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DaiLo's Nick Liu on What Went Into His New Restaurant

In February of 2012, Nick Liu left Niagara Street Café to pursue opening a restaurant. After a long, arduous journey— and a name change— DaiLo's finally happening.

To say Liu's search was beleaguered would be an understatement. Several locations fell through; investors came and went. After almost a year into it, he split with his business partner Christina Kuypers. At one point, Liu had almost lost all hope.

Things turned around when he found sure footing with new partners— then, finally, a solid location. Though originally looking on King Street, when they saw the College Street spot that was formerly Grace, they knew it was perfect.

Ian Rydberg of Solid Design (La Carnita, Valdez, SpeakEasy 21) has been working with Liu and his team in renovating and designing the space— perhaps most notably removing the previous courtyard patio to house an indoor bar area. Overall, the aesthetic is that of a Chinoiserie; capturing a traditional Chinese influence in French design.

Eater spoke with Liu about the wait, a recent name-change of the restaurant, and of course, the space. The restaurant officially opens today.

Is right now a better or worse time than two years ago to open your restaurant?
It's not whether it's about if the city is more ready for it or if it's not. I think I'm in a better position mentally. And just staff-wise— it's a great team. It's a strong base. All my business partners are amazing.

Tell me about your partners.
Dave Dattels and Jen Grant: Dave opened up his own business before. He's more on the finance side— he's a numbers guy, so he can quantify different costs and foresee and do a lot of numbers work. Where the partner I had before wasn't as strong in that department. Also, I've gotten back with Anton, and I couldn't think of anyone better to open a restaurant with. We get along so well. We've had four years and a very successful run at Niagara Street Café, and to have him as part of the project makes me so comfortable. There's a lot of relief. Most people would be shit-stressed out right now but things have started to come together so well and perfectly. I'm actually pretty comfortable at this point.

In the time between finding this current team and the split with Christina, did anyone else come into the picture?
When that break happened, I tried doing it on my own, tried to find new investors. At one point, Andrew Richmond was going to join me on the project but he was opening Home of the Brave at the same time. He said after Home of the Brave, "Let's do it," but then, you know, having two restaurants is a lot bigger than just having one. So he got too busy.

Was there ever a doubt you were going to open the restaurant?
There were a couple of times I didn't think it was even going to happen. I came to a point where I had to move back home with my parents in Markham. I had gone through a divorce with my wife. I was almost homeless for a couple of weeks until I (thought): "this is ridiculous, I'm just going to bite the bullet, go back home."

This was last year, summer. There was an exact moment where I can think of: "I'm gonna take off. I'm just going to go to Thailand and cook." I had friend that was out there that I worked with in Sydney, Australia. I was going to join him and his team and just learn a few new tricks. Because I thought, "It's useless being here, I'm going to fuck off." And the day after I decided to do that, Jen and Dave contacted me: "We're looking for a chef, we want to do an Asian-inspired restaurant with a dim sum concept. Would you like to talk?" It was weird, it was like the world just listened to what I was spitting out and said: "No, it's not your time to give up yet." So it was a godsend. It was like something that happens in the movies.

Outside of trying to find a place, what else did you get up to during that period of time?
Throughout that two-year span I'd been doing a lot of pop-ups. It was mainly just to support myself and build a little bit of income and it turned into something cool and unique.

I got a chance to travel around and do a lot of events with other people— like when the Group of Seven went to New York to do a James Beard dinner. From there, I met Andy Ricker and Danny Bowien and they came over to do a pop-up at Senses when I was at Senses.

So you made good use of the delay.
Absolutely. Especially at Senses— that was a month-long pop-up. I basically opened up my concept in the restaurant. I went through a whole process of hiring, getting designers, doing employee packages— doing a lot administrative stuff which I'd never really done before.

Another great thing is that I got to try out all my dishes, and see which ones were the most talked about. I already had kind of a great lineup for menus. I've got about two to three menus worth of dishes I've already done from pop-ups and through catering and stuff like that— very beneficial.

You did all this as GwaiLo, which was what the project was called for a long time, but you recently changed it to DaiLo.
So "dai lo" means big brother or big boss. It's sort of what they call your mafia boss: your "dai lo." The whole thought process behind GwaiLo was kind of a lot of against the grain, restaurant-style; it was a lot of cheeky-type dishes. It was opening restaurants in other restaurants that were failing. Putting up events: one-day or two-day events in certain spaces— it was a cheeky thing. So we felt it needed a cheeky name. We wanted to get a little bit, I guess, of attention. This is a more mature project. It's sort of the big brother of GwailLo. It's the flagship for hopefully everything else that we're going to be doing in the future. So this is the "big boss," and then everything will fall under this umbrella.

I have to say the name change was a surprise.
It's all new partners, too. And they loved the idea of using GwaiLo [even though] they were really annoyed that people kept asking about the derogatoriness of it. One day, I was reading some comments and [felt] like, 'This is a new project and at this point, we're almost going to be opening. The last thing I want is any type of negative point of view.' We were thinking of [new] names and had maybe a hundred different names, and then we were talking about this table I had a concept for in the restaurant— we call it the "Dai Lo" table. It's like the baller table. And a friend of a friend who's with Bensimon Byrne was like "Oh my god, perfect name: just go with Dai Lo!"

DaiLo is the big brother of GwaiLo; it works out perfectly. And upstairs is going to be called LoPan. He's a character in Big Trouble, Little China— he's the "dai lo."

Tell me more about the space.
It'll be 80 seats down here, then 55 upstairs.

Down here it'll be a little more refined food, but still on the tip of sharing. You know, Asian style. We'll be doing food until about 11. Upstairs will be serving food 'til 2.

Upstairs is going to be like a Yum Cha bar. It'll be dim sum-focused. I guess it's kind of like more modern, cheeky dim sum. We're going to put my Big Mac Bao there and pastrami spring rolls and a lot of things you wouldn't usually get at regular dim sum places. But the things you would get at dim sum places; I'm going to make them different. The whole thought process behind this project is my experiences growing up – being Canadian and Chinese and having all these different influences.

Then there's also going to be about twelve house Asian-inspired cocktails for upstairs. And we'll be doing a bunch of cool things to Chinese teapots. It'll be more a bar vibe, a lot more relaxed. Also, a place where we can hold people if they're waiting for a table. Send them upstairs to have a cocktail. They don't have to leave the location to get a drink. Or if they're hungry, they can get a dim sum course then come down here.

I think it'll be a little funkier than downstairs. We want to bring a little bit of Chinatown, a little crazier. Neon signs. Our designer's doing some fun stuff upstairs. It's going to be a fun space.
—Nelson Tam
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503 College St., Toronto, ON