TORONTO — London-based architect Alex Cochrane has always had a soft spot in his heart for Holt Renfrew’s café nestled inside its famed Bloor Street flagship.
“Fourteen years ago, I came to Toronto to ask my future father-in-law for his daughter’s hand in marriage,” said Cochrane.
That man was W. Galen Weston — the chairman emeritus of George Weston Ltd., owner of Holt Renfrew as well as Selfridges Group in London. The daughter in question was Alannah Weston, chairman of Selfridges Group.
“I was very nervous before that meeting,” said Cochrane, who opened his architectural practice in 2009 and has since earned acclaim for its work on The Boathouse in Berkshire; Selfridges’ men’s designer floors and personal shopping and its Silence Room, where shoppers can get a moment’s peace, and more recently the world’s largest eyewear department in the London store’s new accessories hall.
The day after winning Weston’s approval for the marriage, Cochrane’s future mother-in-law, Hilary Weston, gathered a group of people to celebrate the upcoming nuptials in Holts Café.
“I never imagined that one day I would be transforming this iconic location into a modern social space that could evolve from day to evening. But here we are and that’s what I believe we have done, largely in part because this opportunity gave me the chance to develop and progress ideas that I have been playing with for the last 10 years,” he said.
Opened in 2002, Holts Café had received several décor refreshes by the time Cochrane signed on. But Cochrane wanted to create a functional space that broke away from anything that had been done before.
“First and foremost, we wanted to bring more light and 3-D-dimensionality to the project,” said Cochrane.
For example, the café’s previous incarnation featured a bar set against the window. That, Cochrane noted, kept Holt’s customers from sitting, eating and enjoying themselves there and diminished their enjoyment of the space.
“Immediately we addressed that problem and got more light into the layout,” said Cochrane, whose plan also includes four visually defined spaces beginning with a large dining room, a bustling bar, a lounge, and a private dining suite.
His inclusion of 20-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling windows designed by Toronto’s Gensler offer a sprawling view onto Bloor Street, while the high ceilings fill the new Holts Café with that 3-D architectural feel Cochrane wanted.
“One of the big challenges we faced was creating a plan for four rooms that each had a different ambiance yet could flow as one big space when their sliding walls were opened,” he said. “So if there is a private function in one room you can still feel movement and get a view of what’s going on beyond these temporary borders.”
Also noteworthy is the interior’s palette of rich brass, off-white terrazzo, rosewood and white oak, as well as the vibrant splashes of color throughout the interior.
Holts Café’s new menu, created by executive chef Benjamin Lillico, features an array of Canadian dishes that focus on sustainability, locality and seasonality.
Its extended hours of operation are also new for the retailer, offering an expanded weekend brunch, afternoon tea from Monday to Friday, and daily evening dinner service.
Holt Renfrew operates other Holts Cafés at its retail locations in Yorkdale Shopping Center, in Vancouver and Montreal. The Montreal location will move to Holt Renfrew Ogilvy when the retailer in April opens a brand new restaurant.
To date, Cochrane has not signed on to oversee any other overhauls at these sites. But the results unveiled at Holt’s Bloor Street flagship met all his design objectives. He also hopes to attract more youth to this reimagined site thanks to the “clubbier feel” of the café’s new lounge.
“That adds a whole new dimension to the space, which I see as both a compliment to today’s world of social media and a respite from it,” said Cochrane, who is embarking on more ongoing design for the men’s accessories section at Selfridges and other independent stores around London.