Core Architecture beefs up restaurant portfolio

December 11, 2011

You may not know the name, but you’ve likely spotted the handy work of District-based Core Architecture + Design.

The company has revived the art moderne grandeur of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, created the lily-pad light fixtures at the Tenleytown-Friendship Neighborhood Library and added splashes of lime green to the decor of Bank of Georgetown branches.

But Core’s fingerprint can best be found on dozens of restaurants throughout the Washington area including Brasserie Beck, Cava, Potenza, Sweetgreen, Wasabi, Policy and Againn.

In its 20 years in business, the company has become one of the go-to designers for local developers, especially in the hospitality industry. Demand from restaurants helped keep Core afloat through the worst of the downturn, creating some breathing room for the firm to broaden its reach now that the economy is slowly improving.

“Restaurant work has continued all the way through the downturn,” said Core Managing Principal and co-founder Dale A. Stewart.

Several of the Core’s restaurant projects have gone on display in recent months and several more are in the pipeline. Farm-to-table bistro Founding Farmers Potomac turned on the lights in early November, while seafood joint Pearl Dive Oyster Palace and Black Jack debuted in the District in September.

This Thursday marks the opening of Core’s latest offering to the local restaurant scene: William Jeffrey’s Tavern. The casual eatery, located at 2301 Columbia Pike in Arlington, pays homage to the prohibition era of the 1920s with a walnut-stained oak bar, bronze fixtures, tin ceiling and a stacked-stone chimney flanked by two fireplaces.

The designers turned the 6,500 square foot, one-story shell into a three-tier space by elevating the bar to overlook the main dining room and creating a private alcove behind the fireplaces adjacent to the bar. Virginia artist Thomas Mullany pulled together the theme with three murals depicting the speak-easy culture of the time.

“It was a fascinating period and we wanted to play off of it,” said Chris Lefbom, who as a part of Vintage II Restaurants co-owns the tavern with Wilson Whitney and Adam Lubar.

The tavern is Vintage II’s fourth restaurant in Northern Virginia, where it also owns Rhodeside Grill, Ragtime and Dogwood Tavern, its first ground-up development. The other eateries were acquisitions in which the new owners made a few cosmetic changes.

“We were novices at using an architect and contractor, but Core made us feel comfortable,” Lefbom said. “We’ve seen some of the other restaurants they’ve done and knew we were in good hands.”

Core was founded by Stewart and Peter Hapstak, who is credited with growing the firm’s hospitality business. Hapstak left the firm in the hands of Stewart and I. Guyman Martin last year as Core expanded its focus beyond his specialty to more government work.

Stewart said he envisions Core as a multidisciplinary firm that can design for all segments. To that end, the firm has sought out and won a number of bids to design projects for the D.C. government, including the redevelopment of the Mount Pleasant Branch Library.

Core’s overall volume of work ebbs and flows, with more requests for studies than actual project assignments some days. Stewart said the market for ground-up developments remains a bit stalled, but vastly improved from 2009.

When work slowed to a trickle during the recession, Core reduced its headcount by a third to 18 staff members. Stewart said business has stabilized, but revenue is down from the previous year.

Looking ahead, Stewart said, “There is a lot of new work we have in the pipeline to get started around the first of the year — some government and residential projects, and, of course, restaurant work.”

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