Some of the best restaurant design is intended to go unnoticed. Sure, there will be eye-catching components — a cool mural, a quirky bathroom — but those aren’t as important as the layout, the lighting, the carefully cultivated mood. A well-designed restaurant won’t distract from the food, and especially not from the conversation. Instead, it will subtly contribute to one of those memorable evenings when everything clicks: the meal, the service and the warm vibes.
Architects and designers from six Washington firms that help make such evenings possible spoke with The Washington Post about what inspires them — which in turn might someday inspire home dwellers. Restaurant interiors often contribute to architectural and design trends. Designing for a restaurant, says Michael Francis of Queue Design Agency, is “this great little microcosm of an experience that allows you to experiment on a micro scale.”
Winter and Miller don’t just design restaurants, they design neighborhoods. The duo’s architectural firm, which was acquired by Streetsense in 2013, focuses on locally owned neighborhood restaurants and the way they play off of one another. In Bloomingdale, the team designed Boundary Stone, El Camino and the Red Hen (Winter’s husband, Sebastian Zutant, is the sommelier and a partner in the restaurant). Near Shaw’s Blagden Alley, they’ll be designing for Derek Brown’sColumbia Room, Jeremiah Langhorne’s the Dabney, Tiffany MacIsaac’sButtercream Bakeshop and All Purpose, a pizzeria from the trio behind the Red Hen. “Our whole mission has been to create a better D.C.,” Winter said.
The past: “Nobody goes to an 80-year-old bistro in Paris with the marble top that’s got huge chunks busted out of it and years of stains and a pitted surface, and says, ‘God, this feels terrible.’ You see the history. ... It’s about places that look better the longer they’re open.” — Miller
The present:“I think [14th Street NW] is great, but does it feel like a neighborhood? Does it have that neighborhood bar?” — Winter
The future: “There’s something really special and rewarding to us about working on somebody’s first place. ...Our dream client is, like, a 23-year-old line cook right now who in eight years is going to open a restaurant.” — Miller
For Beltran, pathways and sightlines are more important than chairs or doors or murals. Having worked at his uncle’s restaurant before architecture school, he designs with practicality in mind; the path from the kitchen never crosses the path to the bathroom, and server stations are concealed within the dining room. After the logistics comes the fun — facilitated, in part, by a table that functions as a real-life Pinterest board. Beltran and his associates fill the table with photos, materials and fabrics that inspire the concept and gradually edit them down to the essentials. Beltran designed Thai street-food restaurant Soi 38 to be gritty enough to evoke a Bangkok market at night, but polished enough for power lunches.
Baltimore artist Gaia wrapped the walls in a black-and-gold mural featuring a dragon and other creatures, and Beltran installed a photorealistic surprise for those with a sharp eye: “Nobody notices the crocodile.”
The good: “I think the white tablecloth may make a resurgence but to a limited extent. ... The people that are frequenting these industrial and quirky places, they’re getting older, they’re going to want something a little less loud, they’re going to go somewhere that’s a little more their age.”
The bad: “Truthfully, I try to convince [clients] not to get into the business.... I went as far to tell one guy, ‘You might as well give me $50,000 and walk away now. You’ll save money.’ He went forward with [his restaurant], and he was open for a few months, and he closed.”
The ugly: “It could be a budget issue, or an ego issue, where one of the partners or owners wants to put their little stamp on it and decides, ‘I like the color purple better.’ And they make the designer change the aesthetic even though the designer knows this is not the way to go.”
In designing Minibar and Barmini, Cooke, who worked with Spanish designer Juli Capella, a friend of chef José Andrés’s, wanted to imbue the space with a sense of whimsy. You’ll see it in a couch that looks like a cactus, or a wall of three-dimensional hands — originally intended to be a coat rack in Barmini, they now hold fresh fruit. “The place has a very Salvador Dalí surrealist vibe to it,” said Cooke. Whenever she designs a restaurant, Cooke and her team sit in every seat, so they can see what each diner’s visual experience will be.
The trends: “You don’t need Edison light bulbs and reclaimed wood to make a restaurant successful. ... I think heavy industrial design ... has been done for the last five to seven years. People are craving simpler spaces.”
The terms: “You get to core words: Heirloom. Freshness. Clean. Bright. ... We start to get on the same visual language with [clients].”
The trick: “You should see the light washing over something, but you should never see the source of the light. ”
Husted has designed for restaurateurs Richard Sandoval and Derek Brown. The way she approaches her projects is to “take a concept, dissect it and reinvent it so that it becomes something that evoked a place, but doesn’t replicate it,” she said.
How D.C. design has evolved: “I don’t know if I want to use this word, but it’s becoming more textural. It’s becoming more modern in its sense of materials. It’s becoming less regulated, less permanent and less symmetrical.”
How her design should make you feel: “I try to evoke a concept or a place through materiality. And that can be through the warmth of wood or the coldness of metal.”
How she selects furniture and fixtures: “If you can get something that is hand-built and has a touch of the irregular, it sparks something in somebody, and it makes them feel something.”
Former rivals who went into business together four years ago, Hapstak and Demetriou scored a big hit with Rose’s Luxury, beloved not just for its food, but for its quirky decor and “awesome” neon sign. “That’s what [chef-owner Aaron Silverman] was looking for: that Brooklyn feel, that open skylight, the idea that things weren’t perfect,” said Hapstak. “It’s about rooms, and about not feeling like anybody [designed] anything there. Like it just existed.”
Inspiration: “Sometimes it’s a theater set, sometimes a magazine fashion shoot. It’s an artwork. It’s something you see resonate in some spark and connection.” — Demetriou
Pet peeve: “I’m tired of so much wood everywhere. They’re not using it like a material; they’re just slapping it up.‘We made a wood salvage wall; it makes us green.’ It takes more than that.”
Favorite trend: “One of the most powerful and primal images is a campfire.” — Demetriou on open kitchens
Francis waited tables to get through architecture school, helping him understand restaurants’ flow and function. These days, he splits his time between Washington and Los Angeles. You can see the influence of the latter in Maketto, the restaurant, coffee shop and retail space on H Street NE that opened in April to rave reviews. Sit on its second-floor patio overlooking a courtyard on a sunny day, and it feels like California. And you find bits of the former in the art-deco-inspired interior of subterranean cocktail bar Denson, with glass salvaged from the historic Hecht’s warehouse on New York Avenue NE.
Exciting design: “A space that begins to unfold and tell you little secrets as you look and ponder the space. ... It’s not about perfectly organized spaces. It might actually be a part of the design that is a mistake.”
Successful design: “It’s heavy on ambiance, heavy on subtle textures and colors. It’s key to create an environment that remains fresh. It’s not a one-hit wonder, when you come in, you get a big wow, [but] you’re not interested in coming back.”
Experiencing design: “It’s all about the sensual nature of materiality. It’s a beautiful piece of wood on a bar, or a textured piece of glass, in combination with something that is new and old. I think that’s kind of where we are in terms of design right now, finding that middle ground between something that speaks to history and something that speaks to the present day.”
More from our Summer 2015 Home & Design Issue