Thanks to the Drake, hotel bars may finally get the recognition they deserve in this town

Few things in this city’s recent history have generated the kind of buzz the Drake Hotel has. Whether or not it lives up to the hype remains to be seen, but it’s obvious six-million-dollar-investment man Jeff Stober is anchoring his baby to something in the idea of a cool hotel bar that sets it apart from the regular watering hole. What is that something? There’s a mystique, many legends and a touch of both class and desperation. BookTV editor-in-chief Daniel Richler and eye Weekly’s Bert Archer, Edward Keenan and Joel McConvey haunted the city’s hotel bars one increasingly boozy Monday night to look into their allure.

THE PLACE: The Rex, 194 Queen W. 4:30pm.

THE HISTORY: If you ask bartender Bob Ross (who’s been here since 1965) when the Rex opened, he’ll tell you “nobody has that long a memory.” Turns out, it’s 1951, and by the mid-’80s it had become one of Toronto’s foremost homes of blues and jazz music.

THE AMBIENCE: Still a functioning residential hotel — $750 a month will get you a room, a door that almost fits its jamb, and the pleasures of a shared bathroom. The bar is smoky, ragged and comfortable. It’s the hotel-bar equivalent of a greasy spoon: cheap, dingy and authentic.

SIMILAR SPOTS: The Gladstone; The Waverly (home of both the Silver Dollar Room and The Comfort Zone).

OBSERVATIONS: The Rex is a holdover from a time when just about the only place you could get a drink in Toronto was in a hotel (Torontonian lifer Edward Keenan remembers his father telling stories of “going to the hotel,” in which it was assumed the listener knew “hotel” meant “bar.”) The presbytyrannical liquor laws of the early 20th century gave rise to many long-gone landmarks where the hotel was largely an excuse for the bar (The Morrissey on Yonge, now a condo, The Dennis House on Dundas East, now a Coffee Time; William Burrill’s beloved Spadina Hotel on King, now a hostel). Richler thinks this tradition — together with the tradition of “pig noses,” as Richler insists booze cans are called somewhere in the world — of creatively subverting authority is one of Toronto’s great unsung virtues. “The quality about Toronto that the rest of the country doesn’t recognize is that it ought not be measured by the rules it keeps, but by the rules it breaks,” he says. “And I think that it used to break drinking laws very imaginatively.”

Richler mentions a very different experience in Tokyo — a Lost in Translation experience, he calls it. “John Updike wrote that men travelling alone develop a romantic vertigo. So like Bill Murray, you’re in a state of suspension with the possibility of meeting someone.”

THE INCIDENTAL CONVERSATION: Cufflinks, Hemingway, Count Basie, North by Northwest.

BOOZY APERÇU: The hotel bar recalls the forbidden, gesturing to a time when drinking was taboo, and the nearness of temporary accomodation suggested the possibility of sex-in-a-hurry.

THE PLACE: The Roof Lounge at the Park Hyatt, 4 Avenue Rd. 7:30pm.

THE HISTORY: Daniel’s dad, Mordecai, once called The Roof Lounge “the only civilized place in Toronto.” The walls are lined with line drawings of literary giants (including Richler the elder).

THE AMBIENCE: A small room tucked away on the hotel’s 18th floor down the hall from the restaurant nobody talks about, the place is full of leather chairs, old tables and older bartenders.

SIMILAR SPOTS: The King Edward’s Consort Bar; The Royal York’s Library Bar; Accents at the Sutton Place.

OBSERVATIONS: “As far as I’m concerned, this is the ideal hotel bar,” says Archer. “The wait staff is completely knowledgeable and, frankly, I just like the lighting and colour.”

“The waiter, who’s been here for many years, used to have a partner,” says Richler. “He either died or moved on, but some people” — this with an implied finger to the side of the nose — “say certain qualities were lost when that fellow left.”

“He was the guy who, when you came in here for your third or fourth time, said, ‘Gin, dry, no olive?'” says Archer, who’s been coming here ever since he discovered it as a U of T frosh. “Something like that will bind me to a bar forever. A hotel is the only real place you’re going to get someone who’s worked at a bar for 40 years.”

As well as wise bartenders, The Roof has (and has had for ages) what the Drake wants: artists.

THE INCIDENTAL CONVERSATION: Norman Mailer, steak tartare, The Overlook Hotel.

BOOZY APERÇU: Hotel bars, because of their durability, attract durable staff and, if they’re lucky and very, very oaken indeed, durable myths, two things a stand-alone bar doesn’t even bother dreaming about. This is the kind of place Carol Berens, author of Hotel Bars and Lobbies, must have been thinking of when she called hotel bars urban living rooms.

THE PLACE: Avenue, Four Seasons, 21 Avenue Rd.; 9:30pm.

THE HISTORY: Mostly recent, and mostly star-spangled.

THE AMBIENCE: Different kinds of notables parade around the Four Seasons, Toronto’s most expensive hotel and a magnet for glamour types. Avenue, the stark white and amber bar with frosted glass and Zen stones on the tables, looks out onto Yorkville Avenue — or rather, Yorkville looks into it. The Avenue radiates fame, and the new wealth that comes with it.

SIMILAR SPOTS: Luce at Le Germain.

OBSERVATIONS: “Who comes here? It’s all conspicuously young people with little hats being fashionable,” Archer says, nose crinkling. At the next table, a British chorus of “Happy Birthday” erupts. Ooh, a band. Obviously British. Who’s in town? Keane? Starsailor? British Sea Power? Turns out, it’s Mark Holmes, organizer of The Mod Club, out for a celebration with his mates. They’re not celebrities, per se (the formerly Platinum Blonde Holmes has traded in the peroxide for thin ties) — but they are Toronto men-about-town, and they fit the fishbowl mood swimmingly.

“I’m not a fan of trying, I’ve got to admit,” says Archer. “I’m a big fan of it happening with no apparent effort. Those coloured bottles behind the smoked glass above the bar there… ugh.”

THE INCREASINGLY DRUNKEN INCIDENTAL CONVERSATION: Walking out on Lou Reed, the durability of the English accent, avian porn, Yellow Dog, bathroom-stall blow jobs.

BOOZY APERÇU: Money, it seems, cannot necessarily buy class, and if celebrity is not subordinate to the place itself, the bar fades away in its absence, like Kim Basinger without a Baldwin.

THE PLACE: The Drake, 1150 Queen W. 11pm.

THE HISTORY: A $6-$8-million renovation and reopening two days before we visited.

THE AMBIENCE: Hipster-pretty. Low, cubical tables that look like something out of Hellraiser, a superfluity of ottomen, Rorschachs on the wall — presumably intended to get first-date and pickup conversation started — and a ceiling with lowered girders.

SIMILAR SPOTS: We predict the bar at the Inn on College, if it ever opens.

OBSERVATIONS: The Drake is trying — hard. Which prompts a conversation about the elusive nature of cool. “You cannot define cool in advance; you cannot mandate it, and you cannot buy it,” says Richler, à propos of the owner’s efforts. “It just accrues, it’s a natural thing that happens. So, is this tasteless? No. It happens to have an industrial cool about it, with the roof thing there. Is it tasteful? I don’t know.” We have a difficult time drawing lessons about hotel bars from it, mostly because it seems to be taking so many lessons from everyone else. Still, all agree that if we didn’t know its back story — if we happened to be guests from out of town — we’d be impressed. Richler sums up: “I’m not going to a bar like The Drake to hope that some coolness accrues to me. I’d be here looking for adventure and a chance encounter and to have a good time. That’s it. So let it roll.”

THE NOW-WINDED INCIDENTAL CONVERSATION: Conan O’Brien, Cheap Trick, alcoholism.

BOOZY APERÇU: Hotel bars, with their potential for out-of-towners, and their eminently convenient beds and, in this case, peekaboo showers, for rent, open up the possibility of social and sexual adventure, without needing to have that dreary your-place-or-mine conversation.

Originally published in Eye Weekly on February 26, 2004.