It is the end of September, and Jeff Stober does not look worried. The Toronto International Film Festival – that yearly deadline for restaurateurs and hoteliers to launch their new wares – has passed, and he’s sitting in a cove at his new restaurant, Drake One Fifty, as it prepares to open two weeks later than planned. Some of his 200 employees amble in to test the restaurant’s first lunch service. The retro photo booth, just like the one at the hotel, is being assembled. The marble bistro counter is shining with just the right degree of lustre.
Everything is, or will soon be, just right. And the timing? It opens Oct. 2. “There’s always another TIFF,” says Mr. Stober, his thin, cardiganed figure in a yoga-perfect posture on the banquette. “When you’re opening for 10 or 20 years, there will be many TIFFs.” This sounds audacious – but to believe Mr. Stober and his creative staff, it’s absolutely sincere. His company has a 10-year lease on the space, a former bank in the Financial District, and it’s been expensively fitted out with custom-made cabinetry, furnishings and panelling – some of which is made of plywood. Drake One Fifty shows the scope of Mr. Stober’s ambition, for his businesses and for the unusual design sensibility that sets them apart. This is a restaurant, but it is also a brand extension: “Drake without beds,” as Mr. Stober puts it. Will it work on Bay Street?
If it does, that plywood will be an important detail. The restaurant’s interior is by the London designer Martin Brudnizki, who’s worked with the private Soho House clubs, but it draws on a style born in Parkdale.
When the Drake Hotel opened in 2004, it was distinguished by its mashup sensibility, blending the old terrazzo floors and wainscoting of the rundown hotel with contemporary additions. Cabinets and panels made of Douglas fir plywood, designed by Torontonian John Tong, were everywhere: straight from the lumberyard but used in a sophisticated manner, and as Canadian as your Dad’s garage workshop.
Here, the plywood stands in counterpoint to much more refined materials, like that Calacatta marble bartop – which is thick and solid and keeps going where you can’t see it. “We talk a lot about authenticity,” Mr. Stober says. “When you put your hand under a marble bar, and you feel that it stops after one or two inches? I hate that stuff. Build it quality, build it to last, and people will recognize that, and you’ll be rewarded for those design choices.”
This is one of Mr. Stober’s credos, and it has turned this former IT-industry entrepreneur into a hospitality impresario and, he is hoping, a Toronto ambassador of design.
At some point, the Drake style became a brand and the heart of a business. The enterprise includes Drake One Fifty, the hotel, three retail stores, and as of April another hotel, Drake Devonshire, in Prince Edward County, designed by Mr. Tong’s office. All carry a blend of materials and products that evoke urban thrift-shop Canadiana with hints of Europe and a big dash of Brooklyn.
After that comes an expansion of the original Drake Hotel that will add about 20 rooms and new event space, and then, Mr. Stober hopes, a hotel-restaurant-cultural venue, taking over an entire building in “a fabulous American city.” (Mr. Stober has a second home in Manhattan.)
“Going forward, we are the small Queen West brand that we believe has legs,” he says. “We believe Torontonians want to stand behind us and we’ve got something to offer that is relevant.”
And the heart of Drake’s offering is design: an eclectic combination of new and old, rough and polished, modernist and (very loosely) historic. While the food and beverage program at the Drake properties is serious, the design sensibility is what sets them apart. Sitting with Mr. Stober at the restaurant are two of his collaborators: Mia Nielsen, the Drake’s curator, and Michael Awad, an architect, former academic and artist who works as Mr. Stober’s sounding board and detail master.
Mr. Awad quotes from a corporate “style guide,” really a manifesto for the Drake’s vision: “A playful hybrid of respect for heritage and forward-looking contemporary design.” There is a slide show of perhaps 100 photos, mostly culled or taken by Mr. Stober himself. Flipping through the sequence, rapt by the presentation, Mr. Stober and company call out references: a hotel in Berlin, the restaurant at the Standard Hotel in New York, a house by the Chilean architect Sebastian Irarrazaval, who worked on a never-built plan for the Drake Hotel. Some themes emerge: a prominent role for art; lots of wood, in various states and finishes; contrasts of old and new, high and low art.
All this plays out clearly in the restaurant, which Mr. Awad says was almost named “Drake Brasserie and Bar.” In keeping with the nouveau-brasserie genre of the moment, it feels vaguely classic, but is in fact absolutely 2013. There are seven different kinds of seating, including wooden Thonet chairs, modernist webbed-leather ones and high stools (elaborately custom-made) that look like sixties car seats, only more comfortable.