What it’s like to spend Saturday night in a nightclub made entirely of ice
I’m thrilled to see an actual washroom when I arrive at Chill Ice House. This allays my very real fear of having to pee on a hand-carved ice toilet.
It’s Saturday night and I’ve just showed up for my pre-booked time slot, which will run from 11:15 p.m. to 12:00 a.m. Chill Ice House charges $19 admission per 45-minute time block—presumably because that’s the longest most people will freeze their butts off before they start to feel miffed about having to pay for the experience.
From the outside, the place looks like a fairly normal King West club. Inside, not so much.
“Blue or red?” asks the hostess. She’s standing behind a counter at a sort of reverse coat check. Behind her, dozens of fur-trimmed parkas are hanging up in rows. She hands me one, along with a pair of thin grey gloves, and I see that it’s more of a tent-style cape than a coat. Cape on, I look like every yard-duty supervisor I had in elementary school.
Behind me, a couple of ladies in short skirts and heels groan as they pull on the muu muu–like cloaks. I can’t help smirking a little. The forced uniformity of the bulky capes is a great equalizer.
Once I’m suited up, a scantily clad hostess guides me through the heavy freezer door and into a frigid antechamber. “Did you want me to take your picture?” she chirps, smiling. I politely decline. Isn’t she freezing? “Nope! It’s a good way to cool down!” she says. I eye her suspiciously before pushing through to the main ice room.
The lounge casts an eerie, bluish glow. I find out later that the room took three weeks to carve and another ten days to build. The walls are made out of glassy ice blocks that take two and a half days to freeze, each one weighing in at 250 pounds. It’s really cold. The freezer is kept at a chilly minus five degrees Celsius, which keeps all the furniture (including the bar, the booths and the tables) completely frozen.
About a dozen people are milling around a handful of ice sculptures, snapping selfies and saying predictable things (“It’s so cool!”). The sculpture display includes a mini CN Tower, a giant Stanley Cup, a dangling chandelier and a smiling, buck-toothed snowman (Olaf, from Frozen, I’m informed). A pair of foreign exchange students poses in front of the elaborately carved DJ booth, and a group of chattering, bare-legged women huddles together in an ice booth.
I resist the urge to do shots off of a wooden ski, opting instead for an Elderflower Cosmopolitan ($12), which is poured into a glass made of ice. The cheerful bartender, ensconced in a heavy parka, says he “loves” slinging drinks in this glorified walk-in freezer—a claim I find difficult to believe. The glass nearly slides off the table and I have to make sure to grip it with both hands. I wander over to the ice booth and sit down. Fearing hemorrhoids, I give up after a brief moment of “chilling”.
As I warm up outside, I chat with co-owners Gresham and Nic Bayley. The brothers are well aware that their new ice lounge isn’t likely to become anyone’s local. Instead, they’re positioning it as an attraction—like ping pong at SPiN or Ripley’s Aquarium—charging “admission” rather than cover fees and offering annual memberships for $50. They’re aiming to keep the reception less frosty than most nightclubs, replacing gruff bouncers with friendly hostesses at the door.
I mention how the parkas seem to make people act less douchey.
“It makes it less pretentious,” said Gresham. “You want to have fun here. Tone it down. No one is going to be sexy in an ice lounge. Don’t try to be. We’ll make sure you’re not.”
The Bayleys have built ice lounges all over the world. This one is the biggest. Their family’s company, Iceculture, perfected a freezing method that creates the glassy, transparent ice blocks. Because the ice functions as an insulator, the hydro costs are surprisingly low: their utilities bill hovers around $1,000 per month (nearly $500 less than a neighbouring lighting store, Gresham boasts). Even if the power goes out, the ice will stay solid for up to three days, provided the doors remain closed.
When I suggest that a freezing cold bar may be a tough sell in a city like Toronto, the Bayleys stress that it’s not really about being cold. “There are 20 of these in the world. It’s not about getting out of the heat, it’s about experiencing something new, it’s about the art. It’s an art exhibit at minus five with ice sculptures,” says Gresham. “It’s a self-contained winter carnival.” They intend to change up the theme to keep it current (haunted house, then Santa’s Village).
“We had this group of really good-looking blondes that came in earlier and one said, ‘I’m good-looking, I get into places for free. Why would I pay $18.95 to go to an ice lounge?’” Gresham says. “I thought, well, you’re probably about to pay 18 bucks to sweat in a sauna.”
There’s a warm-up room at the back of the space. It’s decorated with big-screen TVs, fake hunting trophies, an antler chandelier and a piano. Gresham says they’re going for a “prohibition-era speakeasy vibe,” and he really wants to get rid of the cheesy pop music that’s blaring over the sound system.
In one corner, a 21-year-old student named Ashley Gonzales is nursing her drink. The San Francisco native is here for OVO Fest. She thought Chill would be a fun new experience. “I was thinking, if it was in my city, would I go? Probably not. As a tourist, absolutely. It’s really cool. But I don’t think this would be a thing I’d come and do every Friday night. Maybe if there was more to do in the ice room, like karaoke, that’d be alright.” Then she takes a sip and announces, “It’s way too cold in there and way too hot in here.”
Back in the freezer, a bride-to-be in a plastic tiara and veil starts bobbing around with her entourage to the deafening peals of Katy Perry. The temperature necessitates near-constant movement, which lends itself well to short bursts of dancing. She nearly bounces into me. “Sorry!” she squeals. “I’m not paying attention. Too cold!”