The decision to close the Bengal Lounge at the Fairmont Empress Hotel wasn't an easy one for operations director Cole Millen and his colleagues.
After 61 years of serving signature cocktails, the upscale lounge has become an icon in the city's downtown and a popular spot among thirsty locals and tourists.
But according to Millen, the hotel is spending $30 to $40 million on renovations and part of that plan is to create more vitality at the centre of the building where the dining room and tea lobby are located.
The tea lobby is busy when serving tea, noted Millen, but otherwise sits empty for 19 hours a day. In order to bring more energy into the space, the room will be rebranded as the lobby lounge with a bar for people to come sit down with a classic cocktail once the tea service is finished for the day. A bar is also being added to the restaurant which will boast a new menu.
“When we looked at what we were doing there we had to ask the question, can the hotel support three bars? We believe the answer is no,” said Millen. “It's not about do we like the Bengal. We know everybody does and we do too, but in order to create that energy in the heart of the hotel we feel this was a decision we needed to make.”
The news came as a surprise for many who work at the hotel.
“Nobody ever thought of the Bengal closing,” said James Griffin, spokesperson for the union that represents hospitality employees.
“The local clientele that's been coming here for years has always supported the Bengal. Some people are very upset.”
Members of the public were also upset. One citizen started an online petition to save the lounge and had 1,092 supporters in less than 24 hours. The petitions website states the new owners of the Empress are destroying its history and everything the heritage landmark stands for.
Supporters also shared their comments, with one man from Ottawa saying, “Close the Bengal Lounge and you might as well close the Empress. That room is the soul of the city. You can't create history or character from scratch — a room like that takes decades to become what it is. When it's gone, its gone and so will be many of the hotel's patrons.”
Millen said it's great the community cares so much about the hotel, but noted the room has changed three times in the past.
The space was originally a reading and writing room with a gentleman's only cigar lounge. In 1954, it transformed into the Coronet Lounge — Victoria's first cocktail lounge. It wasn't until a restoration in the late 1960s that it became the Bengal — an Indian-themed colonial style lounge with a tiger skin on the wall.
What will become of the space has yet to be determined, but Millen said the renovations are exciting since the last time the hotel had any significant capital investment was in 1989. If no upgrades were ever made, the rooms would still have two twin beds, no televisions or bathroom, he noted.
“Change is inevitable and often times it is for the best,” said Millen. “We're all going to miss it. It's a part of the hotel's history and that's important to recognize, but I am very excited about what's happening...This is just one more chapter in the Empress's history.”
The lounge is slated to close its doors at the end of April.