In the morning, over medialunas and strong espresso...

By Chris Johns

when it’s quiet and light floods in through the double-height windows, it’s easy to imagine yourself a porteño at leisure in one of the grand cafés of Buenos Aires.

A big, ambitious, all-day restaurant, Leña is an homage to the cooking of corporate executive chef Anthony Walsh’s Argentinian mother-in-law and is also one of the most beautiful restaurants to open in Canada this year. Oliver & Bonacini’s latest project, a sprawling, 11,000-square-foot restaurant in the Canadian flagship Saks Fifth Avenue in downtown Toronto, is a hit with diners as much as it is with design aficionados. Like the menu, the restaurant’s aesthetic is informed by Latin America, but not beholden to it. Local firm DesignAgency oversaw the makeover of the space and opted for a judicious blending of original elements with Spanish flare. Marble panelled walls, Mexican tiles and the dramatic, etched-glass, art deco pillar—a fountain of brass and glass around which the octagonal marble bar is built—give the ground floor dining room/bar a focal point that is both awesome and playful.

If the main floor is built for fun and extravagance, the 86-seat mezzanine-level dining room, with its brass-edged pillars and velvet booths, is more plush and discreet. Up here, relationships are forged, and important deals are made over piri piri aioli-topped quail eggs and butler’s steaks slathered with chimichurri.
Descending into Bar Lala via the sweeping art deco staircase enhances the sense of old Hollywood glamour and elegance that informs this space. A library’s worth of antique books flanks the bar between black stone bookshelves, while leather, brass and marble accents are picked out by carefully calibrated lighting. Down here, during cocktail hour, a diverse crowd sips on pink panthers and caipiroskas, with those who want a more authentic Argentinian experience opting for Fernet colas.  Parrots, primates and leopards occupy a navy blue garden of Eden on the dramatic wallpaper that lines the washroom hallway, the same pattern chef Anthony Walsh has in his home.

To find out more about Leña, click here.

Custom chandeliers by lighting-design agency VISO play an important role in defining each space. Slim, brass arms tipped with frosted glass orbs radiate out from the central pillar on the main floor and draw attention to the bar.

Brushed brass discs in the main dining room radiate a subtle diffused light over diners, while a pair of illuminated brass rings shine a glamorous glow over the bar.  Lena is colourful, vivacious and alive—and that spirit spills out into the busy street, demanding at least a furtive glance from everyone who passes by. Even if you’re in a hurry, it’s hard to resist a quick nip inside, because it feels like the place to be. That’s great design.

PHOTOS COURTESY LEÑA

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