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The scraps, stunts and multi-million-dollar investments behind Charles Khabouth’s empire of cool

Life is one never-ending, exclusive party in Charles Khabouth’s 17 faddish restaurants and nightclubs.

The Impresario: Charles Khabouth

It costs $750 (i.e., a three-bottle minimum) to sit down in Khabouth’s new Adelaide West nightclub, Uniun

For those of you who have never been to Uniun, the latest addition to Toronto’s dance club scene, here are some of the things you will notice should you go. Though Uniun’s address is nominally 473 Adelaide West, if you actually stand at the corner of Adelaide and Portland you will not see the entrance: to find it, you have to cut through a small parking lot and then walk up a dark alley, at which point you will find a pair of bouncers manning a black velvet cordon.

Once inside, you will be greeted by tall, thin women with the suspender-trays worn by cigarette girls in the Roaring Twenties; they will be giving out lollipops, popcorn and artfully wrapped candy bundles. Aside from the equally statuesque bartenders and the security men (one of whom has the bulk and flattened nose of a KGB assassin) the only other staff are the go-go dancers, who’ll be wearing nothing but high heels, Bono-style goggles, long braided ponytails and glittering body paint. You will watch them (a tricky gambit in that staring would mark you as a rube) not because they are naked (well, okay, partly because of this) but mainly because they’re managing to exuberantly dance on chest-high Grecian columns without falling off, all the while wearing the pissed-off expression that people get when forced to wait in driving hail for a bus.

The patrons, meanwhile, will be a mixture of what you expected and what you didn’t expect. Uniun is expensive—it costs $750 (i.e., a three-bottle minimum) if you want to sit down—and so the crowd tends to be somewhat moneyed, the men coiffed and dressed in slacks and jackets, the women favouring ultra-short skintight dresses. Yet there will be people in jeans and T-shirts, and there will be women dressed more demurely, though they will be in the distinct minority, as will patrons above the age of 40. You will also notice that Uniun has an atmosphere—all those flashing lights, all those bottles of Veuve—that is repellent to the urban hipster, there being not a beard, dreadlock, tribal piercing or tattoo sleeve in sight. You will see celebrities: at the Uniun opening I shared space with Ben Mulroney, Mats Sundin and, surprisingly, one of the interventionists on Intervention Canada. The club is mostly empty until 12:30, the earliest time nightclub-goers deem acceptable to be seen in public. Then, as if a switch has been thrown, it will
instantly fill.

As for the club itself, the bar runs about two thirds of the length of a large, rectangular room before giving way to the dance floor, which is notable in that the walls and ceiling pulsate with half a million dollars worth of LEDs, programmed to create combinations of colours and patterns in time with the music. The room has a premium sound system and long stretches of leather banquettes, and is intended to be Toronto’s exclusive stop for the sort of modern celebrity DJs who tour the world, playing short sets for dance aficionados.

The person responsible for all of this is the owner, Charles Khabouth, who has been opening nightclubs in Toronto since the 1980s and has brought an unparalleled level of sophistication to the city’s entertainment scene. If you spot him, he will likely be saying hello to the vast number of clubbers who know him personally. Yet it’s more likely you will not see him. On nights he works late, he makes brief visits to each of his 17 businesses, a roster including the Guvernment complex, a warehouse-sized venue on Queens Quay that hosts concerts and massive DJ dance parties; the upscale, intimate nightclub Cube; the grungier Queen West venue Tattoo Rock Parlour; and the sprawling lakeside party venue Polson Pier. If you factor in his eating establishments—he owns the King West resto-lounges Patria, Weslodge and Spice Route, and the Yorkville bistro La Société, and has three more due to open this year—Charles Khabouth entertains, on a Saturday night, roughly 15,000 people in Toronto, making him by far the biggest individual restaurant and nightclub owner in the city. His company, Ink Entertainment, earns annual revenues of $60 million.

Khabouth intends to become an international phenomenon. In August of last year, he launched Veld, an annual electronic dance music festival, in Downsview Park, attracting more than 20,000 people. He’s since been approached by investors to take the festival to other countries—he has three full-time staff working on that project. And the American luxury hotel chain Loews approached Khabouth in 2011 and asked him to recreate La Société in their Montreal location. It opens this April, and the plan is for Khabouth to open restaurants in Loews hotels throughout Canada and the U.S.—the next will likely be in Philadelphia or
Los Angeles.

Then there’s Bisha, his eponymous condo/hotel project on Blue Jays Way (his real first name is Bechara, Bisha for short, but he changed it after his family came to Canada from Lebanon). Khabouth intends to open Bishas all over the world: though the Toronto location won’t open until 2015, every unit has been pre-sold since mid-2012. “I can say, with 100 per cent certainty, that Bisha is going to go global,” he
told me.

“You mean Asia?” I asked. “Europe? South America?”

“Everywhere.”