Chefs worth their salt easily can develop a menu tied to a culture’s cuisine. The challenge is translating that culture’s heritage into the restaurant design without divorcing the restaurant’s locale. After all, isn’t the modern consumer wired to support all things local and sustainable?
Those are among the fine lines that Peter Karpinski, co-founder and COO of Denver-based Sage Restaurant Group, and others, walk when they conceptualize restaurants.
Operating 10 concepts in seven states, Sage Restaurant Group lives and breathes cultural tone. To pull it off, someone on staff must have the creative gene. Otherwise, hire an interior designer, Karpinski says.
Their modern steakhouse, Urban Farmer, is indigenous to Portland, Oregon. To build it, the restaurant group had to define the customer, the concept, and Portland.
Modern meant it had to appeal to women. “That segment drives consumer decision making,” Karpinski says. Thus, he went for a fresh, airy, light, and refreshing atmosphere, achieved partly by the high-style, quilted furniture fabric. He avoided the “good old boys club” feel of darkness, leather, and cigars.
A large communal table at the front of Urban Farmer depicts a rancher’s lifestyle, where the family and workers all gather together at the end of the day for a big family meal. For a local spin, the table is made from a slab of wood salvaged from a ship that sank in the Columbia River 150 years ago. “People in Portland thought that was cool. There’s a big push for reclaimed goods, sustainability, and not wasting anything,” Karpinski says.
The company is building an Urban Farmer in Cleveland, Ohio, and found a dilapidated barn on a farm outside of the city, which the owner gladly donated to the company. The wood will be used throughout the restaurant.
“The bar stools are old tractor seats with big springs we went and found. There are a lot of things you can do that are inexpensive,” Karpinski says.
Since Urban Farmer butchers its own meat, the servers wear long butcher-like bistro aprons for an industrial blue-collar look and feel. Candles throughout the restaurant are made from the fat of the butchered animals, which is a useful way to handle waste. “The customer doesn’t know it, but servers explain it to them if they show interest,” he says.
Low-country Southern coastal cuisine found its way to Venice, California, at the new Willie Jane restaurant, which serves the likes of fried chicken, grits, sweet tea-brined pork chops, and Tasso ham.
Since the restaurant is located in a vibrant, artistic community of taste makers and other creative people, to make a too-literal depiction of the South would almost come across as a parody, says Brad Johnson co-owner of the restaurant that is named after his 100-year-old aunt from south Georgia.
While the décor incorporates black-and-white photos of Johnson’s family, as well as family members of its celebrated chef, Govind Armstrong, it has also framed historic, handwritten letters from a local resident whose sweetheart was away at war in Germany.
“With a conceptual project, you have to create or develop a story,” says the restaurant’s designer Rae Scarton of Los Angeles and New York. She aimed for refined, sheik, and homey in the design, using light colors, panel molding, and artifacts from flea markets and local shops to give a feeling of family heirlooms.
Conversely, the design of Sumi Robata Bar and Charcoal Bar in Chicago was guided simply by chef/owner Gene Kato’s laser focus on making the restaurant all about charcoal.
“It’s based on the business philosophy of the takumi spirit,” which means Japanese artisan, Kato says. Robata, and thus his cuisine, means Japanese charcoal grilling.
For the interior design, Kato—along with the sous chef and mixologist—found themselves outside for a 10-hour shift charring more than 100 wood planks to use for the walls.
While Kato didn’t need a design firm to carry out the Japanese charcoal theme, Mercadito Hospitality used a New York design firm to help pull off high-end Mexican décor. One objective was for Mercadito restaurants to be inviting enough to encourage guests to make the place an all-night experience, says partner Alfredo Sandoval. “You have to start with a vision.”
Graffiti-style wall murals are the trademark design element that help create the desired ambiance. Custom-made rope lamps also speak of Mexico, as do copper cones and triangles arranged to resemble the pyramids outside Mexico City, and are hanging in back of the bar.
In any case, design elements don’t have to be expensive, and design skills can come from the staff, or from anywhere. (Use Craig’s List or the website eatsy.com.)
By Jody Shee