Five months after reopening, the reincarnated Waldorf Hotel brings urbane culture to East Hastings with installation art, live music, multi-room DJ parties, in-room shopping, three menus and a tiki bar
Located in an industrial no-mans-land nestled between Vancouver's Strathcona and Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhoods, the recently reimagined Waldorf Hotel is transforming East Van, inflecting the area with an urbanity previously unimaginable.
After 63 years in business, The Waldorf Hotel has had a rough past few years, opening only for promoters and private events renting out the Tiki Bar. Then, in the summer of 2010, the hotel was closed down for major renovations, reimerging—after much anticipation and a sophistocated hype-building campaign—the end of October as a multi-venue concept hotel focused on art, hospitality and community.
Five months later, the Waldorf team is still busy settling in and honing its ability to execute quality food, excellent service and subcultural sophistication.
A glance at the events calendar reveals just how busy they are: from the Art In April series, featuring works by some of the biggest names in Vancouver's art scene (including Atilla Richard Lukacs and Paul Wong, to name just two), to The Cheaper Show's new multi-disciplinary project space, Black and Yellow, which opens April 1, 2011.
"We've had an amazing reaction from friends, family and the community,” says Waldorf brand manager Danny Fazio of the relaunch. "People in Vancouver have been overwhelming and supportive."
He sees the Waldorf fostering community in this out-of-the-way part of East Van.
"We've got to put in the extra mile for people to make the trek out here,” Fazio says laughing.
And they really have. From weekly obscure and art-house film screenings, multi-room parties, DJs and live music, video installations, galleries, literary readings and comic fairs—the Waldorf has already gained a dedicated following among the city's taste-makers and cultural elite.
“[The Waldorf has] really stepped up," says David Duprey, owner of The Rickshaw. "It's really impressive—so awesome. Could be the greatest thing ever.”
Music journalist and musician Nardwuar the Human Serviette (centre) with a smoking tomcat and Michael Turner, author of Hard Core Logo, at the Waldorf Hotel's Grand Opening/Halloween Party in 2010. (Image: via The Waldorf Hotel)
The restored Tiki Bar at The Waldorf Hotel offers a nostalgic glimpse into the hotel's past. (Image: Kris Krug)
The Tiki Bar in 2008, when The Waldorf was only open for private functions. (Image: Duane Storey)
The history behind The Waldorf Hotel
In 1953, a man named Bob Mills purchased eight black velvet paintings by Edgar Leeteg in Honolulu. When his wife declared she didn’t like them, Mills vowed to create a Tahitian cocktail lounge in Vancouver. And he did.
Seizing on the emerging obsession with Polynesian culture that was becoming trend at the time, Mills transformed his Waldorf Hotel as a “tiki”-themed bar and hotel in 1955, opening the cocktail lounge in full tiki style. Designed in 1947 by architects Mercer & Mercer in a modernist style, the East Vancouver hotel, beer parlour and basement restaurant's new facelift was a huge hit.
Fifteen years later, in 1970, the Waldorf’s cook, Frank Puharich, purchased the hotel from the Mills family. He renovated the beer parlour in the 1980s and the restaurant was closed in the '90s. The Tiki Bar remained the same but was open only for special events and private functions.
Following a flurry of The Waldorf's Grand Opening/Halloween Party was wildly successful, attracting a lineup down the block that reportedly took hours to get through. (Image: Flickr / Mark & Andrea Busse)
The Waldorf Hotel's 2010 renovation and rebirth
Everything changed in 2010 when the Puharich family leased the Waldorf to restauranteur Ernesto Gomez (of Nuba fame), architect Scott Cohen (designer of Gastropod and Les Faux Bourgeois) and musician Thomas Anselmi. They brought in creative brand manager Danny Fazio from Toronto and launched the re-imagined Waldorf Hotel with a highly attended grand opening Halloween party on October 30, 2010.
The renovation required a complete redesign of vision, concept and branding. The goal: to maintain the history and atmosphere of The Waldorf Hotel and the iconic Tiki Bar while creating a hub for contemporary art, music, food and culture.
The new Waldorf team kept the original Tiki Bar as close to the original as possible—keeping mai tais on the menu and digging up some vintage JBL Lansings Harsfield speakers Anselmi found in the Waldorf’s basement. (Set up in the Tiki Bar, the nostalgic sound system is fully analog, challenging DJs to only play cassettes and vinyl.)
They also renovated 10 of the existing 30 hotel rooms to be maintained for rental. The remaining rooms will be utilized for various in-room functions, such as exclusive retail shops by clothing designers and gallery shows.
Vancouver punk band Joyce Collingwood performs at The Waldorf. (Image: Kris Krug)
The Waldorf Hotel was shut down for several months in 2010 for massive renovations. (Image: Kris Krug)
The Cabaret at The Waldorf Hotel ready for bands, films or cultural fairs. (Image: Jennifer Osborne / Lighting design by Peter Hagge)
From the cinematic to the sartorial, art and culture merge on East Hastings
“We’ve tried to create a space that, one, is an extension of the restaurant and, two, has really great music all the time,” explains Fazio about the Tiki Bar.
“We’ve been really selective about the DJs in that space. People are guaranteed to have great music and can soak in the atmosphere.”
The Cabaret and the Rec Room in the basement both feature special events for live music, parties, cultural fairs, readings and weekend movies.
Every Sunday afternoon in the Cabaret is the weekly movie series Day for Night, curated by Anu Sahota, who programs films that often recognize Vancouver’s cultural history or that aim to bring different communities together. The intimate space, with only 40–50 seats, is perfect for a screening where a full theatre would feel too big.
Fazio says the screenings are “literally packed every weekend… it really surprised me."
Also popular are the hotel's monthly Chosen Ones group vintage sale. Piggy backing on the Toronto event by the same name, the event brings in a carefully curated selection of secondhand finds from some of the city's more sophisticated consignment dealers, including Erin Templeton, USED House of Vintage, the fair, Angelus Novus and others.
Even the Waldorf‘s lobby has a unique addition: Barbarella Hair Salon. The popular salon officially launched in February and offers a full range of services, including cut, colour and styling.
The Waldorf Gift Shop is also worthy of some note, stocking luxury and specialty items, such as Lomography cameras, moleskins, cards and clothing, as well as locally made jewellery from Red Flag Design, Dace and Becky Brisco, and prints by local artist Andy Dixon. The shop also carries several obscure magazine titles, such as The Gentlewoman and Fantastic Man, among others.
Nuba Café at the Waldorf serves up a Spanish-inspired brunch menu. (Image: Michael Robertson)
Lebanese, Mexican and Spanish fare all under the same roof
Several dining experiences are now available at The Waldorf. The latest Café Nuba serves up its well-known Lebanese cuisine with fresh and wholesome ingredients.
The 120-seat café space is also home to the new Desayuno: Brunch Mexicana every Saturday and Sunday. It’s a traditional Mexican brunch with unique dishes, cocktails and a live mariachi band. Fazio describes the new brunch menu as an "events-driven brunch" and wants to develop it as a destination with food, cocktails and entertainment.
Ernesto Gomez partnered with Pedro Martin and Cesar de la Parra to create the menu for the 60-seat Leeteg dining room, which is currently serving up a Spanish-inspired menu in the evenings. All three trained under Chef Martin Berasategui in San Sebastian, Basque Country, Spain.
The Waldorf is working on a chef-in-residence program to bring in internationally acclaimed chefs who will create custom menus to explore world cuisines.
And plans are underway to open up the 100-seat patio for the spring and summer.
“It’s a great outdoor space,” says Fazio, indicating that a Mexican barbecue style with fish tacos may be in the works.
The Lake and Stars lingerie displayed at The Waldorf's Shop-in-Room. (Image: Kris Krug)
Paul Wong's first gallery-in-room exhibition, Karen’s Room, in Room 103 in early 2011. (Image: Flickr / Eric Reeve)
Waldorf's hotel rooms more than meets the eye
The hotel rooms that were not renovated for use as hotels are currently serving a variety of functions with more plans for the future.
Known for his engagement with issues of race, sex and death, Paul Wong—the award-winning Canadian multimedia artist, curator and organizer of public interventions since the mid-1970s—presented the first gallery-in-room called Karen’s Room in the Waldorf's Room 103 in early 2011. For the site-specific installation, Wong had the room draped, floor to ceiling, in bed sheets, which artist/activist Karen collected and repurposed to be redistributed to charities around the Lower Mainland and disaster victims in Haiti and Pakistan.
On April 1, 2011, the folks behind The Cheaper Show will expand the gallery-in-room concept, utilizing Room 106 for their Black and Yellow gallery, a multi-use research and exhibition space mandated for emerging artists producing innovative and challenging work.
The Lake and Stars, a lingerie company based in Brooklyn (and co-founded/designed by former Vancouverite Maayan Zilberman), was the first shop-in-room, debuting in January during the Five Secret Worlds encore peep-show event.
Following a similar model, The Waldorf held Love Hotel, a Valentine's Day-themed shopping event for which retailers of intimates, jewellery, candy, perfume and even adult toys were invited to hawk their wares to the amorous attendees.
In December 2010, the Waldorf held the Comic & Zine Fair in its Leetag Room, inviting local artists as well as notable non-locals, like Portland's celebrated multi-disciplinary artist Dame Darcy (Meat Cake), to exhibit and sell work. Above, Toren Atkinson, local comic artist (and lead singer of the HP Lovecraft tribute band The Darkest of the Hillside Thickets). (Image: Kris Krug)
Michael Mann presents his zine at the Waldorf's Comic & Zine Fair. (Image: Kris Krug)
The future of the Waldorf Hotel
The Waldorf team is currently exploring the patio and terrace options to host “a lot of great events in the summer,” Fazio confirms enthusiastically.
As well, in the next year, they aim to continue building restaurant offerings, night club events and a sense of community.
“We love being involved with cultural institutions,” says Fazio. “They have great energy.”
He hopes to see the Waldorf as a cultural institution itself within five years, serving as a dynamic space for promoters to utilize and a great addition to the city.
“Vancouver is influencing itself,” Fazio says. “[There is] so much great stuff going on... It’s a great time to be here.”
Related: 5 things you should know about the Waldorf Hotel