The Critic: with its new downtown restaurant, the Drake continues to conquer Toronto
Even for a hotel, the Drake comes with a lot of baggage. Ten years ago, the dot-com entrepreneur Jeff Stober spent $6 million, what seemed a crazy amount, renovating a flophouse on a nasty block of Queen West. He talked big—he wasn’t opening a mere boutique hotel but “an adult multiplex” for bohemian culture, whatever that meant. He hired an art curator and a social-convener-in-residence (the literary agent Sam Hiyate, who took meetings in the café in his bathrobe). The grimy basement was converted into a venue for experimental concerts and one-woman plays about gender dysphoria. On weekends, the place turned into a nightclub with a velvet rope, the narrow sidewalk blocked by bachelorette parties.
I steered clear. All those smug cocktail connoisseurs were hard to take. But as the hotel acquired the patina of an institution, it became harder to resist its pull. Stober hired smooth and attentive servers, as well as inventive chefs like Anthony Rose, who, before he left to open the Dupont restaurant Rose and Sons, made excellent fried chicken and artisanal burgers. The Drake’s drinks are pretty damn good, too: come wintertime, staff light a firepit on the rooftop terrace, hand out Hudson’s Bay blankets and serve hot apple cider spiked with whisky.
Not only did the Drake last, it changed the city in its image. Renovators marched into the Queen West frontier, converting Beaconsfield rooming houses into single-family mansions. The hotel became a clubhouse for hipsters, whose ethos of curated consumption is the new norm. Stober created a lifestyle brand in the truest sense of the term. Because of the Drake, we’ve memorized esoteric cocktail bitters, wear lumberjack plaids and decorate our living rooms with vintage Canadiana. We expect restaurants to be more than places to eat: they should offer a cultural experience, usually some combination of DJ sets and installation art. The Drake now merits three clothing and accessories boutiques (on Queen West, in the downtown Bay, and at Yonge and Eglinton). The Drake Devonshire Inn, which has 10 rooms, a performance space and a restaurant, will open this spring in Prince Edward County.
The city’s Drake-ification picked up pace with the unveiling last October of a stand-alone restaurant, Drake One Fifty, at York and Adelaide. The ground floor of a 1980s office tower, across the street from a Keg and a Little Anthony’s, is a strange location for a Queen West–raised creature. But the Drake brand has proven to be a natural fit downtown. The first clue that it’s a Drake property is the bright orange garden gnomes perched like ironic totems on the front patio. The new restaurant is an update of a Parisian brasserie, with long leather banquettes, a Moroccan tile floor in a dizzying geometric pattern, an elaborate trellis that’s meant to divide up the sprawling room but mostly reminds me of the Golden Girls’ lanai and an oval marble bar that seems to be the preferred hunting ground of downtown cougars. There’s contemporary Canadian art everywhere: a sculpture made of disposable coffee cups by Eleanor King in the vestibule, a Douglas Coupland mural of a sunset in one alcove and, in the washrooms, shadowy videos (of what, it’s hard to say) by the silent film revivalist Guy Maddin. It’s a grander Drake, the sort of place to go for a post-ballet snack.
Ted Corrado, who previously ran the austere ROM restaurant C5, replaced Rose as the Drake’s executive chef. He isn’t launching a food revolution at One Fifty. Instead, he’s cooking gastropub standards with trendy ingredients like black truffle and shishito peppers. There are also show-offy dishes plainly targeted at the meat-loving financier, like a rotisserie chicken served with root veg in a roasting pan. One weeknight, I met two friends and shared a carving board heaving with an extravagant, 34-ounce côte de boeuf. The servers had to pull up a neighbouring table so there’d be enough room for the board. The cut, from Cumbrae’s, was a couple of inches thick and of the intensely mineral flavour that’s only achieved after a long aging process. The meat was tender and moist, and we didn’t really need the accompanying blob of Kozlik’s grainy mustard or the stainless-steel vessel of jus. It came with a deep-fried stack of buttery scalloped yukon golds—a spud mille feuille.
We rounded out dinner with a complicated-sounding but disappointingly ho-hum crudo of Hokkaido scallops, cubes of pickled kohlrabi and a black olive reduction, plus a plate of impressively enormous B.C. sardines dressed with a clever salty-tart garnish of capers and chunks of pink grapefruit. The sardines were deliciously oily, pulled off the grill at the exact right moment. By the time we left, the crowd was noticeably younger than earlier in the night, and nearly everyone appeared to be on a date. Coupland likely never expected his pop art mural would inspire hand-holding across tables.
I came back another week for lunch with a friend who immediately spotted tables of former colleagues to avoid. Midday, the place is a scene with money managers leaning toward the safest things on the menu, like the house burger, which comes slathered with Russian dressing (currently experiencing a kitsch revival). I had a plate of handmade pasta tossed with meaty chanterelles and a confit of rabbit. It was over-salted and the rabbit far too gristly—Terroni does a better job at rustic Italian.
The restaurant was several degrees more chaotic at midday: so many suits trying to be heard above the plink-plink-plink of LCD Soundsystem. Our pixie-ish waitress was Deschanel-cute in a way you don’t usually encounter downtown, but she was clearly overwhelmed and disappeared for long stretches. She steered us to the house wine—at One Fifty, it’s called Fat Banker, while at the hotel, it’s Starving Artist. Nothing so neatly encapsulates the Drake’s witheringly ironic sensibility.
I asked for a Fat Banker chardonnay. It turned out to be pretty damn good.