years old and perched on the stairs of our London semi-detached. The phone on the wall rings. My mother pensively answers. It’s bad news from my father, calling long distance from Toronto. He’d gone out there searching for a better life for us, as Britain economically staggered punch drunk from beyond the Three Day Week towards 1979’s Winter of Discontent. However, the promises made by certain potential employers over there had been revealed to be less than concrete. Brick dust at best. Or more appropriately, snowflakes. ‘Unpack, I’m coming home.’ We’re not emigrating and I won’t be Canadian. Which in many ways, bar the ice skating injuries and an unhealthy obsession with progrock noodleweavers Rush, I still feel is a pity.
Never mind the quality of life ensured by being a country blessed with every mineral, industrial and agricultural resource on the planet – if you discount those winters, the average Canadian has a quality of life far in excess of the average Brit. A summer cottage with its own lake is a birthright, not an emblem of extreme bourgois success. Nature isn’t just green and pleasant, but raw and spectacular. They have socialised health care. The white-hot property prices that mark London (and New York) haven’t reached there quite yet. Yes, get through the frigid Januaries and Februaries and life in Toronto is very good.
For a small city, it culturally punches well above its weight and one of the reasons has been the success of a number of local venues that have evolved their brand and stature over time to become landmarks, without having to compete with the new mega-property corporations, as they would elsewhere. Originally a hotel in the prosperous West side, opened in 1890, it was christened The Drake in 1949, but had become a flop house by the ‘70s. Now Queens West is a centre for Canadian broadcasting, music, fashion, performance and the visual arts, the renovated Drake has been open for a decade as a venue, meeting place and emblem of the area’s confidence. The dramatic enhancements haven’t spoilt the original architectural elements that are part of this very eclectic boutique hotel’s current look.
Having become a hip cultural hub, the brand has only now recently started expanding. First pin in the map of empire is Drake 150, a restaurant east of the original, in the financial district, a mere hop from City Hall. Instead of a characterful 19th century hotel. it’s sneaked in under a PoMo 80’s office development. You just don’t find places like this back home – relaxed, almost playful, yet totally focussed on the food. Whilst the mothership’s food is extremely well-honed North American diner variations, Chef Ted Corrado takes on a more involved brief. Unique dishes have been created to compliment the signature items from the original West Queen West kitchen.
Like the hotel, decor is also unique and full of visual stimuli, with art curios and unique architectural wonders interlaced with the city’s bestest and brightest. A 60-foot oval marble bar create a buzzy social space for some of them to perch. Myself and my guest are sat in a plump red leather booth, under a wooden pergola, designed by indigenous recycling geniuii and identical twin behemoths, the Brothers Dressler. Bright, tessellating Moroccan floor tiles stretch from under my feet across the room. This is the relaxed and bohemian version of upmarket. The vibe stretches to dinner itself. We eschewed the award-winning cocktail menu and went for a bottle of Weingut Hirsch Gruner Veltliner, grassy and sharp with citrus. Everything was paired henceforth. Shared starter platters of shucked oysters and zingy fritto misto were generous, salty and full of oceanic goodness.
Although the One Fifty burger (a £15 hand made art piece fashioned in short rib) and the Ontario lamb, studded with capers, garlic and lemon all severely tempt, we eventually were drawn to the family-style sharing options. A whole roast bird (they didn’t specify, but I’m guessing prime chicken over rhea or emu) was brought forth like a hipster version of one of Henry VIII’s wedding banquet centerpiece. And let’s face it, his cooks had enough practice at those. Surrounded by small, sweetly roasted veggies, divine black garlic spuds and slathered in rich gravy, it’s need to be torn apart by hands and teeth provides a feral lure. My companion is a woman with rock’n’roll tastes with part-Amazon inclinations and she is more than up to the task. Crisp skin, juicy white flesh and caramalised fonds on the ends of bones all get lasciviously set upon. Being civilised folk, no carnal postscript was generated by the effects of the oysters, the wine and the skin biting. But it is one hella sexy meal and a welcome change from some of crimes against real food committed in the name of Michelin.
It’s nice that an establishment can be this confident in serving simple food this great. We just about manage to share a Pavlova filled with rhubarb and lemon sherbet, before staggering out in the crisp Canadian night. I genuinely pity actual couples who dine there and then think ‘dessert’ can occur horizontally. Fools. I’m left wondering what we have to do to get a restaurant that earthy, honest and enjoyable in London. Maybe I should finally try and gain that Canadian passport, after nearly four decades. Marriage proposals from willing Canuck females can be sent at the address provided and the good news is I know who I want to do the catering.
The Drake Hotel is at 1150 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario M6J 1J3. Contact 416 531 5042 or visit www.thedrakehotel.ca for information. To book a table at Drake One Fifty restaurant call 416 36 36 150 or check the website www.drakeonefifty.ca.