There are few iconic hotel bars in Toronto, but a desire for thoughtful, rich environments reminiscent of the literary salon is breathing life back into two of them. Such is the appeal of the Library Bar at the Fairmont Royal York and the rooftop bar at the Park Hyatt. Both are hotel bars of the old school, with dim rooms, classic cocktails, and no doubt a few stories to tell. As it happens, they both closed their doors long before the pandemic erupted, undergoing much-needed large-scale renovations. In the fall of 2021, both reopened within weeks of each other—and the results were worth the wait.
The old Roof Lounge at the top of the Park Hyatt, at Bloor Street West and Avenue Road, was one of those places that made Toronto feel particularly cosmopolitan. It was a little bit secret, and very grown-up—special in the same way Bemelmans at the Carlyle or the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz always are. It was a small room with rough carpet and awkward seating, but the view down University to the sparkling lights of the city the CN Tower made it impossibly glamorous. Coupled with former head bartender Joe Gomes’ legendary martinis, it’s little wonder the bar became a hangout for writers and producers, dealmakers and dreamers. In the days before the Lightbox, it was TIFF’s de facto clubhouse.
And then, four years ago, the whole hotel closed for a massive renovation. The bar itself, now called Writers Room, was thoughtfully reimagined by Studio Munge, preserving a sense of history while completely redoing and refreshing the space. The highlight is still the view, framed though the south-facing floor-to-ceiling windows, but the space feels lighter now, and much more sophisticated. The walls are clad in impeccably detailed stained oak, with burgundy banquettes anchoring the space.
There’s also an impressive collection of art, including works by Kristiina Lahde, Madison van Rijn, and Christina Ott. The highlight might be Douglas Coupland’s Distant Early Warning, based on book jacket photos of writers whose caricatures famously lined the walls before the renovation.
Follow the skyline all the way down University Avenue, you’ll find the Royal York Hotel, whose venerable Library Bar got the facelift it so badly deserved. For more than 90 years, the Royal York’s flagship lounge has been a kind of open secret—a cozy hideaway just steps from Union Station, home to stiff cocktails and the occasional live music set (including, in its heyday, performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Tony Bennett).
Ken Lam at Navigate Design reintroduced art deco influences to the space, filling it with bright colours and opulent textures, and rescuing it from its former drab, chain-hotel-esque gloominess. Grab a booth by the fireplace, under the watchful eye of George Locke, Toronto’s former chief librarian, whose portrait now hangs above the mantel, and order beverage director Rus Yessenov’s signature drink: the Birdbath Martini, a classic cocktail made with Quill vodka or gin from Niagara, Noilly Prat vermouth, and house orange bitters, mixed tableside.
In both cases, these two hotel bars have returned a sense of glamour to fading rooms and a sense of sophistication to the next trip out for a cocktail, minding COVID regulations, of course.