A warm welcome and exquisite cuisine awaits at The Royal York

The Fairmont Royal York wears its heritage well, but it's the people who make a stay here feel like you're right at home

“Hi! How are you? It’s been too long.”

Sitting in the Fairmont Royal York’s EPIC restaurant at breakfast, it felt as though we were intruding on a family reunion, or a chance meeting between two old friends. In fact, the latter is probably closest to the truth.

The lady of a certain age – a fellow diner – was being addressed by a waiter, the second one to come over and greet her. They remembered her and wanted her to know that her absence had been felt. This was an authentic display of affection – reciprocated by the guest – that was just one example of a warm welcome that we witnessed during our brief visit. More on that later.

Toronto’s landmark luxury hotel is at the heart of a city that grew up around it. When its doors first opened in 1929, the Royal York Hotel – as it was known then – was the tallest building in the city. But that was a different world and a different time. Now the Fairmont Royal York finds itself dwarfed by characterless glass towers, some of them office blocks, some of them rival hotels. None compare in grandeur and gravitas.

As soon as you walk into the hotel via the main entrance opposite Union Station, leaving the bruising hustle and bustle of the city behind, you can feel the soothing calmness of this historic establishment. The bright lights and big city give way to a large, open foyer that welcomes you with subdued lighting and a luxurious interior. A large space like this, especially one that is so refined, can often make one feel overwhelmed and out of place, but the Royal York has managed to make people’s first encounter with the hotel feel warm and welcoming. The building might have seemed opulent and exclusive in an earlier age, but nowadays its design recalls a time when architecture was on a more human scale.

While we walked away from the reception desk after checking in, I watched as a large family – every member wearing a huge smile – approached the desk next to us. The mother leaned across to the male receptionist, embracing him while saying how good it was to see him again. (This touchy-feely greeting, as opposed to a more sedate handshake, indicated that these people were out-of-towners.) The receptionist, in turn, looked at the young teenaged boy alongside her and remarked that he couldn’t believe how much he had grown. Clearly, this family were not first-time visitors.

Over the years, the hotel has been a temporary home-away-from-home for an eclectic mix of people, including political heavyweights and royalty. Our visit coincided with the 2010 convention of the Ontario Association of Agriculture Societies, accounting for the many sash-wearing Fair Ambassadors who were wandering around reception. The day before we arrived, Hollywood royalty Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich had been filming scenes for their latest movie, “Red”.

The Royal York’s elegant, calming and comfortable décor continued into our deluxe suite. My wife, Cheryl, observed that there wasn’t a dresser in our bedroom to do her makeup, nor anywhere in the bathroom to place her cosmetics, unless she wanted to place them on a precariously positioned small shelf directly above the toilet. Being a man, all I need is a large enough flat surface to place my toothbrush, but I defer to her opinion.

That small complaint aside, the comfy king-size bed beckoned, so we collapsed onto it to watch the sporting endeavours and exertions of Olympians on TV while we killed time before dinner. We were here to relax, after all.

The hotel has five restaurants – including the entertaining Benihana Japanese Steakhouse, where your meal’s preparation borders on a performance – as well as four lounges and 24 hour in-room dining.

I’d been looking forward to eating at the EPIC restaurant for some time, after reading about its support for sustainable farming. Chef Ryan Gustafson says: “I concentrate on sourcing high quality local ingredients in an attempt to help sustain local communities.” The menu includes ingredients from the Royal York’s 15th-storey rooftop, such as fresh herbs from its garden and honey from its three beehives. It doesn’t get more local than that.

Gustafson is committed to EPIC’s partnership with the Ocean Wise conservation program, which is reflected in the fish and shellfish on the menu. Also, in late February he was one of the contributing chefs for FoodShare’s “Recipe for Change”, a gastronomic fundraiser in support of Field to Table programs that teach food literacy to children. Based on the evidence of our meal, Gustafson is a more than capable tutor.

The EPIC has a fluid, contemporary design. Curved banquettes are decorated in calming hues of blue and green, enhancing the relaxed atmosphere. The whole area is open plan, so you can watch your meal being prepared in the kitchen at the back of the restaurant. If you’ve seen professional kitchens on TV, you might expect this to be a hive of activity and noise. However, in keeping with the overall air of the place, it sounded like the chefs were calm, collected, and in full control as they moved around their domain. This is an establishment where you can enjoy the ambience as much as the first-class cuisine. And the food really is of the highest order.

By the time Cheryl had sampled the second forkful of Ingersoll buffalo mozzarella from her Speck and Leamington Tomato salad, she had already decided that she’d had enough of Canada and wanted to immigrate to northern Italy (not the first time she’s made this threat.) The cheese had triggered memories of our frequent trips to that region, despite this particular cheese having been sourced from a farm in southwestern Ontario. When I argued that smuggling our young granddaughter out of the country with her was impractical, she mournfully countered: “But the mozzarella melts in your mouth.”

My Winter Salad was abundant with seasonal greens, crisp apples and beets, and crunchy home-made granola, all topped with a spoonful of fresh chevre. This was embellished with a subtle chamomile-citrus dressing. I can see myself becoming a locavore.

On to the mains. Cher opted for Eco Label Atlantic Salmon in a spruce-maple glaze, served with wild rice, almonds and broccolini. (Seriously, I get the good intentions of sustainable fishing, but this dish would benefit from a name that’s less worthy-sounding and more appetizing. The description simply doesn’t do it justice.) The small samples of fish and rice that I could wrestle from Cheryl’s fork were rich in flavour, all of them combining well.

My Seared Big Eye Tuna was dressed with an apple-soy butter sauce, and came with creamed celeriac, Ontario beets and fine beans. Ryan Gustafson knows how to combine simple flavours to great effect.

The local theme continues through to the desserts menu, too. Cheryl chose a decadent baked Bailey’s cheesecake, accompanied by freshly-made coffee ice cream and local berries. I devoured the refreshing house-made sorbets: one small scoop each of mango, blueberries and Icewine.

Such is the reputation of the EPIC that it attracts not just diners who are guests at the Royal York, but “outsiders” as well. As our waiter, Alvaro, pointed out, “Everyone eats here.”

Checking the time at the end of our meal, I was surprised to find that nearly two hours had passed while we consumed our three courses. The service was perfect: from the chirpy Margarida who welcomed us at the front desk, to the attentive yet discreet Alvaro, who provided excellent advice on menu choices when required. And the bar knows how to make a mean cosmopolitan.

A restful night’s sleep on that king-size bed punctuated our two culinary excursions.

There are many places in Toronto where you can find a hearty breakfast, but we decided not to venture onto the brisk February streets. Instead, we chose to sample EPIC’s morning fare. Why risk disappointment when we had such a wonderful time at dinner?

We made the right choice. The daunting array of alternatives in the buffet was an encouragement to indulge, but the options were so healthy that it would be difficult to do any serious nutritional damage. Cher had three fluffy pancakes with maple syrup and fresh berries, which she struggled to finish. Being of a hardier disposition, I enjoyed a made-to-order mascarpone and spinach omelette, pumpernickel toast, cottage cheese with fresh fruit, finishing with a small bowl of oatmeal mixed with a little maple syrup.

That’s when we witnessed the reunion between the waiters and the prodigal guest.

In its illustrious lifetime and various guises, the Royal York has welcomed over 40 million visitors. I wouldn’t be surprised if every one of them was welcomed back with open arms.

Photos of the Fairmont Royal York.

Find out more at www.fairmont.com/royalyork.