“I think we’re retiring at two, to be honest,” says architect Omar Gandhi, as filtered light from a thick Halifax fog bursts through the window over his right shoulder. “They’re a lot of work, and I just can’t imagine having better clients than the two that we’ve had.”
Which means, fellow Torontonians, that when Matty Matheson opens his new eatery on Queen West in the fall, there will be exactly two restaurants populating Mr. Gandhi’s lauded portfolio; the other, Lady Marmalade, at 265 Broadview Ave., being the subject of our Zoom call.
So, just as Mies van der Rohe disciples once had to pilgrimage to Montreal’s Nun’s Island to gas up at the Bauhaus master’s one-and-only service station, devotees of Canada’s “next top architect” (as The Globe and Mail billed him in 2016) must come to Toronto to dine in a Gandhi. And no doubt there are fans: Since founding Omar Gandhi Architects in 2010, the Brampton-born, Halifax-based architect has had his striking and stoic coastal houses written up in countless international publications, and was awarded the Canada Council’s Prix de Rome prize in 2014.
Now 40, Mr. Gandhi laughs when asked if he felt like an enfant terrible back then. “I don’t think so at all, I’m pretty goodie two-shoes I’d say,” he chuckles. When reminded that the term also means a “young and successful person who is strikingly unorthodox, innovative or avant-garde,” he still balks. “I think some other people deserve that a bit more than me. I wouldn’t say that I’m pushing the boundaries all that much.”
Natalia Simachkevitch, one-half of the team behind Lady Marmalade, probably disagrees. After purchasing an already-gutted 1885 building to relocate her successful Leslieville brunch spot to, she hired Mr. Gandhi on the advice of her contractor, Derek Nicholson, even though the other architect she’d interviewed had more experience with restaurant design (it didn’t help, she says, that he came across like “a wet blanket” when proclaiming a restaurant in such an old building probably wasn’t the best idea).
“And Omar was, like, ‘I’m gonna destroy this project, we’re gonna bring in light, we’re gonna do this and that, and cut it open!’ and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m with this guy!‘ ” she remembers with a big laugh.
Note to other restaurateurs: Sometimes it’s better to hire the guy with his head in the clouds than the guy with his feet stuck in mud.
Mr. Gandhi did indeed “destroy” the building, in the best possible way: Since nothing was left of the interior – which was dark and confining anyhow – he suggested to the couple (the other half is David Cherry) that they let him rip away portions of the building’s floors to open things up right from the ground to the third floor.
“We sold them on the experience,” says Mr. Gandhi, who partnered with his friend Drew Sinclair of SvN on the project. “It’s a narrow building, right, and they needed space for their office. … It allowed them to imagine the different kinds of events they could have there.
“The diagram, from the outset, was about sculpting,” he continues. “It was all about taking away, and carving out, and allowing light to get down to that bottom level … that was the exercise, it was taking an eraser and starting to take out floor plates … from here, you’re going to look down to here.”
Ms. Simachkevitch and I, along with the head of Mr. Gandhi’s Toronto office, Stephanie Hosein, are standing on the tiny portion of what’s left of the third floor. Here, in the Lady Marmalade office, one can indeed look down to witness photons penetrating every corner of the restaurant, and illuminating the approximately 5000 square feet of Baltic birch paneling that covers almost everything. The precision with which these panels interlock – the strapping behind them was painted black to highlight the razor-thin gaps – and the clean, bright-yet-homey feeling they create is a reflection of the food that’s served here, which is non-greasy, locally sourced and beautifully presented.
Which makes it ironic that Ms. Simachkevitch first suggested a dark-wood, tiled, Parisian café theme to Mr. Gandhi, who, she remembers, countered with “‘but all the photos you post of food have so much light,’ and some of the images he was sending back to me made so much sense.”
“I think people come to you because they’re hoping you can give them something they haven’t thought of,” Mr. Gandhi confirms. “The food is a part of the space, the smell is part of the space; all of it reads as one cohesive idea and experience.”
And that experience turned out to be something of a surprise. “From the street, you would never, in a million years, imagine what you were walking into, both in terms of its openness and the light, but also the golden glow,” Mr. Gandhi says. “On the outside, it’s just a rugged brick building in a dilapidated-but-turning-the-tide kind of neighbourhood.”
“It’s unexpected,” Ms. Hosein agrees. “It’s something we try to do with our more urban work, too, it’s ‘how do we blend in with the urban fabric?’ We don’t want an ostentatious box.”
Indeed, other than a few strips of wood, a big window and a clean font, not much has been done to compete with the pockmarked, 135-year-old exterior; even an ugly, graffitied patch of peach paint was left untouched. It’s humble on the surface, but full of confidence on complexity on the inside – rather like the architect who penned it.
It’s also something Toronto restaurateurs should take note of, especially since there are so many other tired, old buildings on second-tier streets that await new life.
Your house is your most valuable asset. We have a weekly Real Estate newsletter to help you stay on top of news on the housing market, mortgages, the latest closings and more. Sign up today.