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03 08

Globe and Mail - The Food 53

John Tong: His expertise as a designer is enhancing the concept a restaurant owner brings to him

By Ellen Brait
The Globe and Mail

W hen you’re standing in a John Tong building, admiring the decor, you may not even realize you’re looking at the work of the designer of Toronto’s trend-setting Drake Hotel. This could be because of the diversity of his projects or because the Toronto-based designer has played a role in so many major projects.

“You cannot compare any of his projects to each other,” said Aras Azadian, owner of Barsa Taberna in Toronto, which Tong designed in 2013 and 2014.

“He’s always trying to critically pass boundaries and think outside the box. He actually purposefully attempts to stay outside the box all the time. He’s not the kind of designer who’s trying to fit into the norm of what has worked for other restaurants.”

Tong is the creative director and designer at + tongtong, which he founded in 2012 (before that, he co-founded 3rd Uncle Design). He’s designed the salon and cocktail bar Her Majesty’s Pleasure, the farm-to-table restaurant Cafe Belong, as well as the Drake and the new Drake Devonshire in Prince Edward County.

His work varies wildly in appearance, from the vibrant Barcelona-inspired atmosphere at Barsa Taberna to the elegant feel of Her Majesty’s Pleasure. Many of his designs have won or been nominated for various awards.

“I’d never done a hotel before and he’d never done one before so we were kind of the blind leading the blind,” said Tong of his work on the first Drake. “We didn’t follow any formulas. What we were really trying to do was engage the local community and also draw people’s interests internationally.”

Tong says that before the Drake, boutique hotels and the restaurants inside them were beautiful but disconnected from their surroundings. When he designed the Drake before it opened in 2004, he and owner Jeff Stober tried to do just the opposite. “Once you arrive, you are automatically tapped into an authentic local scene,” he says.

When designing a restaurant, Tong applies this approach to the menu, ensuring his design fits seamlessly with the food. Brad Long, chef and owner of Cafe Belong, and Barsa Taberna owner Azadian agree that Tong is an expert at understanding the concept owners have in mind and adding to it. Cafe Belong, which Long says was initially a “long, rectangular, boring building” now highlights the restaurant’s locavore menu with wood detailing and an ornate, twisting green light fixture stretching from one end of the restaurant to the other.

“He not only designed something that is a functioning, workable, livable and enjoyable space, but he translated the crazy person’s vision into an actual language,” Long says. “It was so joyful to have him understand where I was trying to get to and suddenly he gives you this feeling of trust.”

Tong said he also tries to combine all of his experiences when designing a restaurant, as he believes they are “more than a place to eat.”

“Hospitality for me has really become a place where so many things converge,” he said. “It’s not just about food, it’s not just about the design. It’s really about creating a place which is multifunctional where people can work, eat, play and socialize.”

Read more here.