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Culinary Director, chef Craig Harding hangs out in Bar Prima, which opens Oct. 20 on Queen Street West in Toronto, promising a modern take on classic Italian cuisine.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Toronto chefs Craig Harding and Julian D’Ippolito want to bring back the “pomp and circumstance” of a nice meal out.

And one way they’re doing it is with the design of their new restaurant, Bar Prima, which opened on Queen Street West this week.

The 75-seat restaurant is a nod to a bygone era of glamour and glitz. The main dining room is a dimly lit space with a striking domed ceiling in gold leaf, a marble floor copied from a 1968 Vogue magazine spread of American artist Cy Twombly’s apartment in Rome, and custom-made banquettes upholstered in ultramarine Klein blue – the colour artist Yves Klein trademarked in the 1950s, which he said represented escape and infinity, an apt description of Bar Prima’s ethos.

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Overview shot of the main dining room. Bar Prima’s main floor dining room is old-school glam. The interior design was spearheaded by Ali McQuaid of Future Studio. The molten, gold-leaf ceiling is by craftsman Andrjez Kisza, who used to install gold leafing in mansions back in the 1980s before it went out of fashion. The marble floor pattern, fabricated by Ariston Marble, was inspired by a photo of artist Cy Twombly’s apartment in Rome, which Valentino used to show off his spring collection in 1968.

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The Red Beet & Bufala Caprese. Iaboni spent years at Buca Osteria & Enoteca before travelling to California to open Bar Monette in Santa Monica. When Harding approached him about joining Bar Prima he jumped at the opportunity. For the Red Beet & Bufala Caprese, the beets and cheese are cut into perfect circles and laid on top of a Madeira wine and basil sauce in a brilliant shade of green.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

“This restaurant is a throwback. We wanted to create a place with old-world charm and fun flourishes,” says Harding, whose collection of antique cigarette cases, bought from a dealer in Germany, will deliver each table’s check. “We hope our guests will get dressed up and make a real evening of it. We want them to ease into each course, to savour the ambience and feel really at home.”

For the past year, the duo – who are also behind popular Toronto eateries La Palma and Constantine – have been researching (and soul-searching) what it takes to open a lasting fine-dining restaurant in today’s environment.

Design is clearly central – but the restaurant’s food has also been impeccably curated. Bar Prima’s menu is classic Italian with some contemporary twists, such as the Scallops Rockefeller (chef de cuisine Nicholas Iaboni’s take on the traditional Oyster Rockefeller) and his Red Beet and Bufala Caprese, a dish that explodes with taste and colour.

The restaurant can be easy to miss from the street – especially during the day when the only identifier is a discreet plaque to the right of the door. At night, though, the exterior façade glows a deep amber as the light from the restaurant shines through glass blocks, which were shipped from Murano, Italy.

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Chicken Liver & Caviar Maritozzi. Chef de cuisine Nicholas Iaboni spent the past five months tweaking and perfecting every dish on Bar Prima’s menu, including this Chicken Liver & Caviar Maritozzi. The finest ingredients, combined with artful presentation, are how Iaboni ensures his customers feel pampered. 'I’m tired of going out to restaurants and feeling – not so much ripped off – but like I didn’t get what I paid for. The food we’re serving is reasonably priced for the quality they’re getting. I want our guests to feel like they’ve been served well and gotten value for their money.'

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Scallops Rockefeller. Bar Prima’s take on a 'Rockefeller' using East Coast diver scallops, instead of oysters, promises to be a diner favourite.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Inside, the gold ceiling, which took two weeks to install, is the focal point. “The craftsman was like Michelangelo, up there on scaffolding, carefully placing these four-inch squares of gold leaf to create a seamless surface,” says Harding, who credits their designer Ali McQuaid of Future Studio for pushing them to spend on key high-impact decor showpieces.

“Ali was good at selling us on the value of that. It’s funny, with our other restaurants, we’ve never focused on that level of detail before. We’ve always paid attention to the eye-level fixtures. Here we thought, well, we own the building. We’re going to be here a long time, so we’re going to do every surface right.”

D’Ippolito says they turned to some of their favourite restaurants for inspiration, such as Horses in Los Angeles (which has a Klein blue-ish exterior) and the Minetta Tavern in New York’s West Village. “It’s been there 20 years but feels like it’s been there 80 years because there is such a warmth to the space.” Nostalgia, he adds, was the guiding principle of the overall design. It even dictated the look of the all-white, custom-tailored uniforms (made by upscale clothing store Sydney’s) the restaurant’s chefs and front-of-house servers will wear.

“We’re doing more training here of our staff than we’ve ever done,” adds Harding. “The menu is very simple, with just the title of each dish. We did that deliberately because we want our servers to spend time at each table, really romancing the dishes and explaining to our customers where the ingredients come from and how each dish was prepared.” For example, under antipasto, the menu cites Bluefin Tuna Crudo (the server might add that it is garnished with garlic flowers) and the aforementioned Scallops Rockefeller (which you will likely be told is served on parsley salt).

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Sunchoke Ravioli. The Sunchoke Ravioli, stuffed with sunchoke & mascarpone and garnished with picked sunchokes, is served with a sauce made from burnt vegetables.

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The lamp clock on the bar. It was important to Harding that the room be filled with vintage artifacts that harkened to a bygone age. The lamp clock (there are two on each end of the bar) is from vintage store Mrs. Huizenga (or Mrs. H to her regular customers) in Toronto’s Junction neighbourhood.Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

Not so long ago, this stretch of Queen Street West was primarily home to dive bars and pizza joints. In recent years, however, it’s turned over. The Drake Hotel is nearby and just added 32 new rooms, Matty Matheson’s high-end Prime Seafood Palace opened a few blocks away last year, and the Art Nouveau-inspired Prequel and Co. Apothecary from BarChef owner Frankie Solarik, joined the street in March.

All in all, the Bar Prima’s owners feel like they’re in good company. “The industry has had a rough go,” says Harding, in response to a recent Restaurants Canada survey that found eight in 10 restaurant companies reported lower profits in 2023 than in 2019, owing to rising food and operating costs.

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Cocktail. Guests are going to sidle up to the bar to watch mixologist James Doyle whip up one of his signature cocktails, such as Bar Prima’s Royal Vine (below), a cocktail made of Tromba Blanco Tequila, basil liqueur, Carpano Botanic Bitter, lime, grapefruit, Angostura bitters and orange.

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Sarah Palmer/The Globe and Mail

While lingering effects of the pandemic may also still be affecting restaurants, meals out hold a great deal of significance to people, says Harding. “They still want to celebrate. They still want to mark special occasions, and they want to do so in a grander fashion. They might be going out less often, but when they do, they want quality, they want impeccable service and they want a unique experience.

“That is what Bar Prima – and fine dining – is about.”

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