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R&IEditorial Archives2000November 15 — Special Report

Inside Jobs
Three top restaurant designers talk about their latest projects and how interiors shape the dining experience.

Successful restaurant operators know design is not just a matter of looks but a strategic element that can make or break an operation. Effective design is basically a one-on-one undertaking. Before beginning to develop an interior design plan, the designer works with each client to fully understand the concept, its market position and operational goals.

That’s why top designers tend to shy away from discussing anything so general as “trends.” Stressing that each project is a unique response to the specific goals of its operator, the principals of three world-class design firms nonetheless agreed to talk with Restaurants and Institutions about recently completed restaurants that employ design solutions and ideas likely to be influential.


David Rockwell, principal of New York City-based Rockwell Group, earned his stripes as the designer of imaginative theme restaurants including the Planet Hollywood chain. More recently, as theme restaurants have lost steam, Rockwell’s 150-person workshop is turning its attention to projects that subtly express a mood or motif through the imaginative use of colors and materials, including commissioned artworks or crafts. “As restaurants become more competitive, design helps differentiate them,” Rockwell says.

For example, Rosa Mexicano, which opened at New York City’s Lincoln Center in early July, features classic regional Mexican cuisine (a concept pioneered 15 years ago by Josefina Howard, co-owner of the original Rosa Mexicano on Manhattan’s East Side). Rockwell says the environment “fuses elements from contemporary and traditional Mexican art and architecture.” Don’t expect refried beans—or serapes and cacti—here. The elegant, two-level, 6,000-square-foot restaurant seats 55 at street level (where there also is a 12-seat bar) and 130 upstairs in the main dining room.


“As real estate gets tighter, second floors and basements become more important to the operation,” Rockwell explains. “The challenge here was to get people upstairs where most of the tables are. The design solution was twofold. First we connected the levels with a floating staircase of alternating vibrant orange and red terrazzo slabs—colors inspired by the work of Mexican architects Ricardo Legoretta and Luis Barragan. To visually unite the levels, we installed a 30-foot iridescent-blue glass-tile water wall with a pinned-off grid of 200 cliff diver sculptures. The water flows into a pool on ground level.”

In addition to the water-wall artwork by Guido Grunenselder and Francesca Zwicker of Pescepalla Docks, other commissioned works and folk arts abound. Niches are filled with miniature carved wooden animals from Oaxaca. At ground level, backlit panels behind the bar are fabricated of translucent resin in which rose petals (Rosa Mexicano variety, of course) are suspended; the lavatory countertops are constructed of the same material. “Translucent materials like resin are on the upswing,” Rockwell says. “It’s a way to play with light, to help make the space more intriguing and seductive.”

Other small design touches highlight the unique cuisine: Rockwell-designed custom guacamole carts for tableside service of Chef Sergio Remolina’s signature dish, guacamole en molcajete (guacamole prepared in a volcanic-rock mortar).

Responding to the demand for flexibility to accommodate private events (a trend mentioned by all the designers interviewed), Rosa Mexicano is laid out so it can expand into an adjacent public atrium for parties of up to 250. The budget for the project was not disclosed.


Tony Chi, president of Tony Chi & Associates in New York City, has created award-winning restaurants around the globe, many in upscale hotels. Two of the most recent are Maize, in the historic Robert Treat Hotel in Newark, N.J., and NoMI (named for North Michigan Avenue), in the Park Hyatt Chicago. Though the restaurants differ in ambience, both are grounded in Chi’s belief that fine dining is not defined by price points or levels of formality, but by an easy, “living room” atmosphere that responds to the new “more relaxed and laid-back” American lifestyle.

Occupying 6,000 square feet and seating 128 for dining, plus 50 in the bar/lounge areas, Maize is a renovation of an existing restaurant enveloped in the Robert Treat Hotel. Owner Myles Berger recently restored this vintage property as part of the ongoing renewal of inner-city Newark’s artsy Ironbound district.

Berger’s goal was to create a sophisticated yet welcoming restaurant where Ironbound’s diverse demographic base could gather to enjoy traditional American cuisine and to socialize. Taking the cue, Chi and project designer Bill Paley envisioned an understated environment with off-white walls and clean-lined contemporary furnishings for the various functional areas of the restaurant, including the airy dining room, cigar lounge, tea lounge and wine cellar. Inspired by the owner’s love of Americana, Paley warmed up the essentially white box with carefully edited pieces of folk art and country furniture.

“Understated design may be a strategic way to approach today’s economic mix, because affluent people now cover such a broad demographic range. It lets you offer a variety of dining choices, from a cafe menu to a pricey tasting menu, in the same laid-back environment,” Chi explains.

“Hotel lounges have evolved a lot in the last few years,” Chi notes. “Today we need to cater to people’s need for a place to meet informally throughout the day, and this means extending foodservice operating hours while maximizing the revenue potential of the space.”


Chi’s living-room approach is very much in evidence at NoMI, recently opened on the seventh floor of the Park Hyatt Chicago. Because the 200-room hotel is in a mixed-use building with condominiums on top, the restaurant must cater to a diverse client base with all-day dining needs—a challenge because of the small floor plan that is divided into chambers and split by a huge structural wall. Struck by the spatial analogy to 19th century townhouses, Chi settled on that as a theme for the restaurant. Guests emerge from the elevator into a 7th-floor “Victorian garden” with eight 25-foot-high live birch trees.

At the entrance to the restaurant is a 50-foot wine cellar where a sommelier at his worktable welcomes guests into the “salon” beyond. The host for the 100-seat dining room is positioned at the back of the bar. Chi emphasizes that this bar area is “very low key, designed to resemble a brownstone living room with individual pieces of furniture and no built-ins.”

The restaurant is dedicated, Chi says, to the “celebration of seasonal change in Chicago, with a spring garden, summer salon, and a fall and winter dining room dominated by a fireplace and ceiling mural of snowy branches.” Chi believes that a growing appreciation of nature will continue to be an important factor in restaurant design, inspiring oasislike settings away from the frenetic pace of urban life.

The lighting in NoMI is all computerized to follow the sunset, so constant adjustments are not required. “High tech applications are an essential underpinning of seemingly casual restaurants,” says Chi.

There is also a private dining room seating 14, fronted by a gallery space leased as a “prefunction area with a gallery setting, Chi says. “I do private dining rooms any way I can, presenting the concept to the owner as a ‘function room’ to be leased in increments of time rather than meal periods.” Chi declined to reveal the cost of the 7,000-square-foot project.


Everything old is new again, or so it seems at Wolfgang Puck and Barbara Lazaroff’s Postrio restaurant that opened last December in The Venetian, the flamboyant Las Vegas resort and casino. Along with co-owners Tom Kaplan, David Robins and Sheldon Adelson, Puck and Lazaroff (herself a skilled interior designer) decided “it was time to bring back the red restaurant interior, which has been a no-no for 20 years,” recalls Eric Engstrom, principal of San Rafael, Calif.-based Engstrom Design Group. Postrio’s clientele is very attuned to style—and the owners wanted an atmosphere reminiscent of the baroque excesses of turn-of-the-century San Francisco, something that would fit in with the casino’s over-the-top ambience.

For the 10,000-square-foot operation, which seats 200 indoors and another 70 outside in the covered Patio Cafe, Engstrom combined warm red-toned woods and rich fabrics in a darkly elegant interior. Decorative metal grills diffuse light from the courtyard windows, while wall sconces and chandeliers of marbled Murano-type glass cast a soft, “gaslit” glow over the bar and dining room.


The private dining room that accommodates parties of 40 is in such great demand, says Engstrom, that Puck already is planning to install a second private room seating 60 in some of the space that has been reserved for future development.

“Increased demand for private function space is definitely a trend in upscale restaurants, not just the ones in Vegas,” Engstrom explains. “People are not satisfied to meet in a traditional hotel banquet or prefunction room that looks like a back closet with vinyl wallcovering. They want the experience of fine dining in an upscale restaurant, and the money is there to pay for it.”

The move toward increased private dining space is also changing the design of kitchens, Engstrom says, to accommodate the high-volume service—and increasing the need for behind-the-scenes high-tech systems to keep it all running smoothly.

Ironically, Postrio marks a retreat from the open-kitchen trend Puck himself started 20 years ago. “Today, people want to relax and talk over a leisurely meal. They don’t need to hear the din of the kitchen,” Engstrom says. With that in mind, he concealed Postrio’s kitchen behind a curving wall of decorative glass. Thus far, Postrio has cost a total of $3 million for construction, equipment and furnishings.


Top designers may unconsciously create “trends” when they address real-world problems posed by day-to-day operations. Their solutions inspire other designers and operators faced with similar problems to follow suit. Some of the “trends” of today—allocating more space for private dining, using art to define a brand or market niche, exploiting underused “upstairs” or “downstairs” spaces and creating more homelike lounge areas—may be outdated tomorrow, yet operators and designers press on with their ever-changing business.

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