Come summer, the rowdy crowds that pack the patios of Queen West from noon till long after dark prove that the hip strip is still downtown's favourite outdoor party zone. Planted right at the centre of the action, the secluded terrace at Ultra, the sophisticated Ocean Drive-style supper club launched by club czar Charles Khabouth and his charming partner, Brenda Lowes, makes it even more so.
Charles and company have big shoes to fill. Until it went under a season back, Ultra's glorious second-storey retreat once belonged to the legendary Bamboo. A psychedelic shack that rocked to reggae, jerk and Red Stripe, the 'Boo was Toronto's favourite island getaway. And while Ultra's new party space is certainly other-worldly, it's worlds apart from the former joint's ramshackle vibe.
The wrought-iron gates out front are gone, replaced by a pair of massive carved Indonesian doors that lead to a laneway lined with tropical plants. At its end, the courtyard - back in the Bamboo day, a tacky turista grass-matted grotto - is now a chic cedar-planked deck shadowed by an overgrown sumach. Next to it, a wide stairway winds to the roof.
Those familiar with the remarkable transformation the downstairs nightclub has undergone will still be gobsmacked when they reach the stunning vista at the top of those stairs. The north wall now rises 20 feet above the terrace, faced with more cedar and gleaming white ceramic tiles. Around the terrace's perimeter, low white canvas banquettes offer a lovely view of azure blue sky and distant office towers, the east wall just tall enough to obscure the riffraff at the Black Bull across the way. Soft, inoffensive house music - that's disco for you older readers - wafts through the rarefied air.
I'm joined this Tuesday lunch by club kid Jennifer Convertible to give chef Paul Boehmer's exclusive patio card the once-over. Despite the brilliant weather, only a dozen or so others are doing the same thing. Our orders are soon taken by a less beefy Vin Diesel type - shaved head, hoop earrings, tight T, rolled-up cargo pants, flip-flops - and we're astonished when our large bottle of Galvania mineral water ($7) arrives accompanied by a pair of plastic cups.
Jennifer points out that the pair of suits down the couch are drinking their Heineken (a hefty pre-tax-and-tip $7) from the can, but the couple next to them seem to be drinking wine from glass stemware. When we ask what gives, we're told that management doesn't want customers throwing bottles off the roof into the parking lot below, so the beer, like the fizzy water, gets served in cans or plastic cups. But because champagne and wine are only served by the bottle, they come with real glasses. Follow this logic?
"Isn't this glass?" Convertible asks, pointing at the Galvania and successfully resisting the urge to hurl the now-empty bottle into the street. Does this sort of thing happen at the Fifth? Or Sneaky Dee's, for that matter?
Vin says nothing, but returns sharpish with our split starter of baby spinach leaves in a shallot vinaigrette dressed up with sugary wine-poached pear and a crumble of strong blue cheese. As lovely as the salad is, a few of the greens have begun to decompose. We polish them off regardless, putting the slight spoilage down to the heat. And the app' woefully needs seasoning. But since it appears we're not trusted with pepper or salt (neither shaker can be seen on our knee-high, glass-topped rattan ottoman-slash-table), we're obliged to have Vin fetch the grinder.
Afterwards, we wait. For the first half-hour, we don't notice the delay and just chill in our luxurious surroundings. The music stops. Staff don't appear to notice, but the resulting relative silence improves things, so we're not about to complain.
"It's been 45 minutes between courses," an irritated Convertible realizes after checking her Movado. "What's taking them so long? It's only a fucking hamburger!"
This is the point - actually, about 15 minutes ago - when Vin should have lied through his teeth, as servers in other restaurants do in similar situations, and said, "Your lunch will be ready in just a few minutes; could I get you another drink?" But there's no explanation forthcoming. Maybe someone behind the barbecue's been knocked out by a flying magnum of Cristal?
When silent Vin eventually arrives with the mains, my otherwise first-rate grilled tail-on shrimp sandwich ($9.95) is missing its advertised avocado. Built on a toasted whole wheat bun, the 'swich does feature diced double-smoked bacon that spills onto the plate despite the tassled toothpicks holding it together.
Convertible thumbs-ups Ultra's beefy 5-ounce Upstairs Burger ($11.95 lunch/$13 dinner), a plump, juicy patty served on a grilled egg bun dolloped with creamy chèvre and delicious house-roasted sweet red peppers. Both come with a frazzle of generic mesclun and a meek red-jacketed potato salad that needs pepper. We'd beckon the pepper mill once more, but life is short.
THE PATIO @ ULTRA (314 Queen West, at Peter, 416-263-0330) Complete dinners for $45 per person ($35 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a $7 can of imported lager. Average main $15/$10. Open daily, weather permitting, for lunch noon to 4 pm, for dinner 6 to 11 pm. Bar till 2 am. Licensed. Access: 24 steps at door, washrooms on other level. Rating: NNN