Toronto: Two Great Hotels in the City's Heart
Luxury and Convenience in Downtown Toronto
By Stephen Hartshorne
If there's a formula for a great hotel stay, it would have to include a few key factors: a great city, a lively neighborhood, top-notch restaurants, and super service.
Because I was a guest of the hotels, I can't tell you about all the celebrities I ran into there.Both are luxury hotels with a mix of guests and residents, located in the heart of the city, with all the amenities you could possibly want, including spas and fitness centers, fully-staffed business centers and resourceful concierges to make sure everything is "exactement comme il faut."
The Soho Met has a three-story penthouse apartment with its own glass elevator, rooftop patio and hot tub. The Hazelton has television sets built into the bathroom mirrors so you can watch Perry Mason reruns while you take a bath.
A lot of hotels like to tell you about the famous people who have stayed there, but not the Hazelton or the Soho Met. With so many movies and television shows being shot in Toronto, there are a lot of celebrities staying downtown, but their guests and residents value their privacy, and the hotels make sure it's protected.
Toronto is a great city, attracting more than 25 million tourists every year. The city is a center of finance and commerce, with a highly diversified economy based on technology, telecommunications, design, education, arts, fasion, tourism, transportation and manufacturing.
It's also the third largest center for television and motion picture production in North America, after Los Angeles and New York.
The Toronto International Film Festival attracts more than 450,000 visitors every September, and the TIFF now has a permanent facility downtown where visitors can go to the movies all year round.
The $181-million, five-story TIFF Bell Lightbox, funded entirely by donations, has five theaters, two galleries, a vast film library, two restaurants, a cafe and a three-story atrium.
The city also has two symphony orchestras, six opera companies, more than fifty ballet and dance companies, a world-class zoo, a wide variety of museums and six major-league sports teams.
But to my mind, the real charm of the city is its eclecticism. Where else can you find a Hungarian-Thai restaurant?
More than 160 languages are spoken here by more than 200 different ethnic groups. More than half the population is from outside Canada. There are hundreds of unique neighborhoods including five Chinatowns, two Little Italies, Little India, Greektown, Koreatown, and many others.
Both the Hazelton and the Soho Met were once on the outskirts of town but Toronto's rapid expansion over the years wound up enveloping both.
Yorkville was transformed from a down-at-heels hippie neighborhood into one of the classiest shopping districts in the world and the Soho Metropolitan was surrounded by all the cultural attractions of the Entertainment District.
The Village of Yorkville was founded in 1830 by Joseph Bloor and was known for the Yorkville Brick Yards, which produced a distinctive style of yellow bricks, and for the Joseph Bloor Brewery. The village was annexed by the City of Toronto in the 1880s and became a quiet residential neighborhood of Victorian homes.
In the 1960s Yorkville became a center of the hippie counterculture with music venues like the Riverboat Coffee House, the Purple Onion, and the Myna Bird, where musicians like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Gordon Lightfoot would perform for the young people who flocked to the neighborhood for love-ins and poetry readings.
But as property values increased, partly due to subway extensions and changes in allowable densities, Yorkville was transformed into a high-end shopping district with boutiques, antique stores, bars, and cafes
Retailers include Chanel, Calvin Klein, Gucci, Prada, Burberry, Hugo Boss, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Holt Renfrew, Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Vera Wang, Lacoste, Ferrari, Maserati, Rolls-Royce, Williams-Sonoma, and many others.
There are also 74 jewelers and 40 art galleries, and the Royal Ontario Museum, the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art, the Bata Shoe Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario are all nearby.
A Dazzling Showcase
I had a chance to tour Holt Renfrew, a luxurious department store at 100 Bloor Street that started as a small hat shop in Quebec in 1837 and now has stores all over Canada.
The Bloor Street store is a dazzling showcase for the finest designers from all over the world. I'm certainly no fashionista, but if you are one, this is the place for you.
And there's a lot more room there since they moved all the menswear to a new store at 50 Bloor Street.
Yorkville has been very successful in maintaining the character of its historic architecture, with Victorian houses, mostly converted to retail stores, nestled among high-rise department stores.
The Hazelton Hotel on Yorkville Avenue fits right in. Designed by Page and Steele, the four-story hotel, with 77 rooms and suites is topped by five stories of luxury residential suites.
The building has one of the first "green roofs" in Toronto, a design element designed to minimize the building's carbon footprint; the hotel also maintains a commitment to environmental responsibility with recycling and energy efficiency.
The dramatic interiors were designed by Yabu Pushelberg to complement a curated collection of works by Canadian artists including oils, acrylics, sculpture, and photographs.
Canada's Top Chef
The Hazelton's restaurant, ONE, is run by Mark McEwan, head judge on the television series Top Chef Canada, who also operates three other restaurants, Bymark, Fabbrica, and North 44, as well as a fine food emporium.
The menu at ONE draws on McEwan's 30 years of experience as a chef, his emphasis on simplicity, and his reliance on fresh, local ingredients.
We dined in the main dining room, The Neil Young Room, which is decorated with photos of the celebrated singer. Has Neil Young ever dined there? Sorry, I can't tell you that.
I can tell you it was one of the finest meals I have ever eaten and I have a tip: Don't miss the grilled octopus!
The Soho Metropolitan
The Soho Metropolitan used to have car service to the downtown area, but now they are the downtown area. (They still have free car service in the hotel's official vehicle, the LEXUS LS460.)
The hotel is a short walk from all the cultural attractions of the Entertainment District like the Rogers Centre (where the Blue Jays play), the Air Canada Centre (where the Raptors and the Maple Leafs play), the CN Tower, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the TIFF Lightbox, the ballet, the opera, the symphony and many others.
It's also right at the center of Toronto's nightlife, with lot of cool restaurants and nightclubs.
We went to Fring's a popular new restaurant partly owned by Drake (the rapper). It's a real happening spot, and the food was great!
Toronto Film Festival
The Soho Met is popular with the movie stars (and fans) who gather every Fall for the Toronto International Film Festival, the second largest in the world. In 1976 the festival screened 123 films and drew 35,000 visitors. In 2015, they screened 399 films and drew more than 450,000 visitors.
Since Toronto is a major center for movie and television production, lots of movies and tv shows are shot here, and the actors and crews find the Soho Met both convenient and comfortable.
Several shows were actually shot at the hotel including Nikita and Suits, which was shot in the three-story penthouse apartment with its own glass elevator. There was an A-list celebrity staying there when I was there, but of course I can't tell you who it was.
The hotel has three great restaurants. Luckee is run by Susur Lee, another television top chef, who judges the Food Network's hit show, Chopped Canada. Lee is also a partner with Drake at Fring's.
Senses is a 30-seat bakery restaurant perfect for brunch.
And the third restaurant was a real delight for this Boston boy: a little taste of Dorchester in the heart of Toronto: Wahlburgers. You have to love the idea of a burger place in a luxury hotel.
Mark and Donnie Wahlberg teamed up with their brother Paul, who is a chef, to open the first Wahlburgers in Hingham, Massachusetts. Their second location, curiously enough, was in the Soho Met in Toronto.
The idea was to serve the kind of home-cooked comfort food the brothers enjoyed growing up with their six brothers and sisters in a triple decker house in the Boston suburb of Dorchester. One of the burgers is topped with "government cheese," the kind of orange cheese given out by surplus food programs.
The restaurant has been the subject of a very popular Emmy-nominated reality television show, and more than 100 more locations are planned over the next five years.
I have to say, the food was really good, even the government cheese. But it doesn't actually come from the government. All the ingredients are locally sourced.
Do the Wahlberg brothers stay at the Soho Met when they visit the restaurant? Sorry, that's confidential.
I was all ready to leave around ten a.m. for my one o'clock flight, but I didn't have to leave until noon. I was flying Porter Airlines, a boutique airline which operates out of Billy Bishop Island Airport, about ten minutes from the Soho Met, and since Porter passengers don't go through customs until they reach their destinations in the US, they don't have to get there so early.
That gave me time to amble over to the CN Tower a few blocks away and take a look around at the beautiful city of Toronto.
Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.