Four on the Bloor: The Four Seasons, Toronto
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God. – Leviticus 19:34.
It’s initially hard to see how a deep knowledge of the Jewish Torah would lead to major innovations in the hospitality industry, but the Four Seasons brand (and their Toronto HQ) is firm evidence. Born in Toronto as the son of a family of Polish Jewish immigrants, Isadore Sharp could be described as the father of the modern luxury hotel. His father, Max, a devout Torah scholar, emigrated from Poland to escape pogroms to Palestine in 1920, and to Toronto five years later. He worked as a plasterer, often renovating homes and reselling them for a profit as a real estate investor. In 1952, Issy graduated a diploma in Architectural Technology. Working for his father’s company as an architect, he concentrated on apartment buildings and houses. It was his work building a small 22-unit motel (Motel 27) on the outskirts of Toronto for family friend, that lead to his building his own property in downtown Toronto in 1961.
What has ensured Four Season has gone from one real estate experiment to a global brand is its founder’s inherent empathetic sense of treating guests well. That Golden Rule, found in what is sometimes a pretty, ahem, stern biblical tract (26:14-30 being particularly gruesome about blasphemers and how they should be cannibalised), is the key to the evolution of things we now take for granted. Towelling robes? Chocolate on your pillow? Being remembered by name when you return for another stay? These things we take for granted today were all innovations that Sharp insisted were of small, but significant importance. Last year, after over 50 years of being the epicentre of a global empire that now numbers some 90 hotels, Toronto was retired. Even Sharp referred to it as ‘the car park’. In it’s place, a new, 21st century iteration was constructed a few blocks east, in fashionable Yorkville. Feeling much grander than a hotel with just 259 rooms and much cooler and zen than most major brand destinations, this is the tao of the Four Seasons offering.
The area centred around Bay Street and Bloor was formerly the epicentre of Toronto’s vibrant music scene. A run-down counter cultural corner where Neil Young and Joni Mitchell first plied their trade. The hippy vibe has now been replaced by many of the world’s best luxury brands and boutiques, perfectly in harmony with the elevated sheen of the hotel itself. So – what is the flagship of a major international travel brand like to actually visit? I arrive just as the place is celebrating it’s one year anniversary. This extravaganza is in the separate, purpose-built event wing, reached from an elevated internal bridge. A European-style banquet hall, complete with a modern take on glitzy chandeliers, is filled with the city’s brightest and best, all of whom will tell you how the original venue had featured in their formative years as the location for weddings and other major life events. No sign of Toronto’s Mayor, though. Indeed, let’s remove the elephant in the room, at this juncture. Literally.
Whilst genteel, elevated Toronto would mostly recoil at the attention the now highly publicised failings of Rob Ford have bestowed on its reputation, he has given the city something it’s never really had before – a sense of edge. Whilst it would be hard to argue that his unctuous face or sophomoric antics act as a major emblem of this cosmopolitan, diverse and bustling city, they have served to place those traits in clear contrast. Cities sometimes need a bit of needle to achieve their yin-yang. One only has to look at the construction and the vivacity of debate here to know that Toronto is indeed still on the move. The Four Seasons doesn’t do edge though. It smoothes them all out.
The canny building of the luxury ‘outhouse’ means that the flow of hotel guests never struggles in common areas or lifts with spa or event guests. The bridge between the guest rooms, public areas and event space transitions so smoothly, one would not notice a separation, they would only experience the convenience. The 30,000 square foot state of the art spa is also housed here. A remarkable space, this dark, cool maze boasts a whopping 17 treatment rooms and flat fees for time, not specific treatment. A 90 minute massage costs the same as 90 minute facial. As someone who sometimes finds spa treatments fussy or unsatisfying, I can attest my own 90 minute massage is sublime and I emerge smoothed out and noticeably lacking edge.
The spa’s interior architecture is fascinating. There’s never a clear vista, so one is always coming around a revealing corner to find something other nook, some other new source of sensation. It makes for a dream-like detached state that instills a sense of relaxation. The same theme is followed through in the templesque four-storey high lobby. To be this palatial and this intimate at the same time is quite a trick. Similarly, build quality and materials are of a pleasingly high standard for a property of this size and vintage. Nothing’s been scrimped.
The rooms are perfectly balanced retreats of calm in stone and earth hues. Wood veneer, carpeting, oak floors, slate and marble make everything feel deeply natural. The now de rigueur Nespresso coffee maker and an iPad for guest use add that sense of welcome. The real sense that this is a luxury hotel is the bathroom. Not only are the bath products made by the Italian brand, Etro, but the impressively sleek bathtub is actually made of stone and custom-made for the hotel by the luxury bathware designer Apaiser.
Then there’s the bed. Adding to Issy Sharp’s crusade on behalf of all his guests and their comfort, the Four Seasons now offers the first fully customisable hotel bed. Effectively you can choose your own bed and personalise their sleep. With an innovative mattress system developed by the group in partnership with leading bed manufacturer Simmons, three different levels of firmness are offered, along with a variety of pillows. Biblically good, especially after a travel day of 24 hours, without a kip. If I knew the relevant borucha, I’d say it.
Firstly though, I’m obliged to praise Daniel Boulud. The 3 Michelin-winning and New York-conquering French star chef has opened his Canadian foray in the hotel. Cafe Boulud is a major draw in the city and for good reason. Well-balanced, non-fussy, contemporary takes on classic dishes are served on the sun-filled mezzanine, surrounded by edgy canvasses from controversial graffitist Thierry Guetta (aka Mr. Brainwash).
I arrive on Canadian Thanksgiving – a month earlier than the US version, but rumoured to have been brought over the border by Civil War absconders. The menu is of the same tradition. Normally, turkey would be at the bottom of my list at a high-end eatery. However, chef de cuisine Tyler Shedden’s take on turkey with all the trimmings, followed by delicate Pumpkin Cremeux on graham cracker with ginger confit and crème fraîche sorbet is an inspirational delight. Sommelier Jordan Alessi, looking very fine in Prince of Wales check, gives great advice. A 2009 Marsannay Bruno Clair Pinot Noir is for the turkey. I’m thankful, even if the turkey isn’t. The Alkoomi 2009 Aussie Riesling refreshes with perfect greenness and acidity. The whole operation is kept in check by one of the best restaurant managers London ever saw, Gillian Dixon. Having run the Ivy and Scotts for Caprice Holdings and opened the Dean Street Townhouse, this native of British Columbia knows a thing or two about a thing or two. They’re lucky to have her here.
Next day, I join the hotel’s formidable and svelte PR director Halla Rafati at Cafe Boulud for lunch. The Arabian Texan girl likes her grub and insists I try the charcuterie selection (delicious), the crispy duck egg with onions and bacon (awesome) and the rather flamboyant grapefruit givré with a sesame halva, rose loukoum and grapefruit sorbet (exotically refreshing). Next day at the hotel’s very cool dbar (sic), she forces – FORCES – me to take on their highly elevated forms of bar snack. Delicious Alsatian flatbread, crispy ribs and the best damn hot dog I’ve ever had. This lady’s a feeder. All the hotel’s charcuterie, including the dog, is remarkably made in-house and that beef frankfurter should be a Toronto destination all in itself.
The Four Seasons in Toronto is a marker for the industry. Other hotels will do individual strands better or with more of a personal voice. But there can’t be many that do this much, so well, so consistently. With global expansion (courtesy of major shareholder, Bill Gates) now fully mobilised, Four Seasons is a brand that will bring Isadore Sharp’s values to places as far afield as Shanghai and Hawaii. Whether you think the Golden Rule is Jewish, Confucian, Buddhist, Humanist or even Wiccan, we can all agree that a perfect night’s sleep, a deeply sublime massage and a masterful sausage are the true ways to Happiness. Just as long as you’re ignoring Leviticus 11:7, of course.
The Four Seasons Toronto is located in the heart of Yorkville, a short walk to chic shops, restaurants and galleries, Bloor Street shopping and world-class museums, just minutes from the financial and entertainment districts. For more information or to reserve a room call +1 (416) 964-0411, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the website www.fourseasons.com/toronto.