Cheerful pop tunes pipe through the Drake Café in Toronto, where Mr Smith and I have come for breakfast while the hotel it’s attached to readies our room. Underneath a chandelier of recycled rainbow-coloured bicycle frames I navigate a pile of pamphlets while Mr Smith peruses the menu.
‘We’re in a brochure?’ asks a spiky-haired girl at the table next to us.
She has multiple piercings in her pretty face and, like almost everyone in the café, wears a bulky sweater and boots that swallow her jeans.
Because Queen Street West, the neighborhood The Drake Hotel calls home, is in the throes of gentrification, some locals are bound to be suspect of tourists. I feel a bit defensive, but the girl is chatty. By the time she pulls on her parka we’ve learned she is an illustrator in the midst of completing a gallery submission. I ask her whether she has any parting local knowledge for us.
‘Have the scones,’ she says.
Though he was sceptical of my idea to visit Toronto in January, Mr Smith warms up to it with biscuit-like blueberry scones and a pot of vanilla-speckled cream. He passes me a perfectly powdered-sugared bite and I return to my maps and brochures.
Back in the lobby, Mr Smith checks out a display case of flyers from bands’ performances in the Drake’s Underground club while I admire a grainy photograph of Nina Simone, part of the hotel’s rotating art exhibits. Ana, the hotel’s manager, tells me our bags are already in our Den Room. We ascend a staircase that wraps around a giant brass helix-shaped chandelier and enter a dimly lit hallway with squiggle-printed carpet beneath our feet.
Inside the room we are greeted by a sock doll sitting on the queen-sized bed. A flatscreen TV loops indie rock and glossy photos of garage-band gear hang on 1970s-style baroque wallpaper. One wall of windows overlooks the snowy sidewalk and a pale wooden counter offers jellybeans, wine and a black-leather book – the hotel’s ‘pleasure menu’ of packages that include feathers, vibrators and movies such as Carnal Intentions.
I am about to share my discovery with Mr Smith when he exclaims, ‘Hello, shower!’ A glass stall at the foot of the bed is completely exposed to the room. A frosted panel slides between the shower and the commode, offering only a bit of respite for the modest. Perhaps the sexy show in our room won’t be on the flatscreen after all.
The soft-porn theme continues that afternoon at our first stop of Queen Street’s storefront galleries. A crocheted series of body parts called ‘Boobs & Dinks’ scandalises an elderly resident who gapes through the window. Although the boobs and dinks are woolly, they don’t warm us up. We prefer the Clint Roenisch Gallery down the street, where a wood-burning stove installation fills the space with sweet smokiness.
The smell has made our stomachs growl. We find relief in a brown-leather booth at the Swan, a diner-style restaurant where the old Coca-Cola cooler holds ice for oysters, rather than soda bottles. Once I’ve taken my first bite of a cornmeal-crusted Malpeque on an aioli-slathered baguette, I decide The Swan’s chef is my favourite Queen Street artist.
After lunch, a lace dress in a window beckons me down Ossington, a side street where bars and boutiques bloom between older businesses. At Silver Falls, I peruse a bevy of black vintage dresses, but imagine the evening scene at the Drake will be casual. I resist shopping, satisfied with my suitcase of sweaters.
As it turns out, black dresses abound in the Drake’s lounge. Perhaps patrons dress to compete with the room, where a glassed-in fireplace blazes, movies flicker in a gilded frame and a tiger roars from a mural over a mezzanine. Mr Smith and I get our bearings at the bar with a glass of Starving Artist’s Merlot/Cabernet and a heaped bowl of edamame doused in lime juice.
Mr Smith observes, amused as four flannel-clad guys awkwardly pursue two giggling blondes in a banquette. Instead of moving to the dining room, we keep our front-row seats at the bar and order a charcuterie board. Over our piles of prosciutto, pears and pickled cauliflower, looking for love becomes a spectator sport. Happy I don’t have to work so hard for someone to go upstairs with; I order a cocktail called the Huntress in celebration. The concoction of Scotch, Amaretto and brandied cherries caps off the night perfectly.
The next morning when I awaken Mr Smith is nowhere in sight. After the sock doll watches me shower, a message appears on my phone: looking for lychees in Chinatown. Then another: fish-ball soup. I reply, telling him to meet me at AGO, the Art Gallery of Ontario, after his dim sum.
That afternoon, we explore the undulating walkways of native son Frank Gehry’s redesigned museum. The AGO has pieces dating back to the Middle Ages, but we’re most impressed with contemporary works such as Daniel Altmejd’s ‘the Index’, an outrageous walk-in maze of mirrors, taxidermied birds and furry rocks.
‘Oh look at that, someone left a mess,’ says Mr Smith, coming upon an installation involving a two-by-four on the floor.
That night we dine at Le Paradis, a classy but casual standby in the posh neighborhood of Yorkville. PEI mussels and duck cassoulet prove the Canadians to be as adept with French cuisine as they are with Chinese. We return to the Drake to discover it’s soul night in the Lounge. We pause and consider, but then sneak straight upstairs where our soft bed awaits.
Descending the next morning for checkout we overhear the staff chattering happily, ‘It’s hovering around zero, positively tropical!’ Indeed, the sun is out, and the sidewalks of Queen Street are shining with snowmelt. We duck into the photo booth in the back of the lobby, which wears a sign warning it is ‘old and temperamental’. The row of pictures emerges dark, but it’s clear enough to see that our stay at the Drake left us smiling.