Eclectic hotel bars entice locals and make it difficult for guests to leave
We think of the lounge as an extension of your home’s living room — only better,” says Mia Nielsen, curator and cultural programmer of the Drake, sitting in the lounge of the hotel, where patrons cluster on low sofas. As she says this, she mashes a
peppermint teabag against the side of her mug with a spoon. Wafts of minty steam envelop her. In the background, the fireplace’s flames dance lazily. Above it, a movie screen plays kitschy cartoons.
It may be cold out, but it’s warm in here. If anyone knows how to create ambiance — particularly of the idiosyncratic variety — it’s the Drake. Since opening in 2001, the 19-room boutique hotel has become a cultural landmark on Queen St. West in Toronto, consistently doing brisk business.
A big part of the Drake’s charm is its eclectic interior design, evolving art exhibits and events. The main-floor lounge (there is also a sky yard and underground domain) has three zones: a back dining room illuminated by lightbox art and antique mirrors; the central bar; and an elevated section at the entrance with sofas and little black-and-silver deco tables that resemble spools.
This broken-up floor plan creates interest. “We always have different episodes going on. There could be a couple on the sofas, and a long table in the back
with people having dinner,” Nielsen explains. The Drake also hosts nifty trivia nights and, this past October, the lounge was the site of a wedding.
Its low-brow furniture — a ragtag of tufted leather sofas you could imagine in a nineteenthcentury saloon — and low sturdy tables allow guests to kick back in comfort. “We run an interesting balance of bringing mid-century modern touchstones, such as the leather bar stools,” Nielsen says. “We also have elements that remain unchanged, including the terrazzo floor, the brass bar top. It’s classic. It makes you feel good.”
Hotel guests and locals love the Drake’s laidback nature, Nielsen says. “Over the past two years, it’s actually become more cozy and casual. The communal
tables, made by John Tong of [the Toronto-based 3rd Uncle Design Inc.] who also designed the Drake, are new,” she says, referring to the heavy-duty hightops
with industrial joinery. “People come after work with friends, we join the tables, and everyone can sit together. It’s perfect for trivia nights.”
Just as fine dining has been waning of late, hotel bars are undergoing a relaxed period. Tourists checking in for a few nights don’t necessarily want all the fuss and formality of a night in stiff chairs. A sign of a successful hotel bar is one frequented by locals — that means lightening up where interior decor is concerned.
The anti-slick aesthetic is a draw at the four-yearold L’Hotel St. James in Moncton, N.B. Its 10 hotel rooms may be modern and located above the 140-
seat resto/bar, St. James Gate, which opened nine years before the hotel, but the vibe is decidedly easygoing. “We did extensive renovations on the bar. We hand-plastered the walls and put in archways,” says Chris Hooper, the general manager. “It’s got an old-world Mediterranean feel with lots of copper and really nice dark wood trim.”
The owners have also found a resourceful (andenvironmental) way to convey a one-of-a-kind feel. “One of the owners and I do a lot of scavenging,” Hooper explains. “We’ve got stained glass windows and pews from old churches that were being torn down — some of it is 600-year-old furniture.”
The resto-bar has a year-round following, says Hooper, of the 30-something crowd comprised of professionals,artsy types and professors from the nearby French university. On a typical night, the bar averages between 275 and 350 guests. Though, he points out boutique hotels in Moncton have growing pains. “The idea of a
boutique hotel in the Maritimes is much different than Toronto. We ran into trouble with guests who thought everything should be quiet by 10 o’clock, but it’s much
better now,” he says.
As for booze, the Gate’s locals have been reaching for more ambitious brews. “We’ve really been growing our selection, particularly our scotch and imported beer — we’ve now got 25 different beers on tap, 30 imported beers and 25 different scotches. We’re gently pushing our guests from the domestic beer to open up and try new stuff. So now instead of Molson Canadian, they’re drinkingWarsteiner.”
But are they sipping absinthe behind green velvet curtains? The recently overhauled InterContinental Hotel in Montreal dedicated $3.2 million of its $14- million reno budget to the bar and the restaurant. Theresult is Sarah B, a gorgeously decadent and original 85- seat absinthe bar that opened last year payingto 19th-century siren Sarah Bernhardt.“We didn’t want just a hotel bar for our guests. We wanted to create something special for Montrealers,” says Monique Orr, director of Sales and Marketing. “The decor is pure magic. There’s nothing typical about it.”
The interior flaunts sumptuous walnut floors and Murano chandeliers. Tucked into the long bar are 14 stunning dark green stools (a nod to absinthe, perhaps?) with nailhead detailing. Guests can get up to no good in the seductive velvet banquettes that can seat many or just a few. Curtains can be drawn for real privacy. Sarah B also opens to different zones. “Entre Deux, which means “caught in between,” is the space that opens to the restaurant, Osco!, Orr says.
“The bar is authentic — this is the only absinthe bar in Canada. Sarah B was created around the history of absinthe,” Orr says, noting the heady elixir has been gaining a following in Montreal. “You can flambé it, mix it into the cuisine, as our chef does. We also have special absinthe glassware that is absolutely beautiful.”
But, despite its originality, the bar is not ostentatious. “A lot of new places are intimidating and expensive. They want to show they’re posh and opulent. We are very well priced. A glass of absinthe is $7. We designed this bar for locals,” Orr says.
Another bar turning heads with neighbourhood types is Montreal’s Koko Restaurant & Bar, which opened in 2008 inside the Opus Hotel. A kaleidoscope of colours, fabrics, textures and live DJs equate to a full-body sensory experience. It should be noted the Koko lounge and Opus Hotel are housed in an original avant-garde building from 1914, the first poured concrete building in North America.
As such, Katherine Evans, vice-president of Opus, called upon design master Robert Bailey to tackle the challenging space, which has a heritage side (the diningroom) and traditional component (the bar area). “The greatest design challenge was dealing with the cavernous space,” Evans says. “How do you create intimacy when you’ve got 25-foot ceilings?”
The solution? “Add beautiful heavy drapery, six massive chandeliers to impart intimacy in a very large room and a layering of fabrics and patterns,” she says. “It’s got an eclectic design with warm carpet. There are no hard surfaces, mainly through lighting and fabrics and textures.” In the centre of the lounge, a lime green runway lets guests strut their stuff. An outdoor portion is decked in comfy contemporary sofas.“As soon as it gets hot out, it’s packed by Montrealers,” she says.
Bailey channelled the decadent salons frequented by Oscar Wilde and introduced the exotic drawings of Aubrey Beardsley for a fetching result that is luxurious but very inviting. “We worked hard to accommodate international guests, but the largest part of our business is locals, and they’ve fallen in love with our food and service,” Evans says.
And, really, you can’t ask for better fans.