Ask anyone about Toronto, and most points of reference will relate to the annual film festival, TIFF. This star‑studded stop on the movie premiere circuit each September finally moved to a venue befitting its global profile three years ago. From its fusty old home in midtown Yorkville, it has been installed in a gleaming custom‑designed facility, the Bell Lightbox, in the heart of downtown.
But though the festival might be the spotlight-stealer, another industry has long loomed large here, at least for locals: hospitality. Both Fairmont and Four Seasons were founded, and are headquartered, in Toronto. Their names appear as presenting sponsors on dozens of marquees across town, including the second-highest-profile cultural venue: a 2,071-seat opera house, known as the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. But for visitors there was a problem. Despite this heritage, Toronto has historically been long on upscale hotels – businesslike ho-hums aimed at weekday road warriors – and short on chic boltholes for weekend indulgence. In the past few years, however, that has changed. Toronto is now a prime getaway spot, and if the corporate-to-chic balance is still not quite balanced, there are signs it soon will be.
Certainly, Toronto was always an appealing, almost accidental city. For some time it was a standard-issue regional Ontario town, but once Francophone factions in Quebec finagled a new law in 1977 requiring all business conducted in Canada’s then-biggest city, Montreal, to be bilingual, most major firms fled the commensurate costs. They settled in Anglophile Toronto, and so morphed it into a metropolis and financial hub. The makeover took less than a decade; but that it was so rapid and so recent is one reason Torontonians retain a small-town politeness, and the city remains reassuringly human in scale.
The heart of downtown is studded with a few skyscrapers and the Star Trek-ish CN Tower (which reigned as the world’s tallest structure until it was debunked by Dubai’s Burj Khalifa six years ago). But otherwise it’s a low-slung place, with tidy streets that are easy to stroll. Toronto’s miles-long east-west axis, an answer to Oxford Street or Fifth Avenue, is Queen Street (along which the handy hop-on, hop-off trams constantly trundle). This stitches together the commercial zones along the waterfront with the residential and retail areas on the northern reaches. Those sit either side of the city’s other axis, the bustling throughway Yonge Street, where the major draws for visitors are the upscale shopping areas of Yorkville and Rosedale. Most tourists, though, will remain close to the water: the Old Town and the Distillery District were once warehouse-filled, but now both have benefited from a Covent Garden-style renovation. And the Entertainment and Financial Districts in the centre of the city are Toronto’s sparkling hubs – home to many of the latest hotels.
The five-star incumbent is The Hazelton, in Yorkville. Open since 2007, it’s close to the longtime home of the film festival and became the standard berth for festival VIPs. It has giant suites whose granite bathrooms boast underfloor heating, and a discreet lobby for hassle-free check-in. The terrace restaurant, One, is among the city’s busiest social centres on summer days; come early afternoon for a deconstructed Cobb salad and a glass of white wine, sheltered from the sun by a giant black umbrella.
But The Hazelton now has to compete for its clientele. The Ritz-Carlton opened in early 2011. Rooms and common areas are decorated in corporate-comfort style with a few local concessions (look for the maple-leaf motifs embedded in the lobby marble). Its biggest asset is its restaurant, Toca, which became one of the hottest tables in the city within days of opening its doors. Though the locavore-style food is impressive (and the cheese cave at the centre of the room an unorthodox touch), it’s the Canadian-heavy wine list that is the real draw, with crisp rieslings from one of Niagara’s 100-plus vineyards or the emerging wineries in Prince Edward County. Another contender is the Thompson, a sister property to the original in New York, boasting mod-styled rooms (almost entirely in minimalist black and white, with splashes of bright orange) and a sleek, stainless-steel Lobby Bar that’s the best place in the area for an early-evening martini.
Last year, three more luxury hotels opened in short succession: the Trump, the Shangri-La and a new Four Seasons to replace the creaky 1970s original. First up was the Trump, with its 261 rooms and suites in a 65-storey skyscraper with views across Lake Ontario, a restaurant featuring a temperature-controlled chocolate laboratory (entertaining, if patently unnecessary) and a 4,000sq ft presidential suite complete with its own screening area (this is TIFF’s city, after all). The Shangri-La, a few blocks away, lures visitors with vast rooms (500sq ft and up), a first-rate day spa, and literally next door, a branch of Momofuku, New York’s awards-laden modern Asian restaurant helmed by David Chang. Lastly – over in Yorkville, two minutes’ walk from The Hazelton – is the Four Seasons, a 259-room purpose-built complex, whose design was overseen by local firm Yabu Pushelberg, with Daniel Boulud (making his Canadian debut) superintending restaurants and bars.
That name-droppish roll call of chefs is a tip-off to the Torontonian obsession with food. Local palates are impressively adventurous (no real surprise, given that one in two of the city’s 2.5m residents was born outside Canada). Take Susur Lee, the amiable, ponytailed chef who’s constantly on Canadian TV championing upscale Chinese food. At namesake bistro Lee, his fusion menu combines standards from his own Hong Kong background with southeast Asian dishes such as salted Singapore slaw and satay. Nota Bene is another ambitious fusion spot, housed in a glossy glass box that sits incongruously on a nondescript block of Queen Street. Even on a Monday night the huge room is filled with boisterous locals of all ages. The menu here reaches far, serving truffled housemade pastas, brisket burgers, octopus on a bed of tangy kimchi, and warm Asian duck salad.
East of the centre, Ruby WatchCo eschews global-table ambitions in favour of upscale comfort cooking. There’s an industrial edge to the decor, with patinated-metal drawers lining an entire wall. But the superb food is lovingly handmade by co-owner and chef Lynn Crawford and chef Lora Kirk, with a single set meal each night tailored to whatever fresh ingredients are on offer (though Kirk’s sublime carrot cake, if it’s on the menu, is a must all year round).
For Canadian cuisine – yes, such a thing exists – the table to book is at Canoe, inside downtown’s Mies van der Rohe-designed TD Bank tower. Despite the high-tech exterior, its decor is rustic and rough-hewn, and the food (rib-eye, lamb shank) would please a Rocky Mountain pioneer. Angle for an early-evening seating and a table in the south-west corner for lovely sunset views.
A few blocks from the Royal Ontario Museum in Yorkville – whose Daniel Libeskind-designed deconstructivist Michael Lee-Chin Crystal extension resembles a bouquet of glass shards passionately stabbed into the earth – is Holt Renfrew, the mega-department store which has a stylish café and is the local answer to Selfridges. Holt tussles with The Room at the Bay for the best selection of upscale labels in the city, from Balmain to Tom Ford.
But Toronto has a few home-grown luxury labels worth seeking out, too, such as Pink Tartan, by Kimberley Newport-Mimran. Its quirky collections are profuse with animal prints and Day-Glo colour accents, but are classically cut, which keeps them relatively age-friendly. Among younger talents, the standout is Philip Sparks, who, a couple of years ago, launched a line of womenswear with a retro, Thom Browne-style aesthetic similar to the menswear for which he first became known. The Aladdin’s Cave-like Artifacts, meanwhile, sells whatever catches the owners’ eye. Cashmere sweaters jostle for space with handmade cushions and gleaming mirrors, a vitrine’s worth of antique glasses and candy-coloured suitcases.
The Drake Hotel General Store is equally eclectic, filled with vintage-style trinkets – maps, globes, Bakelite radios and toys – while the silk, velvet and hand-printed Indian-cotton cushions piled high at Constantine Living nearby are so fetching as to be worth cramming into even the tiniest suitcase, shimmering in endless jewel tones and textures. All these are proof that Toronto has a distinct creative identity in the making; here’s hoping it can trickle up and inspire some chic independent hoteliers. Φ