City Bites

A spin in Carmichael’s new Riviera

It seems like it has been a long time coming. A full year, in fact. Riviera, the third collaboration between Chef Matthew Carmichael and Chef Jordan Holley (they also launched the super-popular El Camino and Datsun in the past few years), opens its doors on Friday. The award-winning duo has teamed up with architect Andrew Reeves of Linebox Studio to design all three restaurants.

(Opening image: Scott Adamson of Gaslight Electric Sign Co.)

When he designed Riviera, architect Andrew Reeves left the ceiling and walls in the 1920s building untouched

With the 110-seat Riviera, Reeves got the opportunity to make the most of a heritage 1920s Art Deco building — the former CIBC headquarters — with soaring 50-foot ceilings and marble and travertine walls and floor. City Bites Insider caught up with Reeves just ahead of the official launch. He offered the inside scoop on his design — and shared a few of his personal photographs taken at the “family and friends” soft opening just ahead of Friday’s public launch.

Chefs Matthew Carmichael and Jordan Holley presided over a colourful menu for the “friends and family” night at Riviera

 It feels like this has been going on a long time. When did you start?

We started around this time last year. Of course it took a little longer than we’d hoped, but that’s always the way! You can throw something together with cheap furniture and do a quick makeover, but “making it real” always takes longer.

What do you mean, ‘making it real’?

If you look around, the bar is real brass; the banquettes are custom-made in Montreal; the chairs are handmade by Coolican out of Toronto. When you do things right, it takes more time. And it’s more expensive — not because you want to showcase brand names, but because you want to showcase design that’s real.

Why make it real?

Quality. But I also don’t want to slap a certain ‘look’ together just because it’s on-trend. If you do that, your restaurant will look dated very quickly. Matt [Carmichael] really understands that the space and the food should intersect.

Was it a thrill to design a restaurant in such an amazing building? Those 50-foot ceilings are incredible.

It was actually one of the scariest projects I’ve worked on. When we worked on El Camino and Datsun, they were not great spaces, but we got to make them cool. With Riviera, we’ve got a fantastic space and you don’t want to ruin it.

Even the vintage-look sinks in the washrooms fit with the look of the heritage building

What were you trying to preserve?

The building represented a bank, so it’s strong and noble and grand. I wanted that to shine through.


Artwork, most of it chosen by chef Matthew Carmichael, is edgy. This piece, by local artist Jonathan Hobin, sits above a cozy corner booth

Tell me about the art.

The art reinforces that this is a very different dining experience. You can feel comfortable here in jeans and a T-shirt or suit and tie. The art supports that idea — it’s not safe — it’s not just another landscape painting. Matt wants to create restaurants that appeal to the kind of people he likes — so this is almost like his second home. All of the restaurants [Riviera, El Camino, and Datsun] have been versions of spaces that feel like home to Matt.

Tell me about the booths.

The design is inspired by the big comfy seats of the car — the Riviera. They are so comfortable. But the whole restaurant design isn’t driven by the name. That’s what makes it fun. If diners know the car, they might make the connection, but if they don’t, it’s no big deal.

The amazing plaster ceiling and the marble, plaster, and fabric walls — all original?

Yes, the only thing we did was refurbish all the brass grates. Our idea was to reenergize this old building so the changes are with the restaurant features, but not the ceiling, walls, or floor.

The curved brass bar looks out over the bar station and the open kitchen

I love the bar!

It’s great. You’ve got the long straight section, which looks into the open kitchen, but also the curved section at one end, which encourages wider conversations. There’s also quite a lot of space between the bar stools so people can be sitting, with room for someone to stand beside them. It used to be that everyone wanted seats at the table and no one wanted to sit at the bar, but now that’s definitely changing.

And the private room?

That’s the old bank manager’s office. It seats around 10 or 12. It’s great because you can close the doors, which makes it semi-private, but we obviously couldn’t extend the walls to the ceiling, so it’s also semi-open.

Tell me about the basement and the vaults.

There’s a big downstairs area that we will fix up in the future. The plan is to turn it into a late-night space, a higher-end place to come for a drink. We’ll see how it evolves once Riviera is up and running.

A selection of dishes on Riviera flatware was served to guests at the “friends and family” night

Who do you imagine the Riviera will attract?

Everybody. That sounds weird, but it’s true. A lot of restaurants try to nail just one demographic, but here the vision is broader. You can picture someone coming by to have a drink and steak at the bar or a family arriving for an anniversary dinner or a couple just stopping in to hang out and grab a quick bite. It’s high-end service and high-end food, but the atmosphere is comfortable for everyone.

With the new NAC and all the government stuff going on around here, I think Riviera forms part of the change in this city. There’s a new way of thinking and a new way of dining.