“We’re considered iconic?” general manager, Gary laughs “You know, when you’re working in a restaurant and spend all your time here you don’t really think of that.” Hey Lucy’s opened in 1997 to eager and willing weekend visitors seeking a place to grab a drink before a show at one of the surrounding theatres. In 1993, Mirvish opened the Princess of Wales Theatre featuring modern classics such as Miss Saigon, The Master Builder, Blood Brothers and Rent.
On weekends, people would flock to the area for award-winning performances and to indulge in the pre-theatre dining frenzy centered around Restaurant Row. Diners flocked to find the perfect little spot with a magical atmosphere, convivial service and a reliable menu of classic favourites. Today, Hey Lucy is a Restaurant Row institution, hosting theatre-goers, tourists and Torontonians alike. Its popular martini night every Wednesday features 17 concoctions to go along with its dependable bill of fare. “We are in the middle of everything, King St. is all about convenience for guests, for staff, for residents,” explains Gary, leaning against the bottle-lined bar.
Gary recalls a limited-run I Love Lucy Mirvish production where for a week they had “a group of six or eight ladies coming in everyday and they were all dressed as Lucy.“ Through the years, the restaurant has earned a reputation of hosting and accommodating theatre enthusiasts as the Entertainment District grows.
In 2008, The TIFF Bell Lightbox opened on King St. and with it the annual celebrity-filled celebration of TIFF. “I remember the first year the building was up, when the opening four or five days were still at Yorkville and the following days started here,” Gary gestures across the street to the theatre, “we knew right away TIFF would be popular.”
The restaurant’s street-level patio overlooking King St. is effectively the “box seat” equivalent to TIFF’s red carpet, complete with signature martinis, wood-fired pizza and deep-fried macaroni and cheese balls, which Gary pauses to personally recommend. Hey Lucy sees equally exciting crowds throughout the summer and started serving weekend morning brunch to accommodate locals.
Next door, District Eatery offers healthy and vegan bar food that’s paired with contemporary cocktails and signature craft beers.
Marinating on the lack of healthy food options he faced while trying to maintain his social life, Jesse created the District Eatery: a casual restaurant, with a fresh menu serving revved up favorites and equally inventive bevvies.“The concept came to fruition, from essentially me,” says District Eatery owner Jesse Warfield, who belongs to the new demographic responsible for shifting the Entertainment District into a busy residential neighborhood.
“I live the downtown lifestyle… I’m as local as you can get and in living this lifestyle I eat out multiple times a week, so some of it has to be healthy.” Jesse laughs at the obvious dichotomy but as an entrepreneur, he felt the neighborhood lacked convenient, nutrient-dense options that weren’t exclusive to a fast-food production. “Many people, like me, who don’t really cook, want something healthy to eat with the option of enjoying a drink alongside.”
Jesse admits to building much of the restaurant on his own vices. Each item on the menu is unique, having gone through rounds of testing prior to opening day. Jesse explains the process of selecting the menu items by going “through four or five hundred items, selected beforehand, to see how they played out, breaking it down practically by flavour, nutritional value, and cost.” he says humbly.
The instagram-worthy Restaurant Row joint is coloured a bright turquoise and features historic nods towards the Entertainment District. The resident, Moscow (mannequin) mule greets and subtly reminds diners of the District’s Moscow Monday drink special. Jesse’s passion is revealed on the cocktail menu featuring healthy drinks with playful names like Pineapple Express and Beet Glory.
A customer favourite are the Power Teas, which are slowly brewed in large batches. The Jack and Ginger tea is “made with almond milk, fresh ginger and Jack Daniels which gets filtered several times and sits below a simmer for 48 hours.” The menu often uses “district” as an adjective, Jesse explains, “the pointed difference being, a twist” on items like its District Quesadillas filled with Kimchi chicken instead of something more predictable.
Of course, using “district” in this way relies on the Entertainment District’s reputation. The perpetually changing streets are met with new attractions, buildings and residents. Regardless of the decade, change is ironically a constant theme in the area, sustaining an inherent buzz of a universal good time and nostalgia.