General manager Bill Simpson and the Drake Hotel staff never stop looking for new ways to introduce their sense of retro fun to the city. Case in point, the overhauled dining room, a space that always seemed a little imposing anyhow — was it part of the lounge or not? — is now called the Drake Dining Roadshow and its décor has been completely revamped.
On Wednesday, Simpson, executive chef Anthony Rose and his team introduced the new concept, which will feature a rotating menu, to invited guests and media. The Drake is billing it as a pop-up restaurant, although that’s not quite accurate. Its physical location will remain in the dining room but the restaurant’s theme and cuisine will change every two or three months. Pop-up restaurants got their name because they moved about, often using social media to tell people where and when the next dinner would take place. In the Drake’s scheme, it’s the cuisine and theme that alters.
The first few months, until September 4, the dining room will be themed around “Summer School,” with menus that arrive in red duotangs (never thought you’d see one of those again, eh), juice boxes with spiked lemonade (very Bart Simpson), and bookshelves with sports trophies and black-and-white class photos. After “Summer School” is out, the Roadshow will take a couple of days to transform again into 1940’s California Chinatown, just in time for TIFF.
“The Drake is very much a never-ending story,” Simpson told me a few months back when I interviewed him. “We call it an ecosystem because we carry out so many aspects of hospitality, and the cultural aspects whether it’s art or music or reading or dining, keep evolving.”
As with most things the Drake does, the Dining Roadshow is thick with kitsch. Salt dispensers are shaped like Rubik’s cubes, one cocktail (the $16 Nurse’s Office) is squeezed into your glass through a frightening metallic syringe and a “glee club” (the eight members of Retrocity) appear midway through dinner to sing a cappella tunes from the ’80s.
Such style usually works at the Drake (1150 Queen Street West) in part because the quality of the food and experience is satisfying, so you buy into an aesthetic that somewhere else might make you groan at the campyness. To keep your patrons going along with your vision takes a fine balance, and my impression of the “Summer School” restaurant is that it’s a little hit and miss. Surprising, since I’m a big fan of the Drake and its ability to be both fresh and folksy. Thing is, some of the food comes across as trying too hard to fit in with the theme. Pork ‘n’ Beans ($26), Foot Long Veal Cheese Dog ($17) and overly sweet desserts — a take on the Flaky pastry cake from Vachon ($7) and a version of Chocolate Jello ($8) — may not be flavours you want to revisit once you’ve graduated onto a steady job.
The best dishes are ones you would never find on a cafeteria menu. The Dungeness crab cocktail ($15), zesty chili con carne with light tortilla chips ($11) and 32-ounce Cumbrae rib steak for two ($81) are more along the lines of what you expect from a fine-dining experience.
Rather than sticking with the “Summer School” theme, which works great on the Sky Yard patio, maybe the Drake should’ve gone with a New England Clam Bake for the dining room kitchen. That would allow Rose and his team to still work with a canvas of summery comfort food while also better appealing to diners whose palates have matured since the days of Jos Louis cakes and hot dog parties.
That said, I think they’ll knock it out of the park with the Chinatown experience. It’s different for the Drake, as Rose and Simpson said, and you know they’re going to come up with something whimsical and imaginative.
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