The beat-up auto-repair shop built in the Model T era seemed destined to become a memory as a revitalization of Toronto's King Street West surrounded it with cafés, condos and creative office spaces.
Empty and dilapitated for years, it might have been simpler to tear down the concrete block and brick shell of the one-storey garage at 101 Portland St. and start over. But restaurant owner Janet Zuccarini had a vision of what the space with its peeling paint and shelves lined with old oil cans might become.
She'd seen a trend toward using raw features of industrial spaces as design elements in restaurants in Rome and New York. And this building definitely had raw character to spare.
So last year, the garage just north of King was transformed into Gusto 101, lit by skylights and decorated with licence plates. It cozily accommodates about 90 diners. The roof would make a large patio space for just as many diners, Ms. Zuccarini thought, if only she didn't have to worry about rain, wind and winter.
Then she had another inspiration: enclose the space in glass and add a unique retractable roof for good measure.
"I wanted to push the boundaries to make the dining experience extraordinary and Gusto 101's retractable rooftop creates just that, with a patio season that doesn't end when summer does," explains Ms. Zuccarini, who also owns Trattoria Nervosa in Toronto's Yorkville.
While there's no official definition of patio season in Toronto – some restaurants offer open-air decks for the hardy year round – it lasts only between late May and mid-September when average daily temperatures reach 20 C, considered comfortable enough to sit outside without a coat, according to WeatherSpark.com.
Ms. Zuccarini wants to open the roof as often as possible between April and November, to extend the alfresco season by at least two months. She turned to OpenAire Inc., an Oakville, Ont., company that has built sliding roofs for large sports complexes around the world and is developing a new niche business in designing smaller retractable roofs for restaurants.
When Mark Albertine, the company's president, looked at 101 Portland, he could see some obvious problems. The roof was wide open except for a low railing around the edge. Enclosing it made sense, but building an extensive structure over the roof would add more weight than the fragile walls could support.
The wall on the north side of the building that was shared with a neighbouring house was only eight inches thick, so it could not be a load-bearing wall. OpenAire worked with engineers to design the equivalent of a structural steel cage around the building that could bear the weight of three steel trusses needed across the top to support the glass roof.
"Normally my clients like to find ways to hide the structural stuff," Mr. Albertine explains. But Ms. Zuccarini and her interior designer, Toronto firm Munge Leung, decided to leave the beams and rivets exposed. "In fact they said, 'Let's make the beams bigger and paint them bright red to make them stand out,'" he says.
Other structural elements of the former garage include a bar in an area where cars under repair used to be hoisted off the floor with pulleys attached to the ceiling, and original shelving still lined with vintage oil cans. A classic Texaco sign leads the way to the basement and a vintage lighted Good Year Tires sign has just been installed on a wall clad in rusted steel on the roof patio.
"Creating a look and feel that's authentic to me was really important. I worked closely with Alessandro Munge and we agreed on so many details, from the lighting to the vintage pieces, that really make the design work. I think when people come here they really appreciate that authenticity," Ms. Zuccarini says.
"We call it an industrial enoteca," which is Italian for wine bar, says Angela Laurence, Gusto 101's marketing communications manager. The buildings wine cellar was an "oh-oh" moment that turned into a inspiration as well, she notes. As work began, it was discovered that the foundation of the house next door needed to be rebuilt. The designers used the excavation as an opportunity to dig a basement under the shop floor and create a wine cellar big enough to host parties of 25.
All that's needed to open the roof is the flick of what looks like a dimmer switch. That starts a motor that begins slowly winding up a belt made of steel and Kevlar that pulls the glass panels slowly open over the course of about eight minutes. The opening can be stopped at any point along the way to leave just a small gap or as much as two-thirds of the patio open to the sky.
The designers came up with the idea of having one fixed panel to keep the bar covered and two telescoping panels that stack on top of each other when the roof is open. They lock into each other to make the roof watertight when it's closed, Mr. Albertine explains. The entire span is nearly 10 metres wide and 16 metres long.
"It's all thermally insulated glass and it seals, so you'll be comfortable even in the middle of January up here," he says.
The wall on the south side is also a series of glass panels that slide on a set of tracks and stack together in a closet-like area near the bar when they're opened. Another bi-folding glass door on the end of the patio can be opened to let in the breeze as well.
Gusto 101's striking overall design has just won this year's international Hospitality Design Magazine Award in the casual restaurant category and will be featured in the June issue. "I think winning an international design award will definitely help elevate Gusto's image here and abroad," Ms. Zuccarini says. Open only a few months, the restaurant has already developed a steady clientele.
One thing Ms. Zuccarini won't reveal is what the roof cost. Each project is custom and the costs vary depending on features. But restaurants with opening roofs that OpenAire has built in New York, Chicago and Boston have seen a payoff in more clientele because of the ability to extend the patio season, Mr. Albertine says.
"The restaurants that we've worked with are popular places and are always in a need of expanding their spaces. People want to come to those places and usually prefer the patio seats since it's brighter and gives an outside feeling even in winter. They can double the size of their space by building the retractable roof and cover the patio, and this can mean their revenues often double as a result," he says.
Clients also save energy because they don't have to do as much air conditioning or dehumidify the air. "It also saves on lighting as the glass roofs let in abundant natural light," he adds.
"Restaurants are definitely a growing part of our business," Mr. Albertine says. So far about 10 per cent of the roof projects OpenAire has done are for restaurants. The company's goal is to increase the proportion to 30 to 40 per cent.
He finds that restaurants vary in the number of days they open their roofs.
"In the summer time it's a slam dunk that you want more air. But in the spring and fall people will decide for themselves how much they want to open it." That's why the design also has the glass side doors that open. "It's probably more likely that in April and November you'll just want the side doors open rather than the roof."
It's all a matter of clients working out what's right for them, he adds. "Every client asks, 'How often should I open the roof?' I tell them, 'You'll figure it out.'"