Gusto 501, Toronto, Ontario

An operable façade, soaring atrium and sculpted terracotta walls contribute to Gusto 501’s dramatic flair. The Toronto restaurant was designed by local architecture firm PARTISANS. Photo by Jonathan Friedman

Ever since the arrival of COVID-19, every restaurant reliant on table service has had to close or reinvent itself by finding new ways to encourage people to pick up dinner as they would a bag of groceries.

Survival mode is particularly stark at Gusto 501, which opened in Toronto’s east end just weeks before lockdown hit the city in late March. Its gleaming new open kitchen, clad in black granite, is now stacked with empty pizza boxes ready for orders, and takeout bags are lined up on a random grouping of tables. The chair-and-table sets that would usually be out on the floor are stacked in the back, and a refrigerator full of sherbet cartons is near the entrance so passersby can buy a pint on the fly.

Owner Janet Zuccarini considers 501 her ultimate showpiece, the culmination of an impressive career running seven restaurants in Toronto and Los Angeles, with over 700 employees on payroll pre-pandemic. A chance meeting with local architect Alex Josephson at an event led her to hire his firm, PARTISANS, for the job. “I think they are geniuses,” she says, often, of Josephson and his partners, Pooya Baktash and Jonathan Friedman. She gave the studio creative freedom to turn a narrow lot in Corktown into a 900-square-metre culinary destination that would turn eating out into a theatrical event.

Photo Nic Lehoux

Gusto 501 delivers on all of that. Its two upper mezzanine levels and rooftop patio contain five distinct dining and bar areas with an overall capacity to seat 205. Its central core is hollowed out and illuminated by natural light that streams in from a glass rooftop. The ascent to each level, via an extra-long staircase made of steel and walnut, is a big part of the chic ambience. It’s not hard to imagine, at some future point, waitstaff hustling between floors and patrons being led to their tables by the host.

Photo Nic Lehoux

PARTISANS integrated material elements from Zuccarini’s other Italian-fare venues, choosing a warm palette over cool, and consulting with Wendy Haworth Design Studio on the marble countertops, furnishings and fixtures. However, the walls are the most impressive feature, clad from top to bottom in 6,500 terracotta structural blocks. Working with a local manufacturer, the studio had some of the hollow blocks cut at three differing angles during the extrusion stage, turning the standard right-angle edge into more of a wedge. The varying shapes enabled them to stack the blocks in cascading lines. Grasshopper determined the limits on protrusion and structural loads, and LED wiring was laid behind the final masonry for dramatic downlighting. The effect is an all-encompassing—and truly breathtaking—sculpted vertical landscape, reminiscent of a desert canyon shaped by wind and erosion.

Photo Jonathan Friedman

When Toronto finally reopens, Gusto 501 will have some advantages attracting customers back indoors. The interior’s expansive atrium will undoubtedly ease the threat of poor air circulation or lingering germs. So will the street-facing glass façade that opens using a counterbalance system to raise and lower three six-metre-wide panes of glass that weigh a ton each. It is one of the largest operable glazed walls of its kind in the world. And, as if in premonition, the restaurant is equipped with a takeout window. Originally included in the design to service the growing food delivery market (and to prevent couriers from traipsing past diners), its presence is a reminder of what all restaurants will need to consider going into the future—the ability to transform and adapt at a moment’s notice.

Catherine Osborne is a writer and editor based in Toronto.

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