Band on the Run: Kitschy, Classy Drake Hotel is Toronto Arts Beacon

Ember Swift, Canadian musician and touring performer, will be keeping us up-to-date on what it’s like to tour a band throughout North America. Having just arrived back from Beijing where she spent three months (check out her “Canadian in Beijing” series), she offers a musician’s perspective on road life.


If the merging of kitsch and class together is on the agenda for a place to stay in Toronto, The Drake Hotel is perfect. Each room is unique. The furnishings are retro and modern combined. The artwork is compelling. There’s even an antique photo booth machine that shares a room with an electric saddle ride.

But we didn’t stay there.

Honestly, it’s a bit too pricey for the musician’s salary, but it’s one of those urban hotels that are worth splurging for on a special occasion because it would be a memorable and unique night’s stay. And, well, it’s a happening place in the city and surely the entertainment within its walls would be worth absorbing. This week, for instance, it’s one of the social hotspots for the Toronto International Film Festival. Well… there’s something.

(Which film stars will be riding in that saddle, I wonder?)

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I was in Toronto this weekend for a jam party and some rehearsals. I love this city. I spent nine years living here up until 2004 and I still feel like it’s my urban home. The thing that has struck me so much since I left, however, has been the rapid changes that urban landscapes undergo. One of those changes is Queen Street West and its push towards upward mobility from artist and low-income eccentricity.

Gentrification. It’s heading west in Toronto. At least the eccentricity hasn’t been completely vacuumed away. The Drake is evidence of that fact.

Places like The Drake have popped up all along this stretch. It’s not as though this hotel wasn’t here when I lived in Toronto. In fact, it was a dive that most people I knew stayed away from. It has been around since 1890 and used to house the railroad workers that came into the city. In the eighties and nineties, it was a rough punk bar and just seemed like a seedy establishment that one hurried past if walking by late at night.

The current owner bought it in 2001, gutted the place and underwent several years of renovations before opening the space as an upscale hotel, lounge, rooftop restaurant and live music venue in the basement. Since it’s opened, the traffic to this part of the city has increased, as have the number of art galleries, cafes, and loft-dwellers in nearby newly constructed urban condos. It’s remarkable how quickly neighbourhoods transform.

Their website describes The Drake as “a democratic hub and cultural pathfinder, in the midst of a re-energized indie art gallery district.”

I can’t quite swallow the democracy here, since it’s out of many people’s price range if you’re not actually looking to stay, but I do concede that it’s a hub. It’s central to new growth and feels like a beacon of change. What’s more, it does unite rather well with the diversity of the neighbourhood as though its spot “in the midst” of so much art hasn’t been lost on the designers. They hang local artwork on the walls, have commissioned canvasses and expensive sculptural displays flanked by refurbished couches and squeaky vinyl diner stools. Indie musicians file through the basement venue while a sushi bar and yoga den take up the upper levels.

It’s definitely full of contradictions that succeed at representing a neighbourhood in the throws of change, on the cusp of new identities, on the eve of new beginnings without a desire to erase the past.

When I walked into The Drake this weekend to check out the second stage of renovations – I had been told that it had transformed into a more 30′s style kitsch look in the past year and I was curious – I spoke to the smiley front desk clerk about the hotel and its story. He seemed to smile out of every pore as he showed me the flyers and flashed white teeth in response to each of my questions. He had me smiling back, to be sure, but I wondered how happy he really was.

He spread his arms outwards to sweep in the whole of the building when he told me I was free to walk around and take pictures. Another grin and he went back to work without a word. In fact, no one seemed to mind my presence in the least. I felt a bit like a fly on the wall as I strolled into rooms I hadn’t been in for several years and took pictures and looked around. I listened in on a few meetings, a lover’s spat and a heated political discussion over a late lunch.

When I returned to the lobby, the smiling host looked up from his word asked if I had any other questions about the space and if I wanted to reserve a room. He explained that I wouldn’t be able to view one because they were all booked out (there are only 19 rooms), but he brought out room brochures that showed their diversity. As I mentioned, every room at The Drake is different. It’s not themed, per se, but several top designers were hired to design the rooms and each took a different approach. Some rooms have hardwood, some have carpeting, some have exposed brick walls and minimalist decoration and others have walls filled with unique art pieces. No art in the whole hotel is repeated, actually (sigh of relief) and each room boasts different furnishings, colours, layout and overall decorating style.

I looked at the brochures with genuine interest and told him that I’d be back in touch in the future. After all, anything’s possible.

Maybe, if nothing else, I’ll come back to socialize and get my picture taken in that old black and white booth.

Right after I’ve ridden in that saddle!