Michael King, the new "king of Ossington," is waiting at Semolina Bakery with a tray of espressos and a diminutive architect named Guido Constantino. There's a meeting scheduled at Jezebel, the neo-burlesque bar across the street that is above The Saint, his gastro-pub set to open the first week of September. Mr. King has invested in both these businesses on the Ossington strip, Toronto's newest boho hot spot, and he's playing his customary role of charismatic front man.
Playing the gracious host, Mr. King credits Mr. Constantino for translating his ideas into a coherent design and his partners in Jezebel and The Saint with bringing the management talent to the table. "The spotlight tends to fall on me," Mr. King says. "But I become the face for projects that are no more mine than everybody else involved. I'm just part of a team."
Still, he has to articulate the dream and the dream is a new-age Ossington: hip but still welcoming to the masses; mainstream without being Starbucks and the Gap; Little Italy without the unhappy locals; the downtown club district without hooliganism and puking kids; Queen West before it lost its soul.
The guy for the job is handsome, seductive and stylish in a way that, according to his friend, Jeanne Beker, makes both men and women fall in love - I think she meant lust - with him.
Imagine a cross between George Michael's tomcat look and fashion designer Tom Ford's charm, with a New Zealand drawl.
Today he's wearing a black linen jacket, black T-shirt and indigo-blue designer jeans.
Now he's sitting around a table in a private room at Jezebel with the team that's running both it and The Saint. Referring to the one-year moratorium on restaurants and bars imposed by the city in May to slow the gentrification of Ossington, he says, "It's a good thing. There's a chance some big-box club was going to open with 2,000 capacity and there wasn't anything to prevent that from happening…"
Which left hanging in the air, unsaid, the fact that The Saint's application was filed just in time to be exempt from the moratorium. So Mr. King turns, arches an eyebrow and adds, "I know, it's easy for us to say because we're on the right side of the moratorium."
Everyone has opinions on the future of Ossington, but only a few people can turn their opinions on, say, what is desirably chic versus tacky, into taste-making. And that's a valuable talent in a Richard Florida-influenced world that believes the creative ecosystem is the answer to every city's dreams. In Toronto, Mr. King's idea of transforming a sleazy strip joint into a stylish burlesque house is an example. "What I love, what I'm passionate about," he says, "is looking at the world we live in and figuring out where it's going, what's next."
In keeping with his Gatsby-esque persona, Mr. King handles his investments through a holding company called Luxury Group International. In addition to The Saint, Jezebel and other ventures, he launched (and is editorial director of) Scene Advisor (www.sceneadvisor.com), an online guide for globetrotters and business travellers. On the site, he is described (did he write it himself?) as a "cultural connoisseur, social arbiter and charitable crusader" and "the new generation jet setter." To National Post gossip columnist Shinan Govani, he's a "chandelier-swinging man-about-town."
He's among the team of investors behind swanky King Street nightspots Atelier and Brant House. And he was, until cashing out his 50-per-cent investment a year ago, the chief executive officer and group creative director of sales whiz Geoffrey Dawe's start-up, Kontent Publishing, whose stable of magazines included FQ, Sir and Inside Entertainment. (Whether an example of Mr. King's sense of timing or his good luck, rumoured tensions with Mr. Dawe led to his exit shortly before Kontent became a victim of the recession. Mr. Dawe suspended operations two months ago and is looking for a buyer.)
To most people, even his friends, his past is mysterious, a series of dots that never quite connect. He grew up in Cambridge, a town on the North Island of New Zealand, to an entrepreneur father and a stay-at-home mother (they're both retired now). According to Mr. King, he ran cross-country competitions, played trumpet in the municipal band, acted in local productions of Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist , was exhibiting in art shows as a teenager. He studied graphic arts and ended up working for an ad agency in Australia, specializing in direct marketing. (Along the way, he had a short-lived marriage to an English girl.) One of the agency's clients was Zurich Financial Services, which offered him a job. He eventually moved to Switzerland and ended up the youngest strategic-business-unit head in the company's history. In 1996, he was promoted to senior vice-president of the newly formed Zurich Canada, which meant frequent business trips to Toronto.
Follow us on Twitter: