When it comes to the restaurant scene, there’s no one formula for success. (If there was, so many wouldn’t fail in their first year.) But after over a decade spent as one of Los Angeles’ premiere nightlife impresarios, John Terzian has it boiled down to a relatively straightforward ethos: make sure the guests are happy.
That’s oversimplifying things, of course, but it’s a mindset that’s worked out pretty well so far for Terzian. “I look at every place as everyone’s having a moment in time,” he told me when we spoke over video last week. “It’s their experience out. And so it’s my job to give them the best experience.”
As co-founder of L.A.-based The h.wood Group, Terzian’s spots—which include the West Hollywood restaurant/lounge Nice Guy, with its strict “No photos” policy, and Delilah, which Drake recently shouted out in Certified Lover Boy—have become favourites among Hollywood’s A-list set for exactly that reason. In an environment where other restaurateurs have the paparazzi on speed dial to ensure they catch celebs coming and going, h.wood goes the opposite direction: “They’re actual friends, so they’re just kept safe,” Terzian explains. “It’s a safe haven. Ninety-nine percent of the time, no one knows what’s going on or anyone that’s there.”
As a result, what started out as a single club off Hollywood Boulevard has grown into a veritable empire, as Terzian and his partner Brian Toll have opened outposts of h.wood’s most popular spots in Chicago, Miami, Brooklyn, Las Vegas and now, Toronto, with h.wood porting their popular Harriet’s concept from West Hollywood to the 6ix.
Located on the 16th floor of the new 1 Hotel Toronto (f.k.a. the Thompson), Harriet’s Toronto is a rooftop restaurant/lounge with a 1920s-inspired vibe, panoramic views of downtown, and plenty of made-in-L.A. bonafides. The latest addition to Toronto’s nightlife scene opened back in mid-September—albeit to slightly less fanfare than Terzian might have hoped, due to the city’s relatively strict COVID regulations. (For comparisons’ sake, when h.wood opened Delilah Las Vegas this past summer, Justin Bieber performed a surprise set for an invite-only crowd that included Machine Gun Kelly, Megan Fox, Miles Teller, and Jared Leto.)
We spoke to Terzian to get the lowdown on what Torontonians can expect from h.wood’s first Canadian location, his plans to bring future spots to the 6ix, and whether Drake ever actually had to be carried out of Delilah, as he claims on CLB’s “Champagne Poetry.”
Can you tell me about your vision for Harriet’s, and bringing Harriet’s to Toronto?
The Harriet’s concept is a great one, because it is in partnership with 1 Hotels. In L.A., the idea was they were new to town and we’re kind of the born-and-bred local key operators for that high-end tastemaker crowd. They had this rooftop blank space that was like a banquet room with a pretty gorgeous view, but completely blank space. So we came up with this idea. To do an homage to the original rooftop lounges. A lot of people don’t know, but Madison Square Garden was the first rooftop supper club.
It was literally called Madison Square Garden, and there’s amazing old pictures of it. It was on the rooftop. It was in the ‘20s, it was just an insane vision—it looked out of Gatsby. What you would envision that to be. So Harriet’s in West Hollywood was, and is, based on that. The idea is: it’s an amazing lounge elevated from a nightclub. There’s a lot of attention to detail around the cocktails and the bar service, with light food. It’s more supposed to be a great lounging spot. Background DJ. And every so often we have live music.
So it’s been such a success, and it’s been such a great place for our local family, friends and celebrities that we talked to 1 Hotels and said, let’s make this like the ultimate rooftop experience in the major cities you go. And when we were looking and talking about their rollout, a great one is Toronto. Toronto’s like a sister city for us. Some of my personal best friends in the world live there. I know the city very well, and it definitely seemed like a perfect niche. It was a void that could be filled.
Obviously a big aspect was the dealing with the weather, which I think we did as far as how we built it. Then the other aspect was Harriet’s in West Hollywood is a very, very specific design. As we do more with the rollout in the new 1 Hotels, the idea was to bring in a lot of the 1 Hotel design aspects with it. So it’s almost a marriage of the 1 Hotel lobby bar, for example, and their look and feel with the Harriet’s feel, so it’s a lot more cohesive. That’s what we did in Toronto, and it’s been amazing. It’s been a little challenging with COVID. Canada’s tough, you know? I’ve been back and forth during COVID, but it’s pushed back our big official opening and all the above.
“If you know Toronto, if you know the people, the locals, [a rooftop’s] the most in-demand thing.”
When did you first start thinking about doing something in Toronto? Had you already been planning something, or was it just part of the rollout with 1 Hotel?
The idea of doing Toronto came first. We came really close to doing Bootsy Bellows [h.wood’s vaudeville-inspired club] there. We had a site, had a place, we were about to go to a lease. We looked really, really heavily for Nice Guy as well, and just nothing seemed to work out. Nothing’s perfect, but at the end of the day, we go visit and just nothing was feeling right.
Then the combo of Harriet’s success with us knowing—because we were working hand in hand with [1 Hotel]—the hotel they were acquiring. We knew it well. We had actually thrown a TIFF event for the Nas documentary there when it came out. It was about seven years ago, when it was the Thompson. So we just knew it all really well and we were like, this is perfect. Let’s shift towards that, and then we can build off that and find a Nice Guy and Delilah location. Because ideally we do both Nice Guy and Delilah in Toronto, but we have zero plans on that [right now]. We just want to have Harriet’s go off the right way.
Did you get any pushback like, “You’re going to open a rooftop spot in Toronto? Where it’s winter six months out of the year?”
If you know Toronto, if you know the people, the locals, [a rooftop’s] the most in-demand thing. So you work it out, right? Some of my closest friends are kind of the local tastemakers and the rooftop thing is a really important aspect—if you can do it right. But yes, people were like you’re crazy. But I think we have a good space there. I think we have a great situation.
I think you’re right. Because winter can be so rough here that I feel like the second it gets nice…
Oh my God.
It’s almost like there are two seasons: there’s winter and then there’s patio season.
Did you see the tables that are to the side of the pool that just look straight out? The moment spring happens, those are going to be the coveted spots. [Laughs.]
Did you ever consider opening something in Vancouver, given the closer proximity to L.A.? Or was it just, like you mentioned, having the Toronto connections?
Well, Harriet’s is in partnership exclusively with 1 Hotels. So if 1 is going to do Vancouver, I’m there, because I love Vancouver. But no, we haven’t. We had a lot of calls for… for whatever reason, everyone from Vancouver calls for Delilah, our other restaurant, but we have no plans in that regard.
What makes a successful venue in your mind? What’s the key to creating a spot that isn’t just a fun night out, but a destination?
First of all, at the very end of the day, it’s the people that make a place. A great crowd, I’ve always felt that’s number one. But to draw those people, what I’ve always said and what I always try to live by is, I want a venue to feel just as good, if not better, if you’re sitting in there alone or packed to the full capacity. And so by that, I mean, it’s an extreme attention to detail. Of the types of seating, the detail in the decor, everything needs to feel warm. No matter what era or genre you’re going with, it needs to feel warm. So that if you’re there alone, or you’re there with one other person, and no one else is in the place, you feel great. Like, “This is a great room. I’m here. I’m good.” If it’s not like that, if you’re in a place alone and it feels weird, it feels off, you want to leave.
So that to me is what builds it. Then you have to have good food. You’ve got to have good drinks and great music. All of that. You do.
“I honestly credit [Drake] the most of anyone for whatever success we and h.wood have had.”
What part does music play in that equation for you? How big of a factor is it when you’re creating a new place?
It’s so critical. The number one thing I watch for during the night, I watch peoples’ reactions and what they’re doing to the music, because every room is different. I literally view rooms as living, breathing organisms, and they’re all different. They really are. So you might go into it thinking, “Oh, we’ll play this music at this hour,” because we do playlists. Or we do DJs. But if you don’t watch and read the room, it comes off wrong. You have blaring music at an hour that it shouldn’t be, or hip hop going when it should be jazz, or vice versa. So it’s really, really important. And when it’s early on, it takes some time to nail. We’re still working on that [with Harriet’s Toronto], because it’s a new room, it’s a new place.
How long do you find it takes for a new venue to find its footing and settle in?
There’s definitely no science to that, but my opinion? Six months. Five, six months for me—and I’m never happy. So for me, never. But at least to get some sort of flow and vibe, you got to really live and breathe it.
I’m interested in your take on the Toronto scene from an outsider’s perspective. I know you said you’re very familiar with the city.
What I’ve found that I love about it, it’s this big city with a small town feeling. People are really amazing, the nicest people that I’ve met. And it’s so diverse, in a real way. Both culturally, but also business wise, industry wise. It’s a place to thrive in. It fits how I am. But I don’t think people appreciate how nice people are there. It’s just different in other cities. And, you know, we’re in all of them.
So since this is for Complex Canada, pretty sure I’m contractually obligated to ask you about Drake. Because I know you guys are close. He’s celebrated birthdays at h.wood spots. He just referenced Delilah on Certified Lover Boy, in “Champagne Poetry.” What did you think when you first heard that?
I mean, I knew it was coming. [Laughs.] I was just beyond appreciative. I honestly credit him the most of anyone for whatever success we and h.wood have had. Him and Future the Prince, his manager, and honestly, their whole team. They’re family to us. It feels good having them there. It’s literally like a family-type atmosphere with us.
I know that’s not the first time he namedropped Delilah on a track either. There was also “No Stylist” in 2018.
Nice knowledge, I like that. That was a French Montana song, though. So when that came out, I was like, we need it on an actual album.
Did you talk to him about it before Certified Lover Boy came out? Did he give you a heads up?
No, no. But I knew it was coming. I figured it was. He tries to keep it secretive and that, but… No, it was great. Honestly, man, I was beyond appreciative. That does more [for us], more than anything.
In those bars in “Champagne Poetry,” he talks about being carried out of Delilah. Is that just artistic license on Drake’s part, or do you do you remember those days?
That’s artistic license. He was never carried out. [Laughs.]
Hey, I got to ask, right? I have to fact-check these things… You also appeared in Drake’s video for “Money in the Grave”, which was partially shot at Nice Guy. What was that experience like?
It was so fun. I loved that. I want to do more of that for him.
You couldn’t get into his “Way 2 Sexy” video, with Kawhi?
No. I don’t know why I wasn’t asked for that… [Laughs.] I’m just to the right. They cut me out.
Justin Bieber’s another A-list Canadian that frequents your spots. He even performed at the grand opening of Delilah Las Vegas earlier this summer. How did that end up coming together?
He’s another one that’s family to me, and just one of the best supporters [of h.wood]. He was having music come out, and I think it was perfect timing, honestly. It was great. It made the night. It made the year. It was an amazing performance.
How important is that opening night or that first weekend for a new venue? Do you feel that helps set the tone for a spot?
You can’t ever get an opening back, so it’s essential. However you open, it’s got to be the right way.
What did you guys do for the Harriet’s Toronto opening here?
Well, that’s the problem. COVID didn’t allow for an opening in that regard. We’re still planning on doing something that acts as an opening when it’s time, but we’re being super careful for everyone’s sake for COVID. We did some local small things, but not like it would be during normal times.
Any plans to get Justin or Drake out to Harriet’s in Toronto one of these days?
[Laughs.] Yeah, they’ll be coming.