Katrina Clarke | April 23, 2016 | Toronto Star
Lauren Miller likens wedding venues to factories pumping out cookie-cutter nuptials.
“You’re like the stock groom and the stock bride,” said Miller, recalling her visits last year to popular Toronto-area banquet halls. “(Event coordinators) were like, ‘You will have your photos done at this time in front of the waterfall … we will insert you and your guests into the predesignated template of the wedding.’
“It just didn’t feel like us at all.”
For a growing number of Toronto brides and grooms, this lack of distinction paired with high price tags are driving them from traditional venues toward less conventional spaces — specifically, restaurants, say a handful of Toronto wedding planners, restaurant event managers and newlyweds. The eateries tick all the boxes for soon-to-be-wed couples in their late 20s and 30s, often foodies looking for an intimate atmosphere at reasonable prices with none of the over-the-top frills they saw at their friends’ traditional weddings.
That’s why Torontonian Miller, 28, a photographer, and her husband, Sebastian, 29, a financial adviser, went that route.
“We’re huge foodies. Our friends are huge foodies,” she said. “We’ve been to a ton of weddings where the food is preposterously bad. People remember that kind of thing.”
But she admits her first thought was, “weird,” when a friend first suggested getting married in a restaurant. It was only after dining at Archeo, a Distillery District spot that felt reminiscent of a homey dinner party, that she was sold on the idea. The reasonable price tag was a bonus.
“The awesome thing about having your wedding at a restaurant is you don’t pay to rent the space, you just have a minimum spend on food (and alcohol),” she said. The total cost of her November wedding was $30,000, with $12,000 of that going to the restaurant.
Minimum spend fees mean clients can rent out an entire upscale Toronto restaurant — including space for a ceremony, tables, chairs, cutlery, food, drink, service staff, etc. — for one lump sum, usually between $5,000 and $24,000 depending on the restaurant and day of the week (Saturdays are more expensive), say planners. Often, decorations aren’t necessary because the restaurant is already polished — unlike hotels or banquet halls where walls, chairs and ceilings typically need to be gussied up.
In comparison, a tented outdoor wedding is likely to put you back a cool $100,000, say wedding planners.
“It’s a well-oiled machine,” said Betty Little, manager of event sales with Oliver and Bonacini restaurants, referring to her business’s wedding operations. “It’s a one-stop shop. It’s simple. It’s easy. And you know what you’re getting because you can go dine there any time.”
At Oliver and Bonacini’s 11 wedding-friendly restaurants, clients choose a shortened version of the full menu and are given the option of an on-site ceremony.
Little said numbers of clients booking weddings has “definitely increased” in the eight years she’s been with the company, though she didn’t have exact figures. As of April, their popular high-end restaurant Canoe was already fully booked for weddings every Saturday from June through to December, except for one day. Clients typically book nine to 10 months in advance.
But they can do short notice too.
“We’ve done weddings in as quick as 30 days before,” said Little. “If you’ve got the dress, we can do it.”
Tara O’Grady, owner of Bliss wedding and event planning, said restaurant weddings are still far from the norm — with only around 20 per cent of her clients going that route — but they’re a great option for clients who want an intimate wedding without going into debt. And some just want their wedding at the place they had their first date.
The venue also reflects changing priorities as brides and grooms get older. The average age for couples getting married is now 29 for women and 31 for men, compared to 22.5 and 25 respectively in 1972, according to Statistics Canada.
“The older my clients, the more it’s about the food and the experience, as opposed to the other stuff — flowers, decor, having the chairs match this and that, having a photo booth,” said Lisa Garofalo, also with Bliss. “You realize what’s important and sometimes it’s not the show of it, it’s connecting with the people that you love.”
The only trouble? Space.
“To be honest, it was squishy. Especially at the head table,” said Nicole Marshall, 31, a Toronto newlywed who now lives in California.
A total of 130 people attended her outdoor ceremony and reception at Caffino, a restaurant in the outskirts of Liberty Village, last summer. To fit, she had to seat half of her guests outside in a space connected to the indoors with open windows and entryways.
It was a tradeoff she was willing to make.
Marshall got the great food she refused to compromise on, a funky venue where she and her husband ate at while dating and the cost savings that let her splurge on gold cutlery, gold chairs and flowers. Her guests — heartily wined and dined — didn’t mind the squeeze, she said.
As for Miller, her wedding guests were treated to a feast of smoked bacon and Gouda chive soup, slow braised beef short rib with maple Dijon jus and gourmet doughnuts. She even caught her cousin shoving doughnuts into his pockets.
“That’s how you know the food is great,” she said.