Toronto restaurants share a common thread, but not as luxurious as the spools weaved into every curated objet by Nadia Di Donato. As the VP and Creative Director for Liberty Group, her focus on flawless designs makes her a style icon. Vetting every inch of each of her restaurants and concepts, Nadia exudes beauty and grace, and now the world knows it too.
STEP INSIDE THE MIND OF NADIA DI DONATO
Liberty Group is a large outfit. With an empire that oversees an actual castle, it’s hard to compare this hospitality group with other local ventures. Nadia, with her partner in life and business Nick, began as a family business 35 years ago with a sports bar with Nick’s brother, Pat Di Donato. Then from a sports bar came a club, and several restaurants later, CIBO and BlueBlood Steakhouse. One of her most recent projects, the Michelin-starred property Don Alfonso 1890 earned Nadia a nod from the prestigious UK magazine design et al for Design of the Year. A massive honour for such a small outfit.
For Nadia, the design process is complex. “My responsibility is establishing what the restaurant is going to be about from A to Z. From décor, food style, the entire brand.” Employing their own team of millworkers, some of whom have been with Liberty Group since its inception, speaks to Nadia’s determination to keep the look across the brand cohesive.
Starting out, she acknowledges that it wasn’t always such an easy task. “When I first started, the industry was male-dominated and so were my trades. It was really difficult to establish, it took a while to get the respect from the different trades in the industry. It was like ‘Who is this blonde girl coming in to tell us to cut the wood this way?’”
Fast forward a few decades and now they’re all speaking the same language. While the process can be as dramatic as those reality TV shows we binge, the result is always impressive. Her common refrain, of having to constantly change, just to stay the same resonates beyond restaurant design.
INSPIRATION IN EVERYTHING, AND IN EVERY SINGLE PROJECT
Liberty’s latest opening, DaNico, at College and Bathurst began as a passion project. Drawn to heritage buildings where her team refurbishes and reworks the space (DaNico was a bank at one point), Nadia strives to keep original elements to balance her modern touches.
“There are always very special pieces, it’s my MO every time I design a place. That’s the design of the place, to establish a sense of what you want your customer to feel. This translates to the food. And the food is a work of art itself. I always take it to the point of selecting all the dishware and really tailoring the style of the food for the dish. All of the utensils and glassware correspond to the dish.”
The importance of the juxtaposition at play can be subtle. Did you notice the Damien Hirst painting at DaNico’s entry? Or the massive paintings by Peter Triantos and Max Jamali flanking the adjacent wall? Surely you didn’t miss the Salvador Dali statue, bronze and gleaming with a backdrop of vintage bottles. Propped against the exposed ceilings and an original marble fireplace imported from Italy, Nadia sets the tone with this authentic play on all her projects.
NADIA DI DONATO BRINGS THE WORLD TO TORONTO TASTES
While seeking inspiration in her travels (London, Las Vegas, Miami) is obvious, Nadia gathers new ideas in everyday experiences. Retail, particularly, channels creativity, something that she’ll absorb and reveal as something else, something new. In design, making mistakes can be a good thing. Something Nadia almost celebrates, saying she makes mistakes every day, and sometimes they turn out better than the original plan. To make your mark, you have to take risks.
Don’t back down, don’t give up. This core philosophy during COVID-19 drafted Liberty’s pivot moment and the sale of its Miami restaurants. But the dream is still there, in between other projects. Next up? A jewel in the crown of the city, at right Union Station. Blue Bovine Steak and Sushi House may still be in the drawings phase, but Nadia is determined, it’s set to open in early 2024. “We’re going to infuse and incorporate a lot of those little details that Union Station is notorious for but give it an edge.”
Be sure to scope out Casa Loma’s Legends of Horror, on now, and stay tuned for more on Blue Bovine Steak and Sushi House.
Interview may be edited for length and clarity.
All images by Libby Roach.