When opening up a vegan restaurant in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, one must consider how it would fit into the area steeped in cultural history and diverse cuisine. Home to a large percentage of Dominicans, the neighborhood’s restaurants have exhibited this culture—from bakeries and chicken joints to roadside stands and carts offering everything from sliced mangoes to chicharrones. For Dominican Alex Peralta, owner of the vegan restaurant and cocktail bar, Poción, paying homage to the neighborhood was important in introducing a concept that may not seem synonymous with the country’s cuisine.
“Washington Heights has this richness in culture and you want to take advantage of the young professionals moving into the neighborhood, but you also don’t want to ignore the root of where it’s coming from because then you could end up becoming too hip and fall out of that neighborhood,” says Leah Plevrites, founder and creative director of StudioBIG, which designed Poción’s interiors, brand concept, and logo. “You want to address people who have been there from the get-go, but you also want to address people coming in. I think that’s where the challenge comes in—where you want to do it as nicely as possible, as modern as possible, but still pay homage to the people who made the neighborhood what it is.”
Poción takes the Dominican Republic’s national drink, Mamajuana—which is created by soaking tree bark and herbs in rum, red wine, and honey—and weaves it throughout the menu and design, from wooden plank walls to glass bottle sculptures and custom-designed test-tube chandeliers.
The drink also inspires the name, Poción or Potion, which is intended to highlight the process by which drinks are made in the restaurant. Bartenders infuse fresh herbs, juices, and tinctures into the beverages, all listed on a hand-drawn menu intended to look like a modern adaptation of a centuries-old potion book.
“When you think of a potions book, you think of this old-school book that you have to unlock, and you have pictures of some kind of love potion or evil potion,” Plevrites says. “We wanted it to be like an actual recipe, but without giving away how to make it. [The menu] just shows the ingredients in that drink and why it’s good for your digestive tract, or why it’s good for your metabolism, or your blood circulation.”
Plevrites says drinks are placed at the top of the hierarchy for the restaurant, with about six main staples, and other drinks that are constantly being developed and rotated. For instance, ingredients that are reported to have anti-inflammatory benefits—lime, kale juice, and guanabana tincture—meet organic gin, mescal, and velvet falernum in the Pachamama cocktail. In the Oxigeno, Poción combines gluten-free vodka with coconut water, chia seeds, lime tonic, and beet juice.
But the focus on health extends to the food, as well, with the menu offering hot bites, cold bites, and desserts, all with vegan ingredients. Poción pays tribute to the Latin American dish ninos envueltos, using vegan “meat” instead of a meat filling and combining it with creamy corn cooked with soy milk and brown rice, all wrapped in baked spring rolls and served with a tomato curry sauce.
The idea of organic and vegan eating brought to mind the color green, Plevrites says, which inspired the color scheme throughout the restaurant. “The green pops against not only the wood but also the concrete floor, concrete baths, and the metal planks and the wood chairs, which are a different color,” she says.
The space, which is narrow and small, was not easy to work with. From the beginning of the planning process, Plevrites wanted to place an emphasis on the front of the restaurant, and everything comes together to create a functional and comfortable setting.
The restaurant uses planks that fold into seating for customers to sit and eat the restaurant’s vegan fare, while also utilizing the wall space to create more room around the restroom and the utility kitchen at the back of the restaurant.
For the lights above the bar, Plevrites turned to a Polish artist featured on Etsy who uses test tubes to create chandelier lighting. “It’s scientific and goes with the whole concept of mixing and concocting,” Plevrites says.
“Lighting provided a lot of nice features in this project: backlighting of the laser cut letters, backlighting for the Mamajuana and the bottles, and the very mild lighting above the bar.”
Along the restaurant’s main wall, Plevrites installed a bottle display that required phone calls to many wine, beer, and liquor distributors to determine measurements and a lot of mathematical work to make everything fit. Across from that wall and above the bar is an area where all of the fresh herbs used in the drinks are showcased, along with an image of a Mamajuana bottle.
“We wanted to focus on the bottles and herbs,” Plevrites says. “The concept is that this is healthy drinking; this is a healthy lifestyle. It’s not just ordering gin and tonic or a Jack and Coke. It’s much more than that, so we wanted to feature the Mamajuana.”