Bye-bye Bengal: Victoria, B.C. landmark soon serves its last martini


[photo: Ryan Harvey/Flickr]

No trip to Victoria is complete without a visit to the fabled Empress Hotel, either for afternoon tea or a superlative martini at the Bengal Lounge.

But if you want to experience the latter, time is running out. The Empress’s latest owners have embarked on a major renovation of the century-old hotel that apparently does not include preserving the Bengal.

Prominent Vancouver developers Nat and Flora Bosa bought the Empress, managed by the Fairmont chain, in 2014. Their company has embarked on a $30-million updating of the waterfront landmark, designed for Canadian Pacific Railway by Francis Rattenbury, also responsible for the B.C. legislature building across the street.

“The design and renovation will be consistent with that of a luxury hotel, while highlighting our turn-of-the-century architectural elements,” Bosa Development says on its website.

The Bengal, apparently a casualty of plans to revamp all the hotel’s dining areas, is expected to close April 30, a hotel spokesperson told the Vancouver Sun.

The spot’s name is a reference to hotel’s namesake, Queen Victoria, Empress of India. It’s certainly a time warp, redolent of a colonial club in the heyday of the British Raj with tufted leather couches and comfy armchairs, lots of dark wood paneling, an old tiger skin on the wall and large windows to survey the nearby harbour.

Visitors can enjoy a nice curry, maybe some seafood mulligatawny, or simply sip one of the superb dry martinis, as this correspondent has done to decompress after a hectic day covering a budget at the neighbouring B.C. legislature.

ALSO READ: Victoria’s Bengal Lounge to close, petition aims to stop renovations

Visitors might think the Bengal has been there forever but it dates from 1954, when as the Coronet it became the first licensed cocktail lounge in Victoria, according to the Sun. It was renamed the Bengal during a makeover in the late 1960s.

Some not happy to see the Bengal close

But many who see the Bengal as a Victoria institution are not letting it fade quietly into history.

Victoria resident Suzanne Johnston launched a petition on that so far has garnered more than 6,000 signatures.

“The Empress has always been the heart of our city,” Johnston writes. “It is known worldwide for its beauty, splendor, and old world charm. Tourists come from all over so they can step back in time. Please sign the petition and help save the Bengal Lounge!”

“My favourite space in #Victoria is closing,” Amanda Burrows tweeted, urging followers to sign Johnston’s petition.

Former Victoria resident David J. Chmiel, who now lives in England, remembers his dad taking him to the Bengal for his first legal drink.

“My late father was a firm believer that a well-made cocktail, conviviality, civility and intelligent conversation were all hallmarks of adulthood, and so it was to the Bengal Lounge that he took me for a drink on my 19th birthday,” he wrote in a letter to the Victoria Times Colonist.

While Chmiel said he’s not opposed to progress, he went all “Downton Abbey” on the prospect of never being able to return to the Bengal for one more cocktail.

“I am … certain that other past or current residents of Victoria will, like me, bid it adieu while quietly vowing never to let their shadow darken the threshold of whatever pastiche, cookie-cutter hotel bar takes its august place,” he wrote. “I’ll live with my memories.”

Nat Bosa is unapologetic. In an interview with CTV News, the developer said he’s well aware his company now owns a piece of Victoria’s heritage. But the hotel was overdue for a sympathetic makeover and he urged its fans to wait and see when the results are when revealed beginning in late May.

Not everyone is mourning the Bengal’s passing. In a commentary in the Times Colonist, two University of Victoria researchers who are experts in colonialism argued closing it is overdue.


[photo: Tadson Bussey/Flickr]

Profs condemn Bengal’s ‘cloying nostalgia’

“The Empress’s owners might have decided to close the Bengal Lounge for purely commercial reasons, but we see the change as another sign that Victoria is moving toward a future more cognizant of its remarkable culture and history but without the cloying nostalgia for a romanticized past,” wrote Daromir Rudnyckyj and Lincoln Z. Shlensky.

“The regressive symbolism of the lounge is a disquieting throwback to an era when South Asians were subjected to the harsh imperial rule of the British Raj even as they were paradoxically promised the benefits of ‘enlightened’ liberal democracy.”

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Some, such as Danielle Janess on Twitter, agreed that whatever replaces the Bengal should reflect “cultural traditions and history closer to home.”

Tourism Victoria president Paul Nursey told Yahoo Canada the outcry against the closure seems to have died down except for few diehards such as Johnston. He noted she admitted during a radio interview that she hadn’t been to the Bengal very often (Yahoo could not reach Johnston for this story).

While change is difficult for some to accept, he said, the layout of the Empress’s dining facilities, with separate kitchens, was costly and inefficient. Revamping them to centralize food service was necessary.

It’s not clear what Bosa has planned for the prime space the Bengal now occupies. It’s safe to predict, though, it won’t include a tiger skin on the wall.