It only took a week for Harbour 60 steakhouse in Toronto to convert its parking lot into a luxurious patio that seats up to 300 people on a Saturday night — a record time in the middle of a pandemic. PHOTO BY PETER J. THOMPSON/NATIONAL POST

How one Toronto steakhouse bucked the downward trend and turned its parking lot into a paradise

The Harbour 60 steakhouse, which opened in the 1990s, was forced to close in mid-March when lockdown restrictions were imposed. Then, the future of dining seemed uncertain

What makes a successful restaurant patio? Under ordinary circumstances, it can be incredibly arduous to build one at all: City council makes you jump through hoops to secure permits, rules around design and spacing are restrictive, and getting everything together can seem like a miracle.

“Your distance from a light stand or a tree basin can severely hamper your patio space. That’s why you’ll see these patios that are 14-feet long and have room for three tables,” explains Jeremy Deyer, general manager at the Harbour 60 steakhouse in downtown Toronto. “That doesn’t lend to ambiance.”

This is what downtown Toronto looks like now that many businesses have closed

 

I am sitting with Deyer — both of us wearing masks — on the sprawling patio in the enormous parking lot outside the  restaurant, which is so huge, beautiful, and lavish that it’s easy to forget it’s even outside. The partially enclosed tent space looks like a cross between the grounds for an opulent summer wedding and a fashionable urban restaurant, all realized under the strict guidelines imposed by Ontario’s government around safe practices and physically distant seating. The result is perhaps the single nicest outdoor patio in Toronto. “This,” Deyer says, gesturing at the luscious foliage and gleaming tables around us, “lends to ambiance. And it also lends to safety.”

The remarkable thing about this patio is the speed with which it came together. The Harbour 60 steakhouse, which opened near the city’s waterfront in the late 1990s under the ownership of the Nikolau family, was forced to close in mid-March, along with every other restaurant in the province, when lockdown restrictions were initially imposed. Then, the future of dining seemed uncertain. At first, like many other places, Harbour 60 converted temporarily into a takeout operation, working with the boutique takeaway app Tok and drawing on its loyal client base for support. “We’re going off a reputation that we’ve built over 21 years,” Deyer explains. “So we have clients who trust us implicitly and helped us pay the bills with orders.”

But as soon as the province allowed restaurants to seat diners outdoors — and signalled that it would ease many of the ordinary restrictions on patio space to accommodate a range of situations — Deyer and the rest of the Harbour 60 team got to work. They already had a small patio to the side of the building, but they envisioned something much more ambitious.

They set to work converting the parking lot into a more welcoming area: painting the concrete, installing expanses of wooden deck space. Their catering manager, who was familiar with coordinating events, sourced an array of chairs and tables. A DJ the restaurant worked with put together a state-of-the-art sound system with full coverage. The master florist Kimiyo Corban managed to find jaw-dropping plants and flowers.

“Everyone kind of contributed their own thing. Personally, I take pride in the banquette,” Deyer says, indicating the bright-blue seating running along one side. “I love banquettes.”

The whole thing took about a week to come together — an unbelievably fast turnaround, especially in the middle of a global pandemic. The finished patio space currently seats a little over 60 guests, with more than enough room to provide the requisite two metres of distance between tables. Although the dining room indoors is now open under Ontario’s Phase Three, the building’s 200-plus capacity has been curtailed to about 30 per cent of that, and, as Deyer points out, most customers are opting for the outdoor patio anyway. Most every night of the week this summer, it’s been completely full.

“We might see 150 people on a Monday night, or 300 on Saturday,” he says. “We’e been incredibly blessed. People are happy to be here.”

At a time when the entire hospitality industry is struggling to remain afloat — it has been estimated that upwards of 60 per cent of restaurants will close as a consequence of the pandemic — the fortune found by Harbour 60 is an encouraging success story. Of course, the prospect of the “second wave” still looms over the country, and as we head into fall and winter, outdoor patios face a limited future. Deyer, though, is optimistic. They’ve recently closed off the west and north sides of the patio to keep the wind out, and they’re planning to install some portable heaters to extend the warmth into autumn.

And he’s seen first-hand how things can run when everyone is diligent about health and safety. “Using this restaurant as a microcosm, I think we’ll be OK,” he says.

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