toufik sarwa

Toronto Through the Eyes of Amber and Cinq 01 Proprietor Toufik Sarwa

When Syrian-born Toufik Sarwa immigrated to Toronto thirty years ago the city could never have anticipated the effect this smooth impresario would have upon the sleepy metropolis. In 1998, after noticing a small chasm in Toronto's nightlife scene, Sarwa opened Amber in Yorkville and introduced the neighbourhood to a then little known concept called the supperclub.

Last year, with Amber long established enough to run itself (with the help of a very competent staff of course), Sarwa decided to branch out and opened Cinq 01 in Little Italy, its name taking inspiration from its address at 501 College St. Here Sarwa hosts events like the annual Wear White 4 Windfall's Winter White Party and welcomes the usual mix of once-Amber regulars like Jie Matar and Suzanne Boyd.

Why do you think you've been successful in Toronto?

I spent a lot of the 90's in New York and did a lot of seemed to me that Toronto had enough people with good taste that wanted to go out and enjoy themselves and see and be seen without having to go to a rock and roll bar or a nightclub. Amber was a pretty simple concept, but Toronto, simply, didn't have it and that's why it worked...Sure enough, six months later all these other places started popping up, like Kubo and Rain and so the trend grew from there.

Who do you respect most in your business here?

As far as nightlife goes, Charles Khabouth (Guvernment, Ultra, Spice Route, etc.) commands the veneration of any Toronto player. Having said that, Amber's concept did come before Ultra so inferiority is not an issue. And in terms of the dining scene, I think Hanif Harji (Colborne Lane, Kultura, Nyood) has done great things for the city. I've always been a big fan of his.

Cinq 01 made an appearance at #11 on our Best New Restaurants in Toronto that opened last year. What's been the secret to its success so far?

Cinq 01 represents the modern dining scene. Look-wise, it breaks the barriers of design. Restaurants were too heavily designed before, they made for a rather stiff experience...the design of Cinq 01 has a kind of haphazardness to it, it lays out very loose, un-intimidating boundaries for the evening and that's exactly what Torontonians need to make their nights out offbeat and full.

Little Italy seems to have died down since its apex about 6 years ago, why did you choose College St. for your spot?

When I opened Amber, nobody went to Yorkville; I felt then and still feel that the destination should attract the clientele not the neighborhood. I looked at Ossington and Parkdale but they just weren't for me. If College Street was still booming like it was back then, I probably would have gone elsewhere.

Do you have a favorite neighbourhood in Toronto?

I love King East. I admire the consistent architecture between King and Church, extending beyond Parliament. The buildings work together in a kind of smooth, not pocketed, way that you don't see very often in the city.

Is Toronto the best party city in Canada?

Yes. In the past ten years there has been a major shift in the Canadian scene and Toronto has taken the reigns away from Montreal in terms of being 'where it's at.' There are a variety of reasons for the change which one can attribute perhaps to the city's economy; the movement into the core; the fact that it has become more recognized on an international level; or maybe just because the people have learned to loosen up. Ten years ago I wanted to get the hell out of here, now you couldn't push me out. Even New York has reached its nighttime apex and there's a feeling in Toronto that it's continually evolving and still has room to grow...that's a good feeling.

Where do you party in the city?

I am guilty of not going to other clubs to party, not because of snobbery of any kind...just because I am the operator of my venue. If I were not working though, an ideal night for me would be to have sushi at Asuka and then head to an event like a Prada or TIFF party, or something along those lines.

What do you consider the defining aspect of Toronto?

Toronto has a tolerance of people that is unprecedented. Of course, prejudice always exists but there is an unspoken acceptance between cultures here that I have not seen anywhere else I have traveled. Paris may be a supremely cosmopolitan city but in terms of its core, human, sophistication, Toronto crushes it. There is a collective feeling of ownership to the city no matter where you are from or what class you are that is very unifying and unique...Oh and it helps that the traffic is tolerable too.

What's next for you?

My friends think I can handle one more, but it took me 10 years to open Cinq 01. I'm not going to abandon it just yet. It's only four months old and still a baby. I want to see it realize its full potential before I spread myself too thin...just because something has a name, you still have to work hard at it or it will fall apart.

Writing and photo by Erin Hershberg

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