DRAKE HOTEL (1150 Queen West, at Beaconsfield, 416-531-5042) Complete dinners for $60 per person (lunches and brunches $30), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $24/$14. Open for dinner Monday, Tuesday and Sunday 6 to 9 pm, Wednesday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm (late-night menu Thursday to Saturday till 1 am); Café open Monday and Tuesday 7 am to 4 pm, Wednesday to Friday 7 am to 11 pm, Saturday 8 am to 11 pm, Sunday 8 am to 4 pm; Lounge nightly to 2 am (4 am during Film Festival). Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
Back in the day - oh, six or seven years ago - Toronto's annual Film Festival revolved around Yorkville. It made sense, of course, since that's where the theatres screening the fest flicks, the upscale hotels housing the stars and industry weasels and, more importantly, the restaurants and bars hosting the A-listers' parties were located.
But ever since the Varsity fell down to make way for condos, the action has spread downtown and west to boutique hotels like the Cosmopolitan on Colborne, the Soho on Mercer and the Drake on Queen West.
Even though it's only been around four years now, the Drake seems like its been there forever, having become perhaps the most prominent player on Toronto's alterna-nightlife scene. And popular, too. So much so that I'd advise you start camping on the sidewalk out front this weekend if you expect to rub shoulders with Hell-Ay insiders when the lounge's liquor licence extends to 4 am for the fest.
The all-day kitchen plans to stay open late as well, and since I haven't sampled it since boy wonder David Chrystian was in charge - Anthony Rose is now executive chef - I meet the Literary Device on the Drake Café's curbside patio for an inordinately early Saturday brunch. Looking suitably chic behind her oversized Paris Hilton sunglasses, the Device asks if I have a theme this week.
"Movie stars," I mutter under my breath so the table pushed up next to us can't overhear.
"Well, you're in luck," she replies, pointing across the packed patio. "There's Scott Speedman."
I squint in his general direction. But since I don't immediately recognize the star of the WB's Felicity and the Underworld flicks, she describes him as the buff dude with the tan, the highlights and the aviator shades. Well, that certainly narrows it down.
Over a very loud retro soundtrack of early Blondie and AC/DC that seems chosen more to wake up the staff than to ease the rest of us into the day, we're soon tucking into a perfunctory eggs Benedict of peameal-like pork loin, poached eggs and paprika-pink hollandaise ($11 with fries).
Despite its blunt description, Smoked Pig + Eggs ($15) turns out to be a generous plate of meaty barbecue-sauced baby back ribs - Cluck, Grunt & Low, take note - sided with crunchy purple cabbage slaw, a griddled wedge of grease-free cornbread and a pair of totally un-L.A. cholesterol-laden fried eggs. Scrambled egg whites, please!
A few days later, at dinner in the Drake's more formally appointed dining room just off the recently renovated lounge, celebrity sightings are slim. Other than a moustachioed bartender who's a ringer for the Killers' Brandon Flowers and a gaggle of birthday gals draped in pink feather boas, everyone here tonight appears to be quite ordinary.
Too bad they couldn't turn the lights up a little, because chef Rose's nouveau comfort food card deserves the spotlight. Beefy slices of grilled house-baked focaccia come spread with smooth ricotta whipped with first-rate olive oil and fiery red chili flakes. Though decidedly delish, a shared starter of salt-roasted veal marrow cooked in the bone ($12) is a lot of bother to extract for a limited reward.
Since it's Wednesday, tonight's blue plate special is free-range chicken pot pie ($22). The menu mentions that the dish comes topped with a special crust, but we're gobsmacked by what arrives at table - a 9-inch cast iron skillet draped with perfectly flaky pastry. Inside, we find delicately smoked Cumbrae chicken in a smoky gravy thick with carrots, sweet corn, wild mushrooms and fresh sage.
From the regular roster, crisply battered Southern fried chicken ($24) is another substantial main, the bird moist and further sweetened by dunks into a ramekin of local maple syrup. Sadly, what Rose's card considers "four-cheese macaroni" turns out to be penne in cheese sauce. But there's no need for dessert if you go for a side of creamed corn (both $6), a magnificent mush intensified with maple-glazed bacon, freshly cracked black peppercorns and Thai bird chilies. I could eat this by the bucketful!
But then there wouldn't be room for pastry chef David Chow's daily dessert ($9), tonight a warm frangipane tart topped with sectioned apricot and vanilla bean ice cream.
Lunch in the Café is less successful. The house steak frites ($17 lunch/$24 dinner) made with Cumbrae skirt shows up well done before returning medium-rare as preferred. And the hand-cut just-okay fries pale in comparison to former chef Chrystian's superlative frites. These same fries also show up alongside the Drake's burger ($11/$15), a sizable grilled patty layered with bacon, aged cheddar and Russian dressing.
But if you really want to go Hollywood, order the Cobb salad ($10 lunch only). Invented at L.A.'s legendary Brown Derby in the 30s, the Drake's take features large chunks of grilled chicken, soft-boiled egg, buttery avocado, ripe field tomato and a liberal crumbling of Quebecois blue cheese in creamy mayo over organic mesclun. Call it old school meets too cool.