Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Success?: How to measure a restaurant by its design

The goals of great design are many and varied and in restaurant design a great many variables go into enhancing the dining experience on any given night, for any occasion, and for every last guest. While one attribute cannot possibly ensure the success of the experience-it is most certainly a team effort- the colors, textures and materials- are critical to the diner’s initial perception up until they receive their check. What is most fascinating about restaurant design as compared to other fields of design, is that you are not designing for a single person, or a family, or a company, but rather, you are designing for an intended audience, one whom you do not know personally and even after exhaustive research, may not successfully reach. So restaurant design is not only design but it is marketing as well. The color, texture and material choices made are the advertisement, so how do you know that you’ve landed the “hook”? The following restaurants-Kress, Tanzore, Blue Velvet, Takami and Cut-have their own ideas on how to “advertise”, but are they successful? Success is defined in many ways, but often, the most important for an investor or owner is filling those seats every night. Success in this critique will be tied strictly to how well the elements-color, texture and material-execute the intended concept.

Kress, in no uncertain terms, has failed. This failure is particularly offensive because this restaurant/bar/club underwent an enormously expensive $25 million historical restoration and for what? To be the hot spot of the minute in Hollywood. The opportunity for success was wide open and ready to be had, but instead, it ends up looking like a rush job with too many opinions at the design meeting. Unfortunately, it seems all these opinions were executed to their fullest extent with nary a thought on how they would, or if they even could, harmonize. For starters, I’m fairly certain that every shade in Benjamin Moore’s “red” group was used. In other obvious words, there were too many shades doing too many things and none of them were the right thing. The deco/Asian/baroque/California contemporary styles were not the “eclectic” mix that was so obviously desired. Honestly, every person off the street claims their style is eclectic, which is basically just a code word for putting everything you like in one room and feeling really smug about how “creative” you are. Faux animal fur pillows in a purple space age capsule? A jarring plunge from the dining room of many reds to an underground lair of lavender? Rustic hardwood flooring paired with gilded tin ceiling tiles? Poorly made gold vinyl tufted booths with a clear view into their unfinished backs? Don’t even get me started on the unpainted cinderblock walls upstairs. And yes, this is all in one establishment. I sincerely hope this venue lands squarely in the 90% of restaurants that don’t make it within the first year.

Clear on the other end of the spectrum of design success is the Indian restaurant, Tanzore. With a budget of approximately $1.5-2 million, this renovation is outstanding from its conceptual delivery to its execution. An intoxicating mix of bright colors-deep turquoise, magenta, oranges and greens-mix beautifully and playfully with rich natural materials like warm wood slated ceilings, artfully mixed custom concrete floors and creamy Ceasarstone counters. Detailed nooks boast custom images and patterns or inviting display shelves and even the banquettes are original in design, with thoughtfully finished veneered wood backs. The bar at the entrance of the restaurant packs in every characteristic of the concept without leaving the patron overwhelmed. The difference in bar areas at the Kress and at Tanzore are a microcosim for the overall design. Tanzore carefully mixes a striking custom print on the back wall of the bar with subtle, yet rich, creamy stone countertops, a sophisticated horizontal wood slated bar fa├žade and alternately a glossy drop ceiling fixture and slated wood ceilings. Kress choose to kill an ant with an elephant gun, which is to say that they used a few too many bright, bold, and frankly, ugly in their own right, patterns along with mirrored surfaces, overly tiled mosaic columns and those awkward rustic wood floors again. Tanzore continued its focused design down to the very smallest details, which include a custom designed menu with a similar custom pattern as the bar and enchanting test tubes of mixed salts and peppers set in a simple natural steel stand. The care that went into each and every design decision definitely inspired me to add this restaurant to my must-try list but my one criticism, something which has nothing to do with the interior design firm who designed it, is the horrid little postcard advertising the restaurant. They somehow managed to make the restaurant look cheap and tacky! Sometimes, a picture does not say a thousand words.

Slightly less original, but pleasing in its design execution and consistent with its concept, is Blue Velvet downtown. This new trendy spot focuses on the current SoCal (and other big cities) trend of eco friendly design. The concept is quite obvious upon entering-a cool zen like spot-but it still comes across as fresh. Blue Velvet is not just another quasi Asian zen den with a Buddha sitting squarely in the middle of the dining room. Their concept of zen is a more nuanced feeling, and they accomplish this by using a variety of textures and a simple palette of blues and whites. Felt walls in the signature colors beg to be touched, while the ceiling treatments-slated wood similar to Tanzore and a hand polished plaster-put you in an earthy state of mind. The dining room is open to the outdoors and that is reflected in the cool blue frosted resin table tops, light fixtures and hostess stand as well as the airy white curtains and punctuated white partitions. River stones walls and a low slab table are a nod to the traditional zen space, but a natural steel bar gives Blue Velvet a more edgy and modern look. Unfortunately, it seemed that the money dried up before any thought could be given to the outdoor patio and pool area, which is a damn design shame seeing as though the interplay between indoors and out is paramount to the concept, but if your back is to the pool, you’ll have to agree that Blue Velvet is a design success.

Just a ways down the road is Takami, an Asian restaurant with a much warmer temperature. At this point, it seems that wood slated ceilings and hand mixed and polished cement is the name of the game and although I’d give more points for a design element that I’ve never encountered before, sometimes an element just works. For Takami, it does, and stays within the confines of their warm color palette and natural, more rustic vibe. While they did a particularly good job of selecting the hard surfacing-even using gorgeous porcelain tile that resemble leather (really, you’ll have to touch it to believe it!)-the choice of fabrics and leathers-well, vinyl to be exact-is somewhat disconcerting. Nevermind that sleek contemporary vinyl chairs are outside on the open air deck-I’m sorry, it’s just an inappropriate choice-but the banquettes and other upholstered surfaces would feel right at home in say a hospital or perhaps an airport. The patterns aren’t exactly modern and the feel and look of the textiles are far from inviting. That being said, at least they stick with a consistent color scheme and break up the waiting room style chairs with lovely warm wood tables.

The design equivalent to a sorbet palette cleanser is the restaurant Cut, located in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. The concept is ‘light’, and the execution shines-pun clearly intended. With a color palette consisting only of white paint, light woods and black mesh, it is refreshing in its simplicity and clearly a backdrop for the food and not the other way around. While it more closely resembles a gallery or museum-Architect Richard Meier designs these almost exclusively-the elegance and simplicity has clearly been a draw for patrons and the design relies less on gimmicks and more on a ruthlessly edited selection of materials and furniture. The stark contrast to the other restaurants’ bold statements makes this restaurant all the more intriguing to sample, and will join Tanzore on my list of restaurants to visit.
As a designer, I seek out well designed spaces, be they a museum, restaurant or bar space, and I revel in the experience they offer, but when all is said and done Los Angeles pales in comparison to New York when it comes to the food on your plate. When great design and great cuisine meet, it’s heaven. When great design meets mediocre food, you’re usually in just another Hollywood hot spot. So my advice is to hit up the well designed spots for a glass of pinot and people watching, and save your stomach, and your money, for the hole-in-the-wall places for gastro-

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