Overnight Successes: Hotel Bars

Forget tuxedoed serving staff: two new rooftop hotel bars in Toronto embrace informality and chill vibes.

Trends and tastes evolve, but for the most part hotel bars tend to hew fairly closely to what we’ve come to expect: places of sophistication and elegance, places we patronize to immerse in the history and tradition of old-school glamour, complete with a piano tinkling in the corner and friendly but formal service from a tuxedo-wearing staff. Trends and tastes evolve, but it is hard to imagine the American Bar at The Savoy in London or The Bar Joséphine at Lutetia in Paris ever falling out of favour.

Hotel bars are routinely touted for their “see and be seen” ambiance, where you order a cocktail from the world’s best bartenders while gawking at outfits that you know cost more than your rent. But for those not interested in spending the night feeling like an extra in a James Bond set piece, there has been a spate of recent openings that seem to be altogether more relaxed and where jeans and a t-shirt are just as welcome as cufflinks and Prada handbags.

Evangeline at Ace Hotel Toronto

Built from scratch in downtown Toronto’s Garment District, Ace Hotel’s first Canadian outpost has been garnering a lot of headlines in both the popular and trade press since it opened in late July. Justifiably so: the first major hospitality project by Toronto-based heavyweights Shim-Sutcliffe Architects is a tour de force in material palette inventiveness and sensitivity, drawing heavily from the robustness of the neighbourhood’s surrounding brick-and-beam factories and warehouses.

The hotel and its restaurant, Alder, landed on the Toronto hospitality landscape with aplomb in late summer, but it wasn’t until late autumn that Evangeline made its entrance. The 80-seat rooftop lounge boasts a fabulous layering of warm, tactile interior finishes over a slightly industrial framework that feels could fit equally in a residential setting as in a high-end hotel.

Evangeline is anchored and bookended by warming fireplaces, one of which is framed by sculptural ceramic works created specifically for the space by Montréal-based artist David Umemoto.

As is seen throughout the guestrooms and public spaces of the entire hotel, a consistent design language is on display here, with constant nods to the building’s masonry exterior through the use of complementary materials in the bar and seating areas. A mix of chairs, lighting and rugs “came from local Toronto vintage shops, with additional pieces found in Vancouver and L.A.,” says Little Wing Lee, design director at Atelier Ace, the agency and operator of Ace Hotel and with whom Shim-Sutcliffe collaborated closely. These pieces fit seamlessly with other custom-designed furnishings, for example light fixtures by Toronto studio MSDS, and Shim-Sutcliffe’s use of ready-made clay fireplace pipes or sculptural lighting in Evangeline’s bathrooms and a side table placed in multiple locations.

The sensory nature of Evangeline is perhaps most evident, however, in the two fireplaces that bookend the bar at the northern and southern ends. “We combined exposed structural steel and ceramic tile to anchor each hearth,” says Brigitte Shim, founding partner of Shim-Sutcliffe Architects. A cast concrete mural by Montréal-based artist David Umemoto surrounds the north fireplace, “linking art and architecture into the fabric of the building,” says Shim, while on the south fireplace, Umemoto uses what Shim calls “concrete totems” that both define the space and make you want to touch them.

Umemoto’s work includes sculptural pieces as well as cast concrete murals, which call to mind architectural details — “ghostly impressions that seemingly exist in a multitude of times, appearing both familiar and strange.”

Concrete and ceramics are not the only materials in the palette. “We worked with Toronto’s Dynasty Plant Shop to curate greenery that would thrive in the environment and serve as an aesthetic complement to the space’s warm clay and mossy hues,” says Lee. And while “the scope of our design work was not informed by biophilia,” says Shim, “when conceiving the outdoor rooftop terrace, we wanted a tangible relationship between the natural and the built landscape. The west-facing outdoor terrace has a deep parapet that is filled with plant material, creating a landscape foreground to Toronto’s evolving skyline beyond.”

Harriet’s at 1 Hotel Toronto

Greenery is evident, yes, but while biophilia may not have been a prominent design factor in Evangeline, it is absolutely a conspicuous force at Harriet’s, the rooftop hotspot of 1 Hotel Toronto, itself the first expansion into Canada for the nature-focused hotel brand.

New York-based studio Rockwell Group adopted a singular design narrative for Harriet’s – and in fact the entire hotel – informed by natural elements and design details intended to recall Toronto’s flora and fauna. Sliding glass walls and a retractable roof maximize views down to the lake and into the city, and a woven rope ceiling is interspersed between wood beams, reclaimed Elm wood flooring and leather and lambskin accents round out the setting. The material palette for the hotel as a whole features reclaimed timber, native plants, board-formed concrete and local marble, all intended to reflect the muted colours of Lake Ontario and the contrasting tones of the passing seasons.

Inviting nature into a luxury hotel may well be a core mission of the brand, but in this case given the location it seems not just on-brand but necessary: mere steps from the wide, deep trench formed by the Union Station Rail Corridor and near the bottom of Bathurst Street, which seems perpetually under construction thanks to street improvement projects and non-stop condo developments nearby, giving visitors a space to turn away from the never-ending demolition sites and reconnecting them with nature is welcome.

1 Hotel Toronto has several other dining and drinking spaces spread throughout the hotel in addition to Harriet’s, all of which follow design cues of the hotel which are meant to evoke Canada’s natural landscape.

“We have long admired 1 Hotels’ sustainable and eco-friendly ethos, and we are thrilled to have been given the opportunity to design the new 1 Hotel Toronto with a biophilic emphasis,” says Rockwell Group’s founder David Rockwell. “Our vision for the hotel invites guests to celebrate Toronto’s ecology through materiality and locally-made artwork.” Harriet’s demonstrates that eco-friendly materials, natural textures and lots of greenery can significantly adhere to biophilic design principles with no loss of style or quality, even at the luxury end of the hospitality market where surfaces are at the forefront.


Photography: William Jess Laird (Ace Hotel) / Brandon Barre (1 Hotel)