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The search for a new it spot Add to ...

Sassafraz went up in flames this week, blowing smoke in the face of celebrity-watchers who have long associated the Yorkville watering hole with the big names of the Toronto International Film Festival. This is where Mickey Rourke and Cuba Gooding Jr. took a drink on the open-air terrace, where Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones displayed his artwork.

The five-alarm, $2.5-million fire was so devastating that it's doubtful that Sassafraz will be able to rise quickly from the flames. Captain Mike Strapko of Toronto Fire Services, who was on the scene, thinks the building may have to come down. "It was a spaghetti of burned wood and wires," he says. Which raises a question: What will be the next hot spot (pardon the pun) where celebrities will go and their watchers will follow? Who can fill those well-heeled shoes?

While it never had an official relationship with the festival, Sassafraz received its share of the glam -- thanks to the fact that it was just a stretch limo away from the Cumberland Cinema and the Four Seasons Hotel. "Stars who want to be seen went to Sassafraz," observes Jimmy Molloy, an agent with Chestnut Park Real Estate who often squires stars like Renée Zellweger looking for property in the city.

The restaurant "was the geographical centre of Yorkville," he says. "It was never about the food or the service. It was about being there."

The location, he observes, has always transcended the operation occupying it. In the 1970s, the century-old building on the corner of Bellair and Cumberland was Mr. Tony's, and always packed. In the 1980s it was the Bellair Café, the city's it spot, where everyone from Robert Altman to Richard Gere went to eat, drink and be merry.

For the past 10 years, as Sassafraz, the address continued to yield gold. Rumour has it that the restaurant, where even locals like Garth Drabinsky went to talk business, took in revenues of between $6-million and $7-million a year.

"That's huge," exclaims Mr. Molloy, who used to run a Yorkville eatery himself. "In the end, one wonders: Is it the restaurant or the corner that makes the difference?"

Considering the poor reputation of its kitchen (Globe restaurant critic Joanne Kates recently called the food -- and service -- "appalling"), it's likely that other establishments within spitting distance of Sassafraz will gain from its loss. According to Michael King, creative director of Kontent Group (which publishes the celebrity-friendly magazine Inside Entertainment), Sassafraz's heir will be the soon-to-be-opened Hazelton Hotel. Its restaurant, run by chef Mark McEwan of North 44 and Bymark fame, will boast an 80-seat patio that will border Hazelton and Yorkville avenues -- perfect for people-watching.

A luxury private screening room with 35 seats will probably also help to make the spot the new centre of Toronto's celebrity-conscious universe in the fall.

Says Mr. McEwan, "We expect to be very busy for the film festival, and we will be working very hard to make sure we take care of the people who usually come to town for that event."

Meanwhile, customers from Sassafraz will go to some of the other Yorkville properties that already attract their share of the hip or the hangers-on. Among them is Flow on Yorkville Avenue, which in the summer operates a wrap-around patio that seats 80. "I imagine we'll likely pick up the overflow [from Sassafraz]" says manager Michael Flude. "It's Christmastime and we're already so busy."

Star-watchers with more refined tastes are saying they will instead seek out the Studio Café, upstairs in the Four Seasons, where the celebrities are as ubiquitous as morning coffee. This is where Salah Bachir, president of Cineplex Media, goes to get his fix on the famous. "You see them just walking up the stairs," he says. "I've seen everyone there. I even once had a discussion about art with Keith Richards at the bar."

The Four Seasons has the advantage of having the stars under its roof. Neighbouring venues like Prego Della Piazza, Sotto Sotto and Pangaea rely more on their reputations for good food and service to keep their tables filled -- and to host TIFF events.

"Are we going to do anything pro-actively to get the business left over by Sassafraz?" ponders Pangaea co-owner Peter Geary. "I'm not sure. I mean, how can we get their audience? They had location on their side."

It's like comparing apples and oranges, he suggests. Or, to put it in Yorkville terms, like comparing stars to their wannabes -- and Sassafraz had plenty of both.

Even though he is poised to become its biggest competition, Mr. McEwan is wishing the burned-out restaurant a holiday-like resurrection. "I assume it will be rebuilt," he says. "It's a beautiful site. Let's all assume it will happen."

Follow on Twitter: @Deirdre_Kelly

 

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