By JOHN SEMLEY
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, November 18, 2017
Visiting Casa Loma, the venerable Gothic revivalist landmark that straddles the border of Toronto's downtown and midtown like a looming grey-brick sentinel, its 6,000 square metres were abuzz with activity on a chilly fall evening.
The southwest garden entrance attracts a cluster of teenagers waiting for the gates to open on the Legends Of Horror haunted house attraction, while the main entrance hosts groups entering or exiting one of the property's three "escape room" attractions. Amid the confusion of so many doors leading to so many different live-action puzzle boxes and chambers of horror, and the general anxiety of darkening the doorstep of an enormous castle, a valet parking attendant in a tuque proves helpful, asking, "Here for the steakhouse?" The steakhouse is BlueBlood, a newly opened upscale dining establishment inside Casa Loma that attempts to make a virtue of its garish opulence. As a restaurant concept, BlueBlood is bizarre, confounding, sometimes even a bit annoying. But it's a project years in the making.
In 2014, the City of Toronto awarded a 20-year lease to Liberty Entertainment Group to take over operations of Casa Loma. At the time, says Liberty president Nick Di Donato, Casa Loma was hemorrhaging around $1-million annually. It was still a go-to attraction for tourists and elementary-school trips, but failed to address what Mr. Di Donato calls the "uncaptured market of Torontonians."
"The castle is quite the iconic city property," Mr. Di Donato explains.
"For a while, it fell into the abyss, not being recognized and being an old, tired facility. One of our objectives, and the city's objectives, was to make it one of the city's most prolific sites, and one that's appreciated not only by tourists, but also Torontonians."
A high-end restaurant was part of Liberty's original proposal to the city. And now, well, here it is.
It's tough sledding for fine-dining establishments across Canada. Since the economic downturn of 2008, diners have been drawn away from full-service dining, according to market research gathered by the NPD Group.
The refining of casual dining and the boom in third-party delivery services such as UberEats has challenged traditional sit-down dining.
The key to growth, NPD industry expert Robert Carter says, is distinction.
"There's so many brands that are so similar," he says. "You walk into a Boston Pizza or a Kelsey's and they all have three dinner salads and four different entrees. Sometimes you don't even know which one you're in."
BlueBlood doesn't have that problem. The place is all distinction.
"They're carving out a niche in a very specific way," Mr. Carter observes. "They need to have a strong point of difference between themselves and, for example, The Keg.
When consumers go there, they're going to have an experience." In a city where fancier dining options trend more toward intimate restaurants along Dundas West, Ossington and cramped alleys of Kensington Market, Liberty invested in something big and bold enough to befit the property. "Fine dining and high-level dining is resurgent," Mr. Di Donato says. "It's not only about small, 30-seat restaurants. It's about the whole experience. People want a little more than what's on their plate. They want a sense of aesthetics. The castle really lends itself to that."
Renovated at a cost of $3-million, it's a place where you can wash down a $250 tasting flight of thoroughly marbled Japanese Wagyu steaks with a $500 Old Fashioned made with Rémy Martin Louis XIII Grande Champagne Cognac (which retails in Canada for around $3,300 per gilded 700ml bottle), while sitting under a cartoony Warhol pop art portrait of Wayne Gretzky. Not a Warhol knockoff or print, mind you.
But an actual Warhol.
This clash of old and new - the very "concept" of the restaurant, such as it is - serves an inverted heritage function. As Mr. Di Donato explains: "That's just a direction we needed to take to ensure that the heritage value of the property was respected. People would realize what we had done in terms of changes.
"So there's not a false impression that our chandeliers are the original chandeliers in Casa Loma. Any additions are very distinctly interpreted as additions, as opposed to suggesting that it actually looked like this.
It's very important, from a heritage perspective, to do this."
The contrast of aesthetics, however deliberate, feels more like a clash, adding to the overwhelming dissonance one feels eating there.
There's a reason those great steakhouses err toward a stuffy orthodoxy. Their traditionalist, even conservative, atmosphere places them outside fickle food trends.
They are, in a meaningful way, timeless.
BlueBlood seems to want to square this timelessness with the fickler trend toward ironic dining. Following a particularly lacerating New York Times review of Guy Fieri's American Kitchen and Bar, Bloomberg noted an uptick in patronage to the Food Network superstar's gaudy Times Square eatery. They called it an "ironic dining Mecca," which drew in not just the usual crowd of half-confused tourists, but honestto-god locals, curious at just how abrasive the whole dining experience could possibly be. While BlueBlood's cuisine is no doubt elevated above Mr. Fieri's menu of Motley Que Ribs and Volcano Chicken entrees, the decor is similarly flashy - albeit in a winking, knowing way.
Even the name, BlueBlood, suggests highfalutin nobility in a way that's sly, as if it's meant to alleviate something of the starch of fine dining by making it seem cheeky and kitsch.
Celebrity chefs such as Momofuku's David Chang, or David McMillan and Frédéric Morin of Joe Beef have staked out similar territory a bit more successfully. In the case of Chang's famous fried chicken and caviar and Joe Beef's KFC-styled foie gras sandwich, the food itself - and not just the ambience - feels playful and unstuffy.
More than anything, BlueBlood seems to embody Liberty Entertainment Group's vision of a revitalized Toronto, one in which restaurants (and restaurant concepts) drive tourism and global renown.
"Toronto has been a beta city for many years," Mr. Di Donato says.
BlueBlood's sprawling, 130-seat dining room feels like a rather obvious "world class" play: The steakhouse as burly alpha dog, radiating dominance and ostentation over elegance. Still, in the social-media age, its abundance of aesthetic extravagance may be enough to distinguish BlueBlood. It was certainly enough to entice Drake, who deemed it a suitable venue for a highly Instagrammable 31st birthday party last month.
In 2014, Liberty Entertainment Group was awarded a 20-year lease to take over operations of Casa Loma. One of the objectives of the newly opened restaurant, BlueBlood, pictured on Nov. 9, is to make the heritage site one of the city's most prolific.
PHOTOS BY MARK BLINCH/GLOBE AND MAIL
Nick Di Donato, Liberty president, says diners are not only interested in the food, but the whole experience - and the castle offers just that.
BlueBlood seems to embody Liberty's vision of a revitalized Toronto, one in which restaurants drive tourism and global renown.
At BlueBlood, you can wash down a $250 tasting flight of thoroughly marbled Japanese Wagyu steaks with a $500 Old Fashioned.