It’s easy for patrons to overlook a restaurant’s design. For those that approach dining from a utilitarian point-of-view, we dine out to eat and to nourish our bodies. But for those that take a holistic view of the dining experience, quality restaurant design is vital. And we’re not just talking about Mason jar lighting.
In order to learn more about the design industry, I spoke with James Geier, founder of 555 International, an award-recognized restaurant design, fabrication and development company. They’ve played a hand in designing a few of Chicago’s most popular restaurants like Girl & the Goat, GT Fish & Oyster and Perennial Virant. Most recently, they’ve taken on Boltwood, the restaurant replacing the space that used to be Lulu’s, next to Argo Tea on Davis Street. Geier and I chatted on the phone and he proceeded to detail the finer points of design, as well as major trends.
“If the menu is the restaurant’s spirit, then what does that make the interior?” I asked. His immediate response: “The body.” The interior determines how the space looks, feels, works and moves. In effect, a restaurant’s design gifts a previously bland block of square footage with a personality, and “creates one entire being.” But this entity doesn’t just materialize on its own.
The conception starts with the client. In Boltwood’s case, that would be John Kim, owner of Other Brother and Brother’s K Coffeehouses, and Brian Huston, former chef de cuisine at The Publican, who is leaving his title of head chef to start this new venture. From there, the process goes to the design firm, Kara Mann Design (KMD), with whom Huston and Kim are currently collaborating to bring their vision of a sharp, modern yet welcoming space to life. In most cases, Geier says, the chef or restaurateur will describe his or her general vision to 555, usually through a menu. Then, moving top-down, the client will describe the location and target customer. The collection of this information puts the pieces together in the designer’s mind, as he or she “comprehends what the customer will see when he enters the space, what he’ll see when he turns right and what he’ll see when he turns left.” Huston’s cooking consists of clean, simple New American cuisine, and Boltwood’s menu will feature this style through seasonal fare. According to Kim, the restaurant will bring something new and exciting to the city of Evanston, while creating a setting that also feels like home. Imagine quality protein, fresh produce and fish and oyster selections — something the Evanston dining scene sees very little of.
So how does a designer take a menu’s outlook and transpose it into the interior design? The ultimate goal is to create a quality, feel-good environment, in which the customer discovers something new every time he or she visits. According to Geier, a great designer can strike the delicate balance between a customer’s comfort level and excitement. His description sounds like the qualities that make a good book: a clear and concise vision with a bit of escapism and a final denouement. And like creating a long-form novel, Kara Mann of KMD went through several design iterations before arriving at the final concept. Although the design of the restaurant’s foundations are on the modern end of the spectrum, she said she worked to ensure that the space feels inviting for diners. One such detail: the space’s corners are curved to give a cozier ambience. There is also laced drapery that will hang from the front window to convey a sense of home.
Recent trends dominating the restaurant design landscape revolve around a story of sorts, as well. Geier credits the recent economic downturn to a shift in the industry, resulting in more conservative budgeting amongst investors, restaurants and consumers, and perhaps even the fall of white tablecloth dining. The responsibility of maintaining the restaurant’s vision has also increasingly moved from investor to chef, leading to new opportunity for experimentation and innovation. Designers managed to cover up restaurant cost-cutting as urban chic endorsed minimalism (communal tables, anyone?). And despite the shrinking wallets of diners, restaurants in dining hotspots such as San Francisco, New York and Chicago have been growing at a faster rate than that of general economic output. This success is something Geier believes comes from the industry’s adoption of the contemporary “urban chic” trend, redeveloping dilapidated old buildings into hip restaurants.
Boltwood itself capitalizes on this very aesthetic. The restaurant’s interior design includes approximately 65 seats with a small communal table at the center, banquet seating around the perimeter of the space, and a pristine wood and stone countertop. Rich black concrete floors will play off of the cool, oyster-grey plastered walls, and the use of different woods creates a calming atmosphere and organic feel. The communal table consists of dark, deep brown woods, while the face of the bar is a medium-tone and the chairs and barstools, a warm black. There will also be a few playful, yet elegant, antique pieces that help complete the layering of a “modern clean with warm and simple” concept.
Re-imagined dining spaces like this tend to boast dynamic menus in dressed down spaces. Think of Chicago’s Longman & Eagle, which opened in 2010 and has thrived since. Chef Jared Wentworth’s work at the gastropub and whiskey bar has earned it a Michelin star, while the restaurant continues to offer an affordable menu that features rethought classics like a Wild Boar Sloppy Joe. No other restaurant gives a better image of the ‘upscale casual’ vibe that has dominated the industry in the last five years.
Beyond major trends, basic design elements also affect consumer behavior and attitude, which has a direct correlation with repeat business. Dead spaces filled with awkward seating, swinging kitchen doors and views of bathrooms from seats are mistakes that will hurt the client’s bottom line. An even more common form of “bad” design comes in the form of overdoing, said Mann.
The fact that all of these layers from conception to execution transformed the initial empty drywalled space into the finished product that is Boltwood in three weeks is the real beauty of restaurant design. Now the space has its body, and don’t just credit the food when you decide to dine there for a second time.