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.
“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.
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).
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.
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.”