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Next year had better involve more food. This year's blur of cocktail parties, gallery openings, charity balls and most particularly club openings has been quite liquid with few solids. If party food does make a comeback, remember folks, it should be bite-sized. (How many times should a girl have to reapply her lipstick already?) And those of us who made one too many turns on the circuit last year are also truly tired of eating little splotches of guck off Chinatown surplus hot-and-sour soup spoons. No one ever looked good wearing a cocktail dress, jamming an oversized spoon into her mouth while simultaneously balancing a wine glass and clutch-shaped purse. One more thing: Let's hope that in 2004, parties with odd start times, staggered start times and other confusing, dinner-plan-mucking-up trends go the way of the satay skewer and the lychee martini.

Moving forward, Toronto's social scene in 2004 will continue to be a mix of what one member of the hipster protection program calls "high-low." To wit: The two biggest trends are ultra-high-end and ultra-relaxed (read: charmingly slummy). And the weird thing is, one pretty much dresses the same way to drink a Labatt 50 at the unpretentious, jukebox-equipped hangout The Communist's Daughter on Dundas Street West as one would for the new, $3-million Ultra Supper Club on Queen Street West. (For women, this city seems firmly stuck in the jeans and cavalier strappy heels with a sparkly top phase, much like London a couple of years ago; for men, dark jackets with only the top button done up, shirt collars open, expensive boots.)

Flashy places increased in number over the past 12 months, so a lot of people are betting millions that 2004 will be a very social year.

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King Street West, which has seen most of the cash injection, has become the city's upscale club district. Dining and dancing spots Eau and Brassaii opened on the strip, as did the high-design sushi spot Blowfish, all following the lead of Susur, which arrived on the street in 2000 and remains a hot reservation. And Crush Wine Bar and Rodney's Oyster Bar are both big, ambitious restaurants accented with lots of barstools.

With all the ad agencies and groovy gyms (Diesel and Totem) moving in, attracting the young, the hard bodied and the thirsty, what was once a wasteland is now a destination. Nectar, the restaurant with the hopping bar, was joined by C Lounge on Wellington Street, rounding out the new party district anchored by the vast West club, where there are still eager lineups.

Also on the high end, Yorkville is once again flush, transformed by the wealth of condo projects and well fed by the new fancy food emporium Pusateri's at Bay and Cumberland (it's all about the Atkins-approved takeout). Renovations by Precipice (the architectural design firm that did Lobby restaurant at Bloor Street and Avenue Road and the new Jie hair salon on Avenue) at Amber, the long-time hangout for the champagne set, begin in February. Locals and destination partiers remain well-watered year-round at Avenue Bar at the Four Seasons, the unofficial headquarters of the film festival. Despite the fact that many miss its familiar, downtrodden predecessor, La Serre, the new Avenue features lots of the heavy-gold-jewellery set and waitresses that have been around for ever.

Down the street, Lobby, which opened with a bang during the film festival in September, continues to draw crowds to its white sofas. And Prego della Piazza, the swell Italian eatery tucked into the courtyard of Renaissance Plaza, is scheduled for a redesign early in the new year.

Private clubs are set to be a local trend, with the Spoke Club at King and Portland due to open in May, finally putting an end to the suspense in certain circles about who has and who has not made the cut. Verity, the women's-only club at Queen Street East and Church Street, is also set to go next year, and rumour has it that Amber may become an official clubhouse by going private itself next year.

The bummier places (the "low" part of the high-low equation) are mostly in the west end. These days you see bankers and actors, poets and designers rubbing shoulders while swilling pints at places like Wide Open, a low-key bar at Spadina Avenue and Queen Street; ditto at any Royal Canadian Legion, where patrons born long after Vietnam are taking roost. Or any Brass Taps (especially the one across from the west-end YMCA, where the city's stay-at-home writers tend to congregate). These bars offer a downscale pub experience (though any English-style pub with a smelly carpet counts as bummy in my books) crossed with a bit of traditional suburban Ontario faux-roadhouse.

The bummiest of them all, Queen West's Gladstone Hotel, marks the end of the world at Dufferin. The Gladstone, always a great if scary bar (they've lost the hand-charred wooden plaques marking the best of the bar's now-deceased clientele, but still have not cleaned up the bathrooms) has had a great year. The karaoke nights continue to build steam, there have actually been reports of spontaneous poetry readings, and even Margaret Atwood's latest, Oryx and Crake, was launched there. Speaking of scuzzy bathrooms, the always-dodgy cans at the Horseshoe are now held together with duct tape. There is a limit to how far a person should go to pursue cool.

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Which brings us to next year's big opening, the place that intends to bring upscale and down together. At the much-anticipated Drake Hotel, in the emerging gallery mecca of West Queen West, about $6-million has gone into making it the perfect blend of high and low culture. The intent is to mix art crowds (the strip of Queen Street between Trinity Bellwoods Park and Dufferin Street was recently renamed the Art and Design district), performance, food and booze in an unpretentious setting. Actually, the trick here is that the expensive design is intended to look unpretentious. Even in a neighbourhood that has boomed "organically" with dozens of galleries and shops and restaurants popping up over the past four years, the Drake will still mark a major turning point on the corner of Queen West and Beaconsfield.

One of the nicest features of the Drake will be its rooftop bar. Ditto the rooftop at Ultra Supper Club, which has taken over the space of the old BamBoo. Expect a big scene outdoors this summer: The best parties of last summer in New York were all held on rooftops, which means we will mimic the trend here in 2004. Both the Drake and Ultra await warmer weather anxiously: The Ultra rooftop, swept clean of the BamBoo's faux Caribbean props, will have little cabanas to hang in. The rooftop of the Drake will look out over a yoga room for hotel guests. And the patio at Amber was turned, beautifully, last summer into a Moroccan-themed oasis.

Other New York trends gaining momentum as we head into 2004 are dancing -- and booze: After years of selling water to ecstasy-loaded youth, clubs are now all about liquor again. (After-hours parties are back as well, which really makes it feel like the eighties all over again.) Anybody with itchy feet can hit Teatro most nights (it has remained a hipster drop-in centre after supper, stoked by retro tunes) or the tiny, perfect Chelsea Room, where DJs spin every night of the week. Other places to cut a rug (that aren't those big 905-magnet clubs on Adelaide) are Revival on College Street at Shaw, Ultra Supper Club and Eau.

The Toronto International Film Festival, it's not hard to predict, will be an even bigger deal this coming year. Now that magazines like InStyle and Vanity Fair are throwing parties and companies like Chanel are coming in to dress the Hollywood invaders, the glamour stakes are way up.

Public participation in general is up, with salons like Trampoline Hall gaining popularity fast. The monthly lecture series that started off at the back of the Cameron House on Queen West may have to seek bigger digs as word spreads. Much has been made recently of the Chelsea Room debut of journalist Mireille Silcoff's salon for the young, hip and Jewish crowd (the idea is not just to drink and flirt, but to debate the meaning of being Jewish). Irony (as in cool kids slumming) may be back, but so is a strange new participatory zeal tinged with earnestness. I can hear the sound of generations clashing.

The biggest project of the year, the resurrection of the Distillery district, may be in for a tough winter. The bars and restaurants are pretty big to fill, and like old Montreal, it may take years to build up occupancy and get the rest of us used to travelling below Front Street for entertainment.

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But a new, 7,000-square-foot "retail concept" slated to open early next year should bring more bodies down to the cobbled streets of the Gooderham & Worts complex: Just when you thought yoga couldn't get bigger or more commodified comes Lileo, the new athletic and lifestyle store and hangout for those juiced up on life. Incidentally, are we not just about at maximum juice bar capacity yet? Has anyone else noticed you can pay $8 by the time you are done adding shots of healthy things into your fresh-squeezed concoction?

Other than yoga, the hot hobby to have right now is quilting (as in old-style bees). It enjoyed a surge of popularity in the past year, and if as many celebrities take to it as have to knitting, there should be galleries full of patchwork creations by summer. Crafty and wholesome fun! A nice antidote to the booze and dancing.

ldelap@globeandmail.ca

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