The Drake Hotel is a favourite spot for a lot of us in Toronto — not least of all because it never stands still. For the May long weekend they’ve debuted their Lemonade Stand on the always-fun Sky Yard patio. You can order up a Lavender Lemonade ($11), which includes Sobieski vodka, lavender syrup and lemonade, as part of the “Summer School” program that encourages the sort of behaviour that might have landed you in summer school back in the day. With the weather warming up, sort of, things will be packed up on the second deck as usual. Catch you there over the weekend.
And here’s my story that ran in the Toronto Star a couple of weeks back about the Drake Trivia Night on Wednesdays.
DRAKE TRIVIA – WHERE NERDS AND HIPSTERS MEET
What stumps Toronto’s trivia guy is a question that most pertains to him: How big will his competition grow?
Each Wednesday since August, Terrance Balazo has set up his laptop in a booth at the Drake Hotel reserved for DJs and prepared to unleash 30 or so questions on a suspecting audience. Within the past eight weeks, Trivia Night at the Drake has been sold out three times, with close to 200 people filling the hotel’s lounge restaurant to capacity. A March edition in the middle of Canadian Music Fest brought in the largest audience yet, according to the host. Participants pay $2 each and most play in teams of two to four, answering questions that range from the obscure (what country’s flag is entirely green?) to Balazo’s version of Name That Tune, which will test your sanity as well as your recall, and queries tied to hilarious visual clips (watching William Shatner speaking in Esperanto in a scene from “Incubus” was better comedy than Charlie Sheen provided in Toronto recently).
“I’m surprised how full it is every week,” says Balazo, who is also an actor and the artistic director of Cow Over Moon Children’s Theatre. “I don’t think the kind of night it is is what people go to the Drake for traditionally.”
For the Drake, one of the city’s trendsetting spots, hosting a nerdy trivia night isn’t a threat to its image, its managers say. The hotel has hosted a camp night with a showing of Jim Varney’s “Ernest” movies, turned its lounge over to yoga demonstrations and retained some eccentric paraphernalia from its pre-restoration days; items such as an old photo booth and ’70s-style ceramic flooring that only the most generous observers would hail as vintage.
“We’re a contradiction. We don’t mind being a contradiction. The contradiction from a hospitality point of view means that we are more than just a place to eat and sleep,” general manager Bill Simpson says. “You’re in this cultural hub where there’s almost a collision of different things going on.”
The Drake has more than 180 employees but only 19 hotel rooms. So even though it’s one of the most esteemed places for visitors to stay in Toronto — and has done particularly well attracting the influential film and arts crowd from abroad — it still needs to draw people to its three dining establishments and its club and concert venue, the Underground. That’s where promotions like the weekly trivia competition and a cooking demonstration on Mondays come in, catering to both hotel guests as well as Toronto residents and daytrippers from the suburbs. In fact, the seven-year-old Drake is one of the few destinations in Toronto where locals don’t mind mixing with the 905 crowd or tourists.
When Balazo learned a British crowd was taking part one week, he threw in a soccer question for them. That didn’t seem to faze sharp regulars, who include “Reach for the Top” alumni and graduate students.
“It’s a challenge. You want to test yourself and want to see how well you do against others, strangers or friends,” says Evan Rosevear, who is studying at U of T and teams with friend Joseph MacKay at the Drake.
The Trivia Night began about two years ago in the hotel’s retro café, which resembles an American-style diner. Ana Yuristy, director of hotel operations, says the promotion “grew fast and now it’s exploded” since expanding into the main lounge.
“It fits into that high/low Drake style,” she says. “We have a lot of very vintagey items blended with modern gadgets and that’s been our mix.”
In that sense, the Trivia Night blends in. It takes an old activity and adds Balazo’s spin with the visual elements and music. He hosts a similar competition at another bar and says the Drake crowd, perhaps not surprisingly, tends to do well on the music component, which often includes obscure songs both contemporary and decades old.
“It’s a more hipster crowd, for sure,” he says. “I think it’s pretty cool the Drake would go for a traditional pub night, when they’re not known for that.”
The Drake crowd is also full of hard-core trivia fans. Balazo bans the use of cellphones and smartphones during the rounds — in case anyone wants to pull in a lifeline via a text message or Google search query — and subtracts points for teams that play with more than four players. He’s gotten into arguments on occasion with competitors who question his answers. To make sure he can stand his ground on his rulings, he spends most of his week searching out questions and fact checking answers, he says. “It didn’t shock me that so many people liked trivia, what shocked me is how serious they are about it.”
Are you smart?
This is an example of one round of questions asked during Trivia Night at the Drake. All of the answers are related and you can give yourself a bonus point if you can identify the theme (hint: these questions were asked on Jan. 26, 2011).:
1. What legendary family of wrestling trained in a place known as The Dungeon?
2. In what city were Moe Berg, Marshall McLuhan and Michael J. Fox all born?
3. Which long running soap opera focuses on two families named Abbot and Williams?
4. What is the largest sporting venue in the United States in terms of seating capacity?
5. Which CFL team has won the most Grey Cups?
6. Who is the only regular member of the original Star Trek crew to not have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame?
7. What city is Anheuser-Busch located in?
8. What was the original name of Mozilla Firefox?
9. What is the second-largest city in terms of population in the United States?
10. On the periodic table, what is the atomic number of Einsteinium?
Email me and let you know the answers … Maybe.
TRIVIA NIGHT AT THE DRAKE: Wednesdays, 8 p.m., 1150 Queen St. W., 416-531-5042. If you’re in a group, arrive early to get seats.
[Thanks to Connie Tsang and Julia Pelish for the photos. They’re all copyrighted.]