The Road to Havana

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When Trump recently rolled back Obama’s initiatives to open lines of trade and communication with Cuba, he dashed many American’s dreams of visiting. For fifty years this fair land has been a tropical destination for everyone but America. Canadians love its close proximity – just 90 miles from Key West, Cuba is an easy three-hour flight from Toronto.

I’ve been enthralled with Cuba since my 20’s, since Buena Vista Social Club. I loved hearing my great aunt’s stories of her pre-Castro cruise trips to Havana, where she’d scour the flea markets for cool jewellery. I didn’t have the option to visit until becoming a citizen of Canada. I love a beach vacation, but I was especially interested in seeing Havana. In planning my first Cuban adventure I relied on the knowledge of my travel companion and frequent Cuba visitor from Travelful Life. We decided on the Melia Varadero, a popular beach resort along Cuba’s Hicacos Peninsula.

Varadero to Havana
If you’re staying in Varadero, you’re close enough for a day trip to Havana. Take a bus from your resort if you like the group tours, but I recommend hiring an English-speaking driver to take you for a private tour in a vintage car. (You can opt for the round trip drive and a self-guided tour.) Either way, agree to a fee in advance.

En route to Havana, do make a pit stop at Puente de Bacunayagua, located an hour outside of Varadero. Here you can stretch your legs, take some scenic photos (see video below) and enjoy one of their famous pina coladas. It’s also a good place to ogle classic cars if that’s your thing. (It’s totally my thing.)

In Havana we saw the most visible impact of Cuba’s political isolation. Decrepit infrastructure. Buildings falling down or halted in mid-construction. Kids hustling tourists in the street for money. But the beauty, the raw beauty of the streets, the music and the people was inspiring. There is an infectious joy to Havana, so slow down and dig in.

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Hemingway legend is all over this city, the most famous being the Floridita where he drank 16 daiquiris with no sugar and double rum. While crowded and overpriced, you can at least revel in the air conditioning. Take a stroll along the Malecon, or scoot over to the Christ of Havana sculpture for a little perspective on life (he stands 15 meters tall).

No Logos
When I’m not vacationing, I spend a lot of time reading or talking about brand marketing. From that perspective it was jarring not to see Coca-Cola or Walmart everywhere. But I’m thrilled to have visited before U.S. corporations take root in Cuba. Some may mourn the end of an innocence when the (inevitable) American commercialization hits, but the Cuban people deserve more than an oppressive life in a 1950’s time capsule. In the meantime we can embrace them.

Well, we can. Sorry, America.

An Entrepreneur with Serious Flavour

Janet Zuccarini

Janet Zuccarini

Globetrotter, wonder woman, entrepreneur, foodie – any one of these could describe Janet Zuccarini. The brains behind some of Toronto’s most successful restaurants, she is all of these and then some. I consider Zuccarini a trailblazer. Call it a slow burn. Her Trattoria Nervosa celebrates its 20th anniversary next month, but over the past four years Zuccarini has made an indelible mark on Toronto’s restaurant scene by opening Gusto 101 off King West and Pai in the entertainment district. She’s also launched a restaurant group, Gusto 54, and has plans for two more Toronto dish spots – Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen and an east side Gusto 101 location. Now she has set her sights on L.A. with Felix, a “coming-soon” collaboration with executive chef Evan Funke.

Nervosa has been a constant of mine since landing in Toronto 14 years ago, where I’ve enjoyed countless meals and one memorable Drake sighting. I first met Janet at a fashion week luncheon held at the old Four Seasons, and not long after, I got to know her over glasses of Veuve at a Teatro Verde event. (I know, I know, such is the life sometimes.) As an entrepreneur I was captivated by her quiet drive and enthusiasm. It’s unusual to see a successful restaurateur who’s neither a chef nor a celebrity – although she’s orbiting close to becoming the latter. Moreover, it’s frankly unheard of for a woman to be such a dominant force in such a male-dominated industry. Zuccarini has no partners, no backers and owns her restaurant real estate. This lady could drop the mic any moment now.

An inspiration? A role model? Feminine force of nature? Yes, yes. All of these and still more. I have a feeling Janet Zuccarini is just getting warm.

There aren’t many other women growing a restaurant empire — how does that feel?

I’m proud of the fact that I am a woman doing this in a very male-dominated industry. I never worked in any other restaurant other than my own, so I have always written my own rules. I think that has allowed me to think outside of the box.

You’re very driven — how do you find balance between work and personal life?

I like to say that I paid my dues in the early days when I worked 16 hour days, six days a week, working every position in the restaurant. Once I had some money in the bank, it was time to work smart which meant building a team around me. That allowed me to truly run it, as opposed to being inside of it working as a technician. For years now, I have been able to focus on being the visionary for the company, removing myself from the day-to-day operations, which has been the key to leading a balanced life.

What led you to diversify into other cuisines like Thai and Jamaican?

I’m now running the company in a very intuitive way, leaving myself open to new opportunities I probably wouldn’t have been open to or ready for years ago. We have built systems and procedures that can be applied to any hospitality business. Pai was about backing Jeff and Nuit Regular who are mega talents in the business, but needed support on the back-end. Chubby’s Jamaican Kitchen comes from my love of Jamaica and Jamaican food. I see the opportunity for this cuisine to be updated and made more relevant.

Who are your role models that inspire you in business?

Danny Meyers comes from a business background, as do I and is also driven by his passion for this business. Although I’ve never met him, I feel we are kindred culinary spirits. He’s my number one role model.

What’s your advice for young entrepreneurs?

You cannot be risk averse. If you need a steady pay cheque, don’t be an entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur you have to do whatever it takes, which may mean going without a pay cheque and moving back in with your parents – both of which I did.

What’s the best thing about Toronto in your opinion?

I am very proud that I come from a city that is so multicultural and integrated. I know it has influenced me in feeling comfortable to open up such diverse restaurants.

 

 

Downtime at the Drake Devonshire

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Photo courtesy the Drake Devonshire

(This post was updated May 2017.)

The Drake Hotel often gets credited with helping draw people to an emerging West Queen West, that downtown Toronto strip of Queen just east of Dufferin. And deservingly so. Upon opening in 2004 it not only ushered in a new kind of boutique hotel experience, it set the stage for hipster lifestyle before hipsters even existed.

Less than a decade later the brand expanded to the financial district with a restaurant called Drake One Fifty. Last fall they did it again, this time in Prince Edward County – specifically Wellington, Ontario – with the Drake Devonshire. The brand’s extension into a lakefront inn has been done beautifully.

“The Drake Devonshire flirts with the luxury summer camp in English country house style.” ~ Paris Vogue

Prince Edward County offers a bounty of things to do in the summer – beaches, cycling, wine tasting, antiquing. But even if you don’t leave the hotel, your time at “Drake by the Lake” won’t be dull. The Drake brand is rooted in design, art, music and culinary excellence. There is always something happening.

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photo by John Cullen | Travel + Leisure

ROOMS

As with the original Drake, the Devonshire’s guest rooms and suites come in all shapes and sizes. The rooms have been meticulously designed and outfitted with custom furniture and millwork, mixed with antiques and vintage pieces, and feature original artwork. Some even boast balconies that overlook the Lake and the property.

Fish Fry Friday

photo courtesy of Drake Devonshire

FOOD & DRINK

I met Matthew DeMille, Devonshire head chef, a man who brings plenty of big city experience and a wealth of knowledge on the local area. Everything is a nod to PEC. His ‘farm and lake to table’ philosophy extends all the way to featured wines from the region’s many wineries. There’s nothing precious about Drake’s food, not with special events like the Good Friday Fish Fry or a Terroir Run Pasta Party, but it aims to please. Don’t overlook their well-stocked beer list and cocktail program which is always ahead of the trend.

ART

Here’s another thing Drake fans will recognize. The Devonshire features a rotating exhibit of work regularly with a new show installed every couple of months, as well as an ongoing Artist-in-Residence program. Even the guest rooms are an exhibition unto themselves.

ENTERTAINMENT

Devonshire’s weekly calendar listings include open mic nights, live music performances and events like flow yoga. And since hipsters have babies too, they offer kid-friendly, mid-afternoon Highchair Hangouts for parents and little ones.

Room reservations and other Drake Devonshire information available here.

Grey Goose and a very grown up Cherry

I have a rule about vodka: always say yes when offered and whenever possible, say Grey Goose. Last Thursday I said yes to the launch party for Grey Goose Cherry Noir. Truth is, I’m allergic to cherries. Thankfully, as you might imagine, I am not allergic to cherry vodka.

A wintry storm threatened to derail the night’s festivities, so I made a few wardrobe accommodations — fur hat, Sorels, layered cuteness in-between — and hit the Thompson Hotel with my friend Lee of Off the Cuff Resale Designer Menswear.

Thompson’s packed lobby space was transformed into an enchanted garden of moss and dark vines to reveal After Dark: The Tale of Cherry Noir. Gorgeous, mysteriously cloaked models welcomed guests with glimmering etched diamonds to exchange for custom Cherry Noir cocktails. 

Photo by George Pimentel
Shine bright like a diamond
Photo by George Pimentel
Photo by George Pimentel

We’re just now beginning to see social media cross over into real life experiences. Instaprint is a location-based photo booth for Instagram. The service is HOT right now. 
Swarovski brought it to France last month during Couture Week, and Grey Goose brought it to Canada for Cherry Noir. The magic is in its simplicity. Tag an Instagram photo with the event’s hashtag and a printer spits out your image moments later. Et voila!

Thanks to all of my friends and followers who came out to celebrate. Be sure to join my mailing list for news of more fashionable events in Canada (sign up to the right).  Special thanks to Grey Goose and Community for pulling together a wicked fun time!

Super Bowl XLVII Dreams for a Super Town

Let me begin by stating clearly: I do not watch football. If I attended a Super Bowl and Grey Cup party, I just went for the food and conversation. But having grown up in Maryland and lived in Baltimore, I’m compelled to root – dare I say even watch – the Baltimore Ravens take on the San Francisco 49ers this Sunday.  (Don’t laugh, I had to look it up who else was playing.) 

Baltimore holds a special place in my heart. They don’t call it Charm City for nothing. Much like Toronto, where I now reside, it’s a city of neighborhoods – Fells Point, Little Italy, Federal Hill, Mount Vernon and so on. Perhaps that’s why Toronto felt so familiar to me – it’s also a city of neighborhoods. (Ironically, both cities have a major sugar factory dominating their waterfront.) Baltimore was a great place to live in my mid-20’s, but I left in search of bigger cities like New York.

Yet every time I go home, I hit the town. Here are my top picks for Baltimore visitors:

Photo from it-bodes.blogspot.ca

Inner Harbor – History buffs will recall it was here, from a ship during the War of 1812, where Francis Scott Key penned the poem that ultimately became the country’s national anthem. I expect a few extra tears in Baltimore when Alicia Keys belts out the “Star Spangled Banner” on Sunday. 

The Inner Harbor is the city’s tourist destination with the typical commercial traps — The Cheesecake Factory, Hooters, ESPN Zone, Hard Rock Cafe, etc . Before that, as a child and a teenager it was THE place to go, but over the years the restaurant and shopping options have ebbed and flowed with the economy. It’s still a beautiful area with so much to see and do. A Four Seasons hotel recently opened in the east end of the harbor. Little Italy is nearby too.

Don’t miss: the stunning Baltimore Aquarium, American Visionary Art Museum

Posing on a tall ship in Baltimore Inner Harbor

Camden Yards – I may not like football, but I love watching a live baseball game. When I was 12 years old – ahem, long before Oriole Park at Camden Yards was built – I delivered my town’s weekly newspaper and won two tickets to an Orioles game. Side note: my dad dropped my best friend and I off at the entrance of Memorial Stadium and picked us up afterwards. Oh, how times have changed! 

Chowing down on popcorn and hot dogs under the sun, my love of the game was born. (Again, food and sports!) These days Camden Yards offers an exceptional baseball experience. And I don’t have to sit in the nosebleeds. Go O’s!

Don’t miss: An evening game in late spring/early summer

The Brewer’s Art – Restaurants and bars dot Charles Street from north to south, but the Brewer’s Art is A+ for those who like happy hour at any hour. True to its name, they brew beers on premises and offer a fantastic selection of beers and fine wines from around the world, as well as one of Baltimore’s best selections of scotches and spirits. Stay for dinner, their menu is top notch.

Photo from eattoblog.com

The Charles – Movie buffs will adore The Charles. Tucked up at the north end of Charles Street, it shows first-run specialty films in addition to Hollywood movies, foreign films and cinema classics. Afterwards head across the street to Club Charles with your movie pals for a killer cocktail and a spin through their incredible jukebox. So retro!

Don’t miss: your cab — this is not an area to get to or from by foot after dark

Fells Point – My old ‘hood will look familiar to fans of The Wire, as much of the show was shot in and around here. These cobblestone streets used to be home to the most bars per square mile in the country – or so Baltimore legend had it. I could concur. (Remember, I was here in my 20’s.) While the area has gone through a downturn, it still has its charms. You’ll find cute shops, galleries and great seafood at just about any price.

Don’t miss: the endless seafood! Mussels, oysters, crab cakes, shrimp – you name it!

This post is an unusual twist for me – it’s first time I haven’t written about fashion! It was so much fun to write. What do you think? Shall I continue to expand my blogging repertoire? 

Feedback welcome!

Join me at CUBE’s Style & Fashion Holiday Soiree

It’s the first week of December, are you holiday partied out yet?! I hope not, dear readers, as your festive energy is needed Friday, December 21st. That’s when the F-list co-hosts a Style & Fashion Holiday Soiree at CUBE with Evan Biddell, Push Models, Kealan Sullivan of 69 Vintage and many more fashionable types. 

Join me before 11:30pm for complimentary cover, holiday cupcakes and cocktails. Whether you’ve been naughty or nice, get your photo taken with Santa and his fashionistas. Work off those Christmas cookies by hitting the dance floor to sounds from DJ MISSTARA and resident DJ Mike Toast.

Consider it your warm up for New Year’s! See you there.

DRESSED is a Success

A sincere and belated thank you to everyone who came out on Fashion’s Night Out to see our screening of the documentary DRESSED presented by Maybelline. (For those who don’t know, I also run Tastemakers during TIFF, so pardon my delayed gratitude.) The evening could not have been more perfect – from the weather to the sponsors to the amazing crowd. Special thanks to DJ Dan and of course, Nary Manivong, whose presence made the night complete. 

This was the official Canadian premiere of DRESSED, but we hope to help bring the documentary, and Nary, back to Toronto again. Nary’s next chapter will be an exciting one to watch.

Official shout outs go to: RAC Boutique and the Burroughes Building, for being great venue partners;
Maybelline, Martini brand and the Community Agency, Sonic Events and TASTE Culinary for making it happen; and the volunteers, for your tireless energy, thank you!

Check out the full photo album on the F-list’s Facebook page.

Don’t Miss DRESSED at Fashion’s Night Out

I’m so thrilled to host DRESSED presented by Maybelline during Fashion’s Night Out. 

Dressed shares the true and truly inspiring story of designer Nary Manivong’s adolescent life, which found him homeless at 14 in Columbus, Ohio to the present as he prepares for his debut show at New York Fashion Week. Nary is an example of the incredible focus and dedication required to succeed in the fashion business. 

Save the date! Open to the public! Space is limited! You’ll find us upstairs from rac boutique‘s Bazaar on the 6th floor of the Burroughes Building.

Thursday, September 6
Doors open 6PM
Screening at 9PM
#dressedatdark

Follow @TheFList, @DRESSEDtheMOVIE, @MaybellineCAN, @racboutique and @fno_Toronto for more! 

 

ABSOLUT MODE Canadian style

Doesn’t it seem like every brand is into fashion these days? In fairness ABSOLUT® VODKA has been collaborating with the fashion set since the 1990’s. (Remember the bottles designed by Tom Ford, Versace, Stella McCartney or Gaultier, anyone?)
The 2011 ABSOLUT® MODE EDITION is another redesign of the iconic bottle, reflecting the world of fashion through twelve facets, orflat faces on geometric shapes” to you. The glass facets are designed to catch reflections of light, and the bottle is wrapped in a midnight blue silk cloth band with text embroidery. 
The limited-edition bottle launched last week in Canada with a gala fashion event at Malaparte in the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Fashion Television’s Jeanne Beker curated the one-night only, museum-style exhibit. Guests sipped ABSOLUT cocktails while perusing personal items of clothing and accessories from Canadian style icons including Beker, Suzanne Rogers, Stacey Kimel, Krystyne Griffin, Heather Gotlieb, Mary Symons, FASHION magazine’s Bernadette Morra, FLARE magazine’s Lisa Tant and Don Cherry. 
Each garment was accompanied by a personal story from the owner, sharing memories of its origin or an experience wearing the item. One of the more poignant notes came from Stacey Kimel who actually wore her Alexander McQueen outfit to his funeral. After the service Sarah Burton approached her, sharing her own memories of finishing the coat late at night with Lee (McQueen).
Jeanne Beker’s Andy Warhol soup can evening bag by Phillip Treacy, a gift from the designer
Flare magazine editor Lisa Tant’s custom gown by Lida Baday
Stacey Kimel’s Alexander McQueen outfit, with card from Lee McQueen’s memorial service
Suzanne Rogers’ dress by Mary Katrantzou, Fall 2011