Nick Di Donato opened his first restaurant in 1986, and his portfolio now includes 17 restaurants, nightclubs, and event venues. Along the way, Di Donato, 55, became something of a specialist in historic properties, winning accolades for work such as the turnaround of the 100,000-square-foot Liberty Grand at Exhibition Place In Toronto, which went from a space used just once a year to a major event facility open year-round in 2001. A background in engineering and construction helps with these achievements, as does a track record with public-private partnerships.
His next big project is operating Toronto landmark Casa Loma, a Gothic Revival castle, gardens, and museum. To energize the space, he is adding a 10,000-square-foot glass tent, overhauling the audiovisual systems, and planning programming to attract the public to the property.
“I’ve always seen it as one of the most fantastic buildings for special events in North America,” Di Donato says. “I just think it was underused and not envisioned properly. It needed new energy and what I call that magic. What are we going to do is make it magical. … The city knows once they decide to put an asset into Liberty’s hands, they are comfortable and confident it will succeed.”
“It’s about perseverance and understanding the fabric and culture of the city.”
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Di Donato has moved beyond Toronto to Miami, where he reinvigorated the Coral Gables Country Club and opened an outpost of Cibo Wine Bar with another location opening this fall. He plans to open the concept in the “alpha cities”—Chicago, New York, and perhaps London.
To succeed in the nightlife and entertainment business for nearly three decades, Di Donato believes you have to do more than chase trends. “You look at this industry, which I’d say is 80 percent failure, and we’ve never had a restaurant not succeed,” he says. “It’s about perseverance and understanding the fabric and culture of the city.”