Restaurant Design that Works

by Francoise Villeneuve
Antoinette Bruno and Will Blunt
June 2011

When it comes to restaurant design, being gorgeous isn’t enough. A restaurant is a living, breathing space with a distinct personality, concept, and cuisine philosophy. And while there are countless factors involved in successful design—a great architect, interior designer, and space—the most important is an understanding of the restaurant’s vision. From Chicago’s relaxed, 30-seat owner-operated Ruxbin, to the big, sexy, and red space of New York’s Rouge Tomate, restaurants across the country are marrying beauty and brains by tapping into the restaurant concept and creating a space that’s not just stunning, but apt.

Open-air lounge at Haven – Houston, TX

Open-air lounge at Haven – Houston, TX

Modern Texan (Sans Cowboy Swag)

Haven – Houston, TX

When it came to designing and building 2011 Rising Star Chef Randy Evans’ Haven, Evans had a specific vision of what he wanted (and did not want). He conveyed that vision to Collaborative Projects, a local architecture and design firm responsible for Houston projects like Catalan Food + Wine. “The first thing I said was ‘I don’t want it kitschy Texas—I don’t want hay bales, stuff like that,’” he recalls. Interior Designer Melanie Pereira and Architect Jim Herd worked together to make Evans’ modern Texan farm-to-table a reality. “He has these very clean plates that he uses as a canvas … so just like that [the design] is very clean, straight lines, minimal,” says Pereira. Evans requested an item on every chef’s secret wish—a plot of land to grow vegetables for the restaurant—and Herd installed a 60-foot by 4-foot garden in the back of the restaurant that doubles as pantry and atmosphere for the restaurant’s open-air lounge. The entire design is geared toward energy efficiency, so despite the large space, electricity bills are a fraction of those at other similarly sized restaurants.

Interior of Ruxbin – Chicago, IL

Interior of Ruxbin – Chicago, IL

Avant-garde Neighborhood Joint

Ruxbin – Chicago, IL

Salvage One Architect Davide Nanni took on the Ruxbin project and aimed not just to reflect the concept of the restaurant but the people as well. “Not only do you have to consider the food, you have to consider the owners. There was a philosophy with these people and a connection to the food as well,” says Nanni. “Usually what I do is very organic without much structure.” But owners Edward, Vicki, and Jenny Kim of Ruxbin are almost compulsively organized, so Nanni went with a more linear, structural design to complement their personalities. Because the little restaurant that could had to work with a small budget, salvaged items played a big part in the design. Repurposed décor also gave the space an unrepeatable look and helped tackle practical challenges. To eliminate the wind tunnel effect in the long narrow restaurant, Nanni remodeled a DJ booth from a shuttered dance club into a curved barrier between diners and entryway; the booth still allows natural light to reach them so the space feels cozy and intimate rather than cramped. Of course, there are whimsical elements, too, like the school chairs born again as light fixtures.

Interior of Rouge Tomate – New York, NY

Interior of Rouge Tomate – New York, NY

Sexy Sustainability

Rouge Tomate – New York, NY

When the eco-conscious Belgian company Rouge Tomate decided to open an NYC outpost, it reached out to New York design firm Bentel & Berkel, which implemented sustainable design long before green became a buzz word.  The firm’s  approach—using green woods or wood from replanted forests—was dead-on for the restaurant’s concept of SPE (“Health Through Food” SPE®, or “Sanitas Per Escam”), sustainability, and the local movement. Bentel & Berkel transformed a 1902 Beaux Arts hotel-turned-designer-clothing-store transformed into a 21st century sustainable restaurant. Creating distinct areas within the restaurant was key, so that “every seat is the best seat in the house,” according to Bentel & Berkel Partner Carol Bentel. Known mostly in the world of restaurant design for work on Gramercy Tavern and four subsequent Danny Meyer restaurants, Bentel & Bentel used salvaged materials from the old clothing store and used FSC-certified wood, leather upholstery, and Greenguard-certified chairs (a certification for low chemical emissions and healthier products for the environment) in their overhaul.

Interior of Brushstroke – New York, NY Photo Credit: Nicole Bartelme

Interior of Brushstroke – New York, NY
Photo Credit: Nicole Bartelme

High-end Japanese

Brushstroke – New York, NY

The space formerly known as Secession recently was re-jiggered as David Bouley’s Brushstroke, for which he has paired Japanese Chef Yoshiki Tsuji and 2009 New York Rising Star Isao Yamada. Under the care of Japanese design firm Super Potato, the space went from tall and skinny to angular and expansive, setting the scene for a kaiseki-influenced dining experience. In kaiseki cuisine, the dining experience doesn’t stop at the plate. The whole dining aesthetic extends beyond cuisine to tableware (ceramics are as much a part of the discipline as the food itself) and décor. At Brushstroke, the design resembles Japan’s top kaiseki restaurants. Its neutral color palette and clean lines serve as the most appropriate backdrop we can think of for serene and balanced plates. Books stripped of their bindings and leeched of all color are combined to create a collage wall in neutral tones. Despite its calm, the space invites you in. Dioramas in the bar area show Lilliputian scenes of everyday Japanese life, and the open kitchen removes the barrier between chef and diner, coaxing customers to share the kaiseki experience.

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