Three way

You can’t help but notice the new Mackenzie Investments building. Rising high above its surroundings, all concrete and glass, the solid 21st-century anchor attaches to a string of mainly 19th-century storefronts stretching along Queen Street West. At its base sits the swish Nota Bene restaurant, directly across from long-time area entities Kops Records, Atlas Machine Supplies and The Condom Shack. It’s a face-off that will prove no contest — the next step in the gentrification of funky Queen West has begun.

Yet look closer and you’ll discover that Tom Payne, principal in Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects, has shown remarkable sensitivity to this Toronto neighbourhood, has even drawn on that push-pull between the well-shod corporate elite inhabiting his building’s upper offices and the edgier urbanites strolling the street below, using that energy to inform his design.

“We’re right at the vortex of city culture,” Payne said in a recent interview. “You have the ceremonial, in City Hall and the Osgoode Hall law courts; the artistic, with the Four Seasons Opera House and Art Gallery of Ontario; and all this peppy Queen West counter-culture. We wanted to make everything meet here.”

And meet here it does. The Mackenzie building as a whole is not a whole, but rather three distinct parts: a soaring, curved glass curtain on top; an angular concrete-and-glass box in the middle, complete with main-entrance cantilevered canopy; and a window-filled “retail space” beneath, whose cunning grey tile cladding extends just three storeys high, keeping that part of the structure literally in line with the rest of the area’s Victorian edifices.

Nota Bene’s facade is itself divided into three intervals, courtesy of sketched-in tile pillars. And each of these three contained spaces echoes another right-angled pattern in chrome, glass and backlit acrylic bands. This playful repetition of angles, axials and symmetry carries on throughout the restaurant’s interior. “Little surprise treats,” Payne calls them.

Like the building that houses it and the window embrasures that define it, Nota Bene is a tripartite place, with a casual banquette dining section at ground level, a higher-seating bar behind it and a raised platform dining room beyond.

There are no barriers between these divisions; rather there are suggested distinctions: dark caf tables by the banquettes, a length of warm grey Grigio Piove stone along the bar-top, white-linen-covered square tables in the dining room. Of the latter, project architect Brad Hindson recalls the lengthy critical analysis involved, trying to hit on the exact, perfect size: “We were sitting at a plywood table, with the carpenter shaving a half-inch off at a time. Then we’d look it over carefully and have him shave another half-inch off.”

That same intensive scrutiny was applied to the five, huge interior-lit pillars that effectively separate the dining room from the rest of the space, yet form a focal point for all three areas. “It took eight weeks to finalize their colour and finish — even the little decorative line down their centres,” says Hindson. “We needed the perfect plastic, and ended up choosing this half-inch frosted acrylic.”

Hindson also selected the separate-but-equal lighting fixtures: recessed wall troughs plus overhead incandescents and key spots for the dining room; suspended lighting running the length of the bar; and walnut-and-chrome coves with descending tulip-shaped Venetian glass shades above the street-level banquettes. A shock of raspberry frames the latter, a shade repeated in the throw pillows on the chartreuse leather seats.

“We weren’t afraid to use splashes of colour,” says Tom Payne. He adds that KPMB interior designers Carolyn Lee and Frances Lago, along with associate-in-charge David Jesson, were integral in creating a “friendly, inclusive, warm-cool” vibe, reflective of the restaurant owner-managers’ personalities, not to mention that of Queen Street West itself.

Oddly enough, like so many other things involved with Nota Bene’s design, the proprietors — Franco Prevedello, GM Yannick Bigourdan and chef David Lee — came in three as well. CI