Upper East Side: The Refined Taste of Dialogue 38

Dialogue 38’s approach to crafting organic and sensual dining spaces inflected with Asian influences that are both complex and carefree. 

Toronto is a bubble tea town. There are well over 100 spots slinging the popular Asian drink, a number that rivals Starbucks with its 131 locations. A recent outpost of Taiwan-based Machi Machi, in the Toronto suburb of Richmond Hill, stands out. The menu has something to do with it. The long list of playful flavours such as matcha latte with panna cotta jellies are a draw for the young people who regularly line up out the door.

The interiors are another big part of the appeal. Curving, colourful walls envelop the service counter, creating a Dr. Seuss-like shroud that makes passersby think: “huh that’s cool.” The big move of the walls is accentuated by something much more subtle. A venetian plaster finish mimics the sheen of the pearls that gives bubble tea its name; it also leaves the walls with a pleasant, eye-catching texture.

Machi Machi Bubble Tea has been expanding in Canada with Dialogue 38-designed locations, including this newest one in Richmond Hill.

Long-time followers of Toronto’s interior design scene might not be surprised to know that Machi Machi was designed by Bennett Lo, founder of Dialogue 38. The architectural feel of the space — the way the walls swoop around, almost creating a building within a building for the service area — is one clue. Lo, who is originally from Hong Kong, earned a Master of Architecture degree from Virginia Tech prior to starting his interiors practice.

Another hint might be the careful way that Lo incorporates Machi Machi’s standard brand elements while also experimenting with new ideas. Just about every Machi Machi around the world, including the one in Richmond Hill, has a wall that says I Love You So Machi, perfect for Instagram selfies. But no others had the swerves before Richmond Hill, a feature that, after Lo introduced it, has already been rolled out to another Toronto location with more to follow.

Lo has many years of experience helping retail and hospitality brands establish themselves in Toronto. The interiors for a jewellery store called Eko, which Lo did in 2006, was an early success. On the city’s always bustling Queen Street West, the space was a calm respite. Composed of white walls that folded with origami-like delicacy, the room managed to be both minimal yet inviting, in part because its accordion interiors were so intriguing to anyone walking past.

“We were very lucky that the client saw what we were trying to do,” says Lo, thinking back. “We were trying to solve the problem of how to display items that are both art and products at the same time, because we were trying to highlight how unique Eko’s jewellery was.”

This Machi Machi Bubble Tea brand on Highway 7 and completed in 2020 is consistent with the design ideology of an organic and sensual space.

More notably, Lo helped build the once thriving (though now closed) Spring Rolls pan-Asian restaurant chain. He not only designed 12 of its locations but conceived all the branding and the menus (before Dialogue 38, Lo spent six years working for prominent graphic designer and artist Burton Kramer, famous for creating the CBC logo).

As the chain was expanding in the aughts, Spring Rolls was a revelation in Toronto. According to a 2008 article in Canadian Architect, Lo’s efforts showed the city that Asian restaurants were so much more than cliched, cheap-and-cheerful affairs. Rather than plastic table clothes and humming fluorescent lighting, each Spring Rolls location had elegant chandeliers, high-end finishes and the buzz of a hip cocktail bar.

Perhaps that precedent is one reason that Yu Seafood, a ritzy new Chinese restaurant, has aspirations to expand in Toronto. Lo designed both of its locations in the city, the first in Richmond Hill and the second inside a well-trafficked, posh Yorkdale (the shopping centre has a Tiffany’s boutique and a Louis Vuitton around the corner from a Tesla dealership).

The second location for the upscale Yu Seafood restaurant opened in Yorkdale Mall and offers over 10,000-sq.-ft. of dinning space over two floors.

Over and above hip buzzy-ness, for Yu, Lo tilted toward poetry. At Yorkdale, he notes that the black, grey and white tones in the massive marble bar evokes “the imagery of calligraphic brushstrokes.” Both places have abstract chandeliers that have the eye-pleasing layers of water-born lotus flowers.

The design also incorporated elements from the original location including a signature 20ft x 20ft coral leaf sculptures and lotus shaped chandeliers that pay homage to the other location’s live seafood tanks.

A Fine Palette

To Lo, part of what makes a design work is taking care of the details both big and small. Whimsical touches of all sizes elevate Yu, such as a series of fish fabricated from laser cut steel then finished with gold leaf, or the 20-foot sculpture of a coral that makes the space seem like a chic underwater reef. Another aspect is paying attention to the needs of the location, including the demographics of the potential clients. In a simple sense, that could translate to Machi Machi having a youthful attitude because it is frequented by tweens and teens who love Asian pop music and have yet to graduate high school.

But Lo also delves deeper into nuances. At the Richmond Hill location of Yu, there are eight VIP rooms, because the local clientele is more apt to throw large, pre-planned private parties; Yorkdale’s Yu only has two VIP rooms, because customers in Yorkdale are less likely to have organized events, more likely to pop-in after binge shopping at Holt Renfrew (there is still a sense of intimacy in the communal dining room, though, created by the darker material palette and softer lighting scheme at Yorkdale).

Near to Yu, but still within Yorkdale, Lo has also designed Konjiki, the Canadian transplant of a Michelin-starred, Japanese ramen spot. Despite both being within a shopping plaza — one of Canada’s busiest, with 18 million annual visitors — Lo has carefully crafted distinct worlds apart.

Konjiki Ramen together with dessert spot Saryo Cafe soft-opened a new location in Yorkdale Mall during the pandemic.

This is partly achieved by the layout. Yu’s 10,000-square-feet is divided between two levels; a main entry opens to the mall on the lower portion, but the 8,000-sq.-ft. dining room is tucked out of sight on an upper floor. Konjiki is one level. But the main mall traffic moves past an upfront desert counter, perhaps intrigued to stop by a dazzling floral mosaic that wraps the entry. Within the dining room, nestled in the back, slatted walls of blond wood recreate the vibe of a quaint Tokyo pub; a moody one, with a jet-black ceiling and sleek, cylindrical drop lights.

Like Dialogue 38’s other clients, this is the newest location in an expansion plan in Toronto that started with their first location in North York back in 2017.

Konjiki and Yu were built mid-pandemic. That might seem like a strange time to invest in hospitality design. And maybe it is. Especially as the designs only nod slightly to the hardships of COVID-19. “Clients are now asking more for things like touch-less faucets,” says Lo, “to avoid having to touch common surfaces.” Otherwise, there are no plexiglass dividers or seats spaced at least two metres apart.

A custom storefront mosaic incorporates floral elements found in Japanese art and is used throughout the entire store, juxtaposed against darker elements such as angled wood panelling in the dining area.

“It’s true that hospitality was badly effected by the pandemic,” says Lo. “For a while, I had no hospitality projects. Then when things started to open up again and looked like they were returning to normal, some clients said okay. Let’s do this. Let’s do something new!”

Photography by Kerun Ip