Tora is no typical sushi restaurant – and certainly not what you’d expect of a sushi restaurant in a mall. The new Toronto eatery, located in the city’s upscale Yorkdale Shopping Centre, uses an intuitive ordering platform and a series of conveyors that directly deliver food from chef-to-table. Restaurateur Seigo Nakamura brought on Vancouver-based design studio Ste. Marie to create a space that’d feel seamless with the state-of-the-art technology within. Its execution did that and then some, also showing that it’s possible to overcome the stereotypes of in-mall hospitality with a compelling design concept.  

Getting there, of course, didn’t come without its challenges. The Ste. Marie design team explained that the biggest hurdle was creating a unique storefront that would draw people to the restaurant amidst the ‘generic atmosphere’ of the mall. But they had two strong inspiration sources: the first, Yoshiaki Shirashi, the Japanese innovator who introduced conveyor-belt sushi to the world during the 1970 Osaka Expo. And secondly, Ste. Marie turned to the work of Czech artist-scenographer Josef Svoboda, who was renowned for creating all-encompassing design experiences on the edge of imagination. Expressing Nakamura’s Japanese-tradition-meets-innovation ethos in the space meant creating a fantasy-driven environment. One ‘not unlike a film set,’ that would highlight the culinary experience while providing necessary retail escapism.

Ste. Marie has proven itself to be equipped at taking the lines of a client’s brief and expertly colouring that image in – La Tana and Como Taperia (like Tora, restaurants with mono-cultural profiles) are two such examples of that.

If references to Shirashi and Svoboda’s legacies have previously come together in a body of creative work, it hasn’t been recorded – surely, the unlikely duo would be impressed with Tora. Ste. Marie’s work began with planning foundational architectural details based off the computerised, stainless-steel sushi conveyor itself – that’s how the repetitive wall panelling, carefully laid-out banquettes and illuminated ceiling grid came to be. The panels, crafted from glass and steel, contrast hand-blown glass light fixtures by local studio Bocci and the London-based maker Jochen Holz. And though all contribute to a rather futuristic space, the studio was sure to create a balance with entrancing organic forms ­– the façade and doorway, in particular, are built to give the impression that they’re melting.

It is through this very entryway that the concept bears the most potency: it’s where the scene is set, ‘allow[ing] the guest to leave behind the indoor shopping experience and be transported into a completely unfamiliar environment.’ Indeed, context can and should always be used to a project’s advantage.

Tora was submitted to the spatial design competition of the year – Frame Awards 2020. In addition, Ste. Marie are in the running to be considered for the distinction of Emerging Designer of the Year. Want to keep an eye on their progress? Stay tuned here.