King State of Mind: When did the once-cool King West strip descend into a mess of stretch Hummers, drunken bachelorettes and last-call brawls?
Scenes from a never-ending party
“Let’s get drunk and fuck! Let’s get drunk and fuck!”
I’m at Cobra, a King West club in a sprawling basement underneath a 19th-century warehouse. In this neighbourhood, the best parties are either deep underground or high above in a rooftop bar. Cobra is decorated like a gothic funhouse, with a wall of glowing skulls and lots of black. The get-drunk-and-fuck directive bleats from a techno remix as coloured lights, inducing a kind of electric synesthesia, pulsate on the basement ceiling. To my left, two girls make out and topple over, knocking down their bottle service glassware. Guys eagerly watch from the sidelines, plotting how to make their move. My teeth chatter from the vibrating bass. I down a shot that’s half Sour Puss and half vodka, proffered by a human Barbie doll bartender.
I’d arrived at 11:30 p.m., waited my turn to pass through the velvet rope, and carefully made my way down the steep staircase (a bitch to do when you’re wearing six-inch stilettos, like most women here, including me). At first the club was nearly empty, with men and women separated in groups as if it were a middle school dance. But as the night progressed, the room filled and the ladies began to pose and grind for an audience of ethnically diverse guys in shiny loafers. Every once in a while, a waitress walks by holding a tray laden with liquor bottles. When a patron orders a $650 bottle of Cristal, Cobra attaches a sparkler to it with an elastic, so it lights a pathway to the club’s very important patrons as the waitress carries it across the room.
One by one, the guys attack—placing clammy hands on trim waists, stubble on well-moisturized cheeks, come-ons on deaf ears. Conversation consists of “What’s up tonight?” and “I can’t hear you, the music’s too loud!” By 3 a.m., the club is nearly empty except for one or two defiant couples, courting the inevitability of what happens at the end of the night.
The opening event for the Thompson Hotel was the high point of cool for the neighbourhood and a warning of the coming deluge of weekend partiers
The entrances to many of the neighbourhood’s nightclubs are hidden in brick-paved alleys that were originally designed to ship products more efficiently to the street’s warehouses. Outside Cobra, three chicks from Western smoke on a striped chaise longue by a cluster of heat lamps, and giggle over the guys they rejected. They tell me they drove in for the weekend to celebrate a friend’s birthday. The prettiest of them, a fragile 20-year-old blonde with a passing resemblance to Kirsten Dunst, is wearing a black lace dress from Urban Behavior, rhinestone earrings from Ardene, $25 bejewelled satin pumps and no coat even though it’s zero degrees and dropping.
I turn my attention back to the street. It’s time I go home to Parkdale, but hailing a cab is a nightmare: King West is a tangle of stretch Hummers and lost packs of bachelorettes. My idea of a big night out used to consist of drinking PBR in a dingy bar in Little Portugal. But over the past few months, as I attempted to figure out why King West became one giant party, I spent nearly every weekend on the strip, dining on foie gras at Brassaii, getting my makeup retouched at C Lounge, avoiding groping guys at the Firkin. Throughout my travels, I met a concert promoter in his late 50s named Gerry, who invited me back to his multimillion-dollar house on Richmond, where we smoked pot and listened to Captain Beefheart; a cop who flashed me his badge and pretended to arrest me “for being so beautiful”; and a guy who swore he wasn’t a rapist as he begged me to join him in his limo. As I make my way home, it occurs to me that this is the only neighbourhood in Toronto where people make direct eye contact.
“King West” was once shorthand for the members-only Spoke Club, Susur Lee’s restaurant and boutique advertising agencies. Now it’s an insult. It’s where the douchebags party. It’s where the vapid, self-absorbed and racist wannabes of the yet-to-debut but already notorious reality TV series Lake Shore get crunked. How did King West replace John and Richmond as the new clubland? Blame it on the death of one-party-fits-all mega-clubs like the four-level, $6.3-million Circa and the rise of smaller underground nightclubs that offer bottle service and a veneer of exclusivity. King West’s rise also coincided with the completion of a dozen mid-rise condo buildings in the area, all marketed to young single men and women with new downtown jobs.
When city hall saw what was happening to the strip, it capped the nightclub quota at 14. The club owners got around the cap by labelling their operations resto-lounges. They look like restaurants until about 11 p.m., when the tables are stacked away, the celebrity DJ starts to spin and a queue of leather jackets and spike heels forms outside. There are now around 20 resto-lounges between Spadina and Bathurst.
Unwritten codes of status, age, income and style govern who goes to which club. Cobra plays Katy Perry and gets the youngest partiers. Bachelorette parties prefer Cheval, Marben and Brassaii. Thirty-somethings with better-paying jobs and a more desperate glint in their eyes hunt for hookups to a soundtrack of Michael Jackson remixes at Brant House, Dolce and 2 Cats. And everyone meets in the middle at the bigger nightclubs, like Century Room, which is designed to look like a plush 19th-century brothel.
If the new King West could be bottled up in a five-foot-eight, 27-year-old Greek guy in Gucci loafers, it would be Matty Tsoumaris. Tsoumaris is the unofficial king of King West. His parents, Nitsa and John Tsoumaris, run a management company called Uniq Lifestyle and own some of the strip’s biggest moneymakers: the nightclubs Cheval, 1812 and Cobra, the resto-lounges Brant House and Jacobs and Co. (a steak house that serves a $400 black Tajima-Miyazaki rib-eye), and The One That Got Away, a seafood restaurant. Matty works for his parents as Uniq’s chief promoter. He parties every night at his parents’ clubs and recently moved into his own minimalist condo on Wellington Street West. He’s the guy who escorts Paris Hilton, Johnny Knoxville and Rachel McAdams out the back door at three in the morning. He started promoting parties when he was studying business at Western, and joined his parents’ company in 2003, just when King West was beginning its boom.
“I go out six nights a week,” he explains to me over cocktails at Brant House. “It’s exhausting, but if I wasn’t part of it, I would feel unfulfilled and that I’m missing my youth. If I skip a fashion show or party, I hear the stories the next day and think, ‘Oh, I missed a good one,’ you know?”
Tsoumaris has tattoos of flowers, doves, a dragon and angels on his arms and legs and plans to add another of the Hollywood sign. He tells me he is “OCD” about his condo, and refuses to let his girlfriend, Alison (the aforementioned human Barbie doll bartender), move in because of the mess she’d make. He rolls with a crew of women he has known since high school. One works for the developer Minto, another for Naked News. They all gush about his niceness (“It’s like he has no faults at all!”). As they become drunker and drunker, they clasp their hands around my waist, readying me for a pseudo-lesbian make-out.
Another night, Matty’s crew consists of a couple of young Bay Streeters: a chiselled yet taciturn suit I’ve mentally nicknamed Sad Keanu, who buys us all endless Red Bull and vodkas, and a good-humoured college friend named Seth, who coaches me through the drunk spins. For the girls, Matty bankrolls their booze and cover. The guys, all property-owning singles, pay their own way and stay out until last call.
We flit from 1812 to Cobra to Brant House, and the velvet ropes open with a single nod. “Saturday is my least favourite night of the week,” Tsoumaris says. “It’s when all the amateurs come out.” He wears a jet black Gucci shirt, unbuttoned to his navel. As we cross the street, a cab swerves by and Tsoumaris thumps on the hood intimidatingly, like Ratso Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy.
During his years on King West, Tsoumaris has seen it all. “One time a fight broke out in front of the Pizza Pizza, near Brant House,” he tells me. “A guy was really drunk and started beating up on another guy. A big crowd appeared, and the cops tried to break it up and scared this guy so bad he shit his pants. Instead of backing off, he started throwing his own shit at everyone, smearing himself and everyone else with it, including the cops.”
Later, Matty sends me a text message. He wants to retract the shit story for fear that it will hurt his neighbourhood’s image. “I don’t think there is any bad in King West,” he writes. “Just because it has become a place to party for people who don’t live there doesn’t mean it’s bad.”
Kelly Rowan, Jeanne Beker, Tavi Gevinson and Galen Weston Jr. were among the boldfacers at last June’s launch party for the Thompson Hotel, the first Canadian outpost of a U.S. mini-chain of party palaces. Like the other Thompsons, the Toronto branch has a celebrity chef restaurant (Scott Conant’s Scarpetta), a basement nightclub (Uniq’s 1812) and a smug hipness. Flutes of champagne were handed out in the lobby by statuesque servers in dresses designed by Jeremy Laing. A crush of people waited to ride the elevator to the hotel’s main draw: a rooftop patio with a gorgeous view of the skyline. Up above, splashing in the rooftop pool, three hired models in sun hats and vintage sunglasses pretended to be having more fun than the hundreds of guests who sipped mojitos and TwitPic’d the glimmering vista.
The event was perhaps the high point of cool for the neighbourhood and a warning of the coming deluge of weekend partiers. The Thompson is both a hotel and a condo—the now customary model for a profitable hotel. The building is a joint creation of the New York–based company and the Toronto developer Peter Freed, who, along with the developer and the real estate agent Brad Lamb, is responsible for most of King West’s new buildings.
Lamb was the first to start rebranding King West back in the mid-’90s, when his real estate company handled the sale of a new, 24-unit building at Niagara and Bathurst. It took him more than a year to sell the first 17 units, a pace he’d never tolerate today. In 2004, Freed teamed up with Lamb to sell 66 Portland, a modest 85-unit building. They marketed the building as a haven for trendy singles. Most of the units sold in 10 months, at a pricey $300 a square foot. That’s when they realized the neighbourhood was a gold mine.
The units in Lamb and Freed’s King West buildings are typically 500-square-foot one-bedrooms. They’re sold as “condo-lofts,” and most have nine-foot ceilings so that you feel less trapped in a small space. One wall is usually floor-to-ceiling windows, finishes are glossy, floors hardwood. One recently completed building, the Philippe Starck–designed 75 Portland, features a bizarre courtyard of long white tables and potted trees, resembling a demented Alice in Wonderland tea party. The view from a fifth-floor balcony is nothing but condos and cranes.
In the ladies’ room, I overhear a pep talk: “Listen, Jessica. Tonight is girls’ night, so let’s just forget about the bullshit and dance!
Freed and Lamb built and sold more than a thousand units together between 2004 and 2008, until Lamb launched his own development company, a direct competitor to Freed. Freed chose to break off their relationship and promoted the Thompson project on his own. One of Freed’s tactics was to launch a free magazine called King West. The cover of the first issue shows a nubile brunette, all silken thighs and arms, wearing a gaudy crown. The magazine’s motto is “Design. Art. Real Estate. Everything Regal.” In between articles about the neighbourhood’s history and a new model of Porsche, it promotes the penthouse lofts at the Five Hundred, which have private elevator access and cabana terraces (starting at $1.75 million).
Lamb says King West has peaked. His current scheme is to colonize other pockets of the city, including Leslieville and the rough edges of Parkdale. “When I first started on King West, my buyers didn’t want to live in Yorkville or on the waterfront,” Lamb says. “They wanted an alternative lifestyle. So we built edgier buildings. But we were so good at building edgier buildings and making the area desirable that it exploded. Now it’s a younger version of Yorkville. Within another four, five years, this street will have Gucci and Prada.”
Matty and his friends have got me wasted again. His world is starting to grow on me despite my many reservations. As the crowd sways to “Empire State of Mind” on a mid-week night at Century Room, a sense of awe and calm comes over me. I am dancing alone on the bar in a room full of strangers. High above the crowd, I watch a room of suit jackets and BCBG sheaths get down. The DJ nods his head on the offbeat of his mix. I hop off the bar, chug a vodka Red Bull and flirt with a tall and gingery account exec. “I could see how you might be cute,” he says, “but I’ll need you to take off those giant glasses.” You can take the girl out of Parkdale…
Matty is in full schmooze mode, glad-handing the clientele who come forth with compliments and business offers. He pours drinks, tries not to stare too obviously at cleavage and talks up his seafood restaurant’s barramundi. His friends discuss condo living, Mad Men spoilers, RRSPs. If they saw my bank balance, they would laugh and laugh and laugh.
“Are you getting caught up in this? You are, aren’t you?” asks Matty. I nod in agreement. He continues: “I do this every night, but partying is special for the people here tonight. This is their excuse to let go.”
A song forces us all to raise our hands into the air, giving thanks to the party gods. It feels like an act of communion. In the ladies’ room, girls console each other over what they’ve lost: an earring, a boyfriend. Each one stares at her face defiantly in the mirror, touching up her lipstick. I overhear a pep talk: “Listen, Jessica. Tonight is girls’ night, so let’s just forget about the bullshit and go out and dance!”
By last call, half-empty bottles of Grey Goose are taken away, and out come waitresses with trays of complimentary miniature kaiser rolls stuffed with chicken, lettuce and a generous slather of mayo. The sandwiches are Century Room’s insurance policy against hangovers. It would be un–King West to be seen eating them, so only a few traders attempt to, messily. Soon, pieces of chicken are stiletto-stabbed all over the dance floor as the crowd gyrates to Drake, Britney, Kesha and Rihanna. After a while, it sounds like the same song is being played on repeat.
As 3 a.m. approaches, the light show begins to dim, slowly bringing the room into focus. Tsoumaris has had eight vodka Red Bulls (he swears he never gets drunk) and is feeling philosophical. “People go to work, they sit behind a desk, they don’t live their life, man,” he tells me. “A lot of people make money to save and buy a house, buy a car, have a kid, start saving for their retirement, put their kids through college and then they retire. And then it’s over. I’d rather live my life and party hard and die at 50 than die at 80. I’ve lived my life. I’ve partied all over the world.”
We watch couples stream out of the nightclub, hand in hand. Groups of guys leave disappointed and head for Pizza Pizza. I brace myself for flying poop and make my exit.
You can’t match party professionals drink for drink and live to tell about it. I try my best but can’t stop myself from throwing up in the cab. I throw up in my hair. When I get home, I throw up in my bed. I throw up in the bath. I wake up a nicotine-scented, mascara-smeared, hungover wretch. Eight hours later, my feet still throb from my heels.
I’ve lived King West. Now it’s time to avoid eye contact in Parkdale. I’ve never been so relieved to feel invisible.