It’s a chilly afternoon in September and I’m caught in a rainstorm. The downpour is reflected in the headlights of the cabs I skirt in front of, but aside from the cars on the road, the wise folk of Toronto have decided not to venture out.

Inside the Shangri-La Hotel on University Avenue, it’s another story. One quick cycle of the revolving doors and I’m transported into a lobby full of noise and colour. Ron Pellerine, the general manager, greets me and leads me to a reserved sofa in the lounge bar, a lively room, humming with the sounds of glasses clinking and a piano playing.

“There is no other place in the city that offers live music at two in the afternoon on a Monday,” muses Pellerine.

This, I confess to Ron, is not my usual scene. Yet, in spite of myself (and not just because I am playing hooky in the middle of a workday), I am surprised to find I rather enjoy the vibe here. I had assumed hotel bars were reserved for out-of-towners or the chronically unimaginative. Soulless lobbies playing elevator music and charging too much for lacklustre cocktails did not seem like an obvious choice for locals or even discerning visitors. Of course, there are notable exceptions; a visit to Raffles Hotel’s Long Bar to sip Singapore slings, or the Savoy in London – former workplace of famous barman, Harry Craddock – is tantamount to visiting a museum while tipsy. Otherwise, the world appeared to have forgotten how to make a decent hotel bar – or so I thought.

With Bosk and Momfuku, the Shangri-La quickly asserted its dining cred

In the last year alone, Toronto has seen a number of boutique hotels springing up around the city – all with exciting food and drink programmes. The Broadview Hotel, home to The Civic, in the east end recently celebrated its first birthday, while 2018 saw Anndore House and its much anticipated Mediterranean restaurant, Constantine, open its doors. But it’s hard to talk about Toronto’s evolving hotel scene without mentioning the old vanguard that opened in the last decade.

“Up until the Shangri-La opened in 2012, people in Toronto, and to some extent in North America, had stopped going to hotels for food and beverage,” says Pellerine, sipping a glass of water with a lemon slice.

With Bosk and Momofuku, plus the Lobby Lounge and the Bar on site, the Shangri-La quickly asserted its dining cred.

“We set the tone for a new kind of luxury in the city and we elevated the bar scene.”

Toronto’s luxury lodgings are well-established, but the city’s boutique game was severely lacking for some time. Toronto may be the fourth biggest city by population in North America, but the quality of hotel options didn’t always reflect this.

“We are so lacking that in Toronto,” says Craig Harding, owner of Toronto restaurants Campagnolo, La Palma and the recently opened Constantine. “[Hotel rooms] went from $200 to $500 a night with nothing in between, until all of these new hotels started springing up.”

Hotels like Anndore House; a 113-room property near Yonge and Bloor, and home to Constantine, which opened this April. The 10-storey building originally opened in 1955 as the Anndore Hotel and Apartments – a glamorous rooming house Marlene Dietrich was rumoured to have visited. In the 1990s, it was a jazz bar frequented by celebs including Tony Bennett and Eartha Kitt, owned by maître d’ to the stars, Louis Janetta. And what was it most recently? A Comfort Inn.

This local colour and history is part of the plan to take the landmark back to its former glory. After all, if the Drake Hotel – a former flophouse – can regenerate its strip of Queen Street West, anything is possible.

The new kids on the block certainly seem keen on bringing in locals to eat and drink. In a most unlikely move for a condo developer, Streetcar Developments actually asked locals for feedback after acquiring The Broadview Hotel in 2014.

“Streetcar effectively took a poll of the neighbourhood and said ‘East end, what do you want to see in this building?’ ” explains The Broadview’s general manager, Murray Henderson, brought on two and a half years before it opened. The overwhelming response: A hotel and restaurant.

A colourful cocktail programme and the Victorian-era inspired menu is a huge draw at The Civic inside The Broadview Hotel

At that time, the sign above the door read “Jilly’s: The Finest in Adult Entertainment.” Jilly’s said they would never sell the space at the corner of Queen East and Broadview, but when the building became structurally unsound and required a major revamp, Streetcar took on the colossal task.

“It’s literally a brand new building in an old skin,” says Henderson. “Architecturally, it had to be completely destroyed inside. We started from carte blanche, literally standing in the basement, seeing the sky – so we had endless possibility.”

Chef de cuisine Dave Couse was only recently hired by The Broadview, but admits he was attracted to the hyper-local focus.

“It has a really old world sort of vibe,” says the former Canoe chef. “It’s a space that brings the neighbourhood in, instead of it being a special occasion restaurant where maybe you go once a year.”

For Couse, old-timey hotel magic has a habit of creeping into his cooking.

“When we sit down to make menus we do look to the past and the history of the grand hotel, because that’s really where gastronomy started. There was a time when there weren’t really freestanding restaurants, it was just hotels. That’s where every chef came from.”

Couse is intrigued by preservation techniques, charcuterie and canning – essentially, the things chefs once did before refrigeration. The push for modernism in food means that many cooks have stopped looking to the past – but Couse thinks there’s lots of material worth mining.

“Tony [DaSilva, bartender at The Civic] and I both do a lot of reading – historical stuff from the 1800s about hotel culture,” he says. “Hotels were out of vogue for a while, but if you look really far back, taverns and inns were the hot places. Everything is cyclical, we’re in a cycle right now where hotels are a cool place to be.”

These historical touches can be seen in the side sauces that are poured by servers, as well as the neat cocktails that eschew ice in the Victorian style.

But there is something else Couse would like to borrow from the past:

“I would love to sit down in a restaurant and not see anyone on their phones.”

Conversely, the Hotel X Toronto team has been impressed by the impact social media has had since they opened this spring. Despite its location outside the downtown core, Torontonians have been lured by Falcon SkyBar, with its panoramic views of the city.

“One thing that has really changed the environment is Instagram,” says Adele Gutman, VP of Sales, Marketing, and Revenue at Library Hotel Collection. “People are looking at where their friends have travelled to. The easiest place to begin is with all the beautiful places that are right in your neighbourhood.”

Part of the Library Hotel Collection, the chain already has popular properties in New York, Prague and Budapest.

“We are blown away with how many people have stayed in the hotel, much less come to have cocktails, who live just 10 minutes away,” says Gutman.

For chef Dave Couse, old-timey hotel magic has a habit of creeping into his cooking

Rooftop views and cocktail culture aside, does ‘hotel food’ really appeal to free-spirited restaurateurs? Harding admits that he was fortunate to find an ownership group that gave him complete creative freedom. Plus, the support of a larger network doesn’t hurt.

“Sometimes, it’s hard for standalone restaurants to make a go of it and being in other properties really adds traffic to your restaurant.”

He’s not kidding – around 15 to 20 per cent of Constantine’s revenue gets signed back to the room from guests staying in the hotel. And since Anndore House operates at a 90 per cent occupancy, everyone’s happy.

Both The Broadview and Anndore are willing to confess that running a full-service restaurant with room service kept them busier than anticipated.

“On the positive side, it’s been busy from day one, which was great, but sometimes you want to get your feet wet first,” says Jack Scarangella, co-owner of Constantine.

Tackling all meals – including the traditionally tough breakfast market – has also given them some teething problems.

“Not all service periods are incredibly profitable,” says Harding. Even if the hotel is full, it doesn’t mean we’re necessarily going to be full for breakfast. It’s a challenge and we’re still figuring it out.”

Iconic hotel, The Anndore House, has been revamped by AlterEgo; the restaurant group that includes chef Craig Harding, who directs the menu at Constantine.  

It’s a task that plenty look ready to take on, with many more hotel eateries on the horizon. The Annex Hotel, which opened in October, features an on-site food hall with local vendors, Big Trouble Pizza and Seven Lives tacos. St. Regis has taken over the former Trump Hotel, debuting Louix Louis, a 31st-floor restaurant and cocktail bar inspired by the iconic lounges of New York and Paris.

So can we expect this trend of seasoned restaurateurs setting up shop in hotels will become de rigueur?

“In the past, being a chef in a hotel was looked down on the same way people would look at being a golf course chef,” says Couse. “But I think now there are some really great opportunities to do cool food that’s chef-driven. I don’t think you need to be in a freestanding chef-owned restaurant to do that anymore.”

Scarangella notes that it’s not just the chefs who are finding this setup agreeable.

“I think hotel operators are realizing the importance of having a food and beverage component that attracts the neighbourhood and creates a vibe for their hotel guests,” he says. “I think we’ll see more of that trend – good operators that can attract the clientele that can add value to their property.