After 61 years, Bengal Lounge closing in Empress overhaul

The Bengal Lounge at the Empress Hotel, which has been serving martinis for 61 years, will likely shake its last one into a glass in April as it closes its doors for good.

While the fate of the 3,000-square-foot room is not yet known, the lounge itself will not survive a $30-million-plus re-imagining of the Empress Hotel that is underway.

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“The future of the Bengal is unknown at this point, but we expect service will wind down April 30,” said Angela Rafuse-Tahir, the Empress’s director of sales and marketing. “We are not sure what we will do with the space yet, whether it will be retail or banquet space. We’ve had a lot of ideas being thrown around.”

The closing of the Bengal will mark the end of an era.

It was built in 1912 as a reading and writing room, and remained that way until 1954 when it was renamed the Coronet Lounge, the first cocktail lounge in Victoria.

In the late 1960s, a renovation of the hotel included a rethinking of the Coronet. It was to be an English-style pub for men only. Instead, it became the Bengal Lounge, an Indian-themed bar with a tiger skin on the wall, where waiters in Nehru jackets served curries and cocktails such as the Bombay Stinger and Bengal Tiger to acknowledge the hotel was named for Queen Victoria, Empress of India.

Rafuse-Tahir said the hotel has decided it’s time for a new era in the lounge space. “While the future use of this room is still undecided, it will certainly continue to be an integral space within the hotel,” she said.

When renovations are completed in late June, the hotel will have new restaurants and lounges. The existing tea lobby in the centre of the hotel will be transformed into a new tea lobby and cocktail lounge that will operate into the evening and take advantage of its view of the Inner Harbour.

The small harbourside dining room across from a renovated Empress Dining Room will be transformed into a lounge with a white marble bar. The Veranda dining room is also being redone.

“We wanted to maximize our space,” said Rafuse-Tahir, noting that other than afternoon tea between noon and 5 p.m., the tea lobby was under-used. “You couldn’t have a better view in Victoria. … So we are optimizing it, we are going to create busier restaurants that will sustain the hotel, increase hours [for workers] and it could mean hiring more people because we will be so busy.”

Renovation of 245 guest rooms is continuing until April. That work has been underway since October, while work on the restaurants started this month.

During renovations, the tea lobby will be temporarily relocated to the upper lobby space above the reception area.

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