You've just finished dining in a new restaurant, and your companion asks if you liked it. The food was good, but somehow you can't respond that you really liked “it.” Perhaps that element you can't stab your finger at was that the food arrived on blue plates. Or the restaurant featured green walls. Or, in feng shui terms, the space had too many “squares” and not enough “circles.” Or the sound system was cheap, producing a subliminal buzz that your ears may not have registered but your subconscious found, as Baleen's executive chef Robbin Haas says, “akin to Chinese water torture.”
According to industry professionals, the dining experience has as much to do with the design and décor of a restaurant -- which includes everything from the architecture of the dining room to the menu covers to the salt and pepper shakers -- as it does with the food. And when design flaws occur, they can be disturbing in a variety of ways to the patrons, keeping them from returning as effectively as a kitchen that showcases spoiled fish.
Some of these errors are obvious. In Aquaterra, a now-defunct Palm Beach eatery run by noted chef Charlie Palmer, the banquettes had been constructed so far beneath the tables that customers practically needed phone books to reach their meals. At Fish, an oceanic-theme restaurant in Aventura, the wobbly barstools and chairs, which sat on little springs, posed some difficulties, says chef-proprietor Michael Schwartz. “People would get drunk and fall off. Then they'd try to sue us.” Both restaurants are now defunct, but not because of lawsuits.
Indeed Schwartz, who also owns Nemo and Big Pink, admits Fish had other design/décor problems that had nothing to do with chairs that dumped inebriated customers on their Armani-clad asses. “Everything was blue: the floors, the walls, the bar,” he recalls. “We found out later that blue is subliminally unappetizing. People say not to use the color blue in restaurants, especially for plates.”
Robbin Haas agrees, despite the fact that he serves chilled seafood on blue glass plates. But he argues that the translucence of his plates makes the difference. “When you use deep, dark plates, it's hard to get fingerprints off. Plus cobalt plates don't show food well. You learn that the best plates are the less busy ones with a white base.”
Customers, of course, couldn't tell you that a negative feeling about a particular restaurant came from its plates. Nor would they be able to say that they found the color green equally disturbing. But many designers, such as Stephane Dupoux from the firm Sculptors of Space, have an unwritten rule to never use greenish hues in a dining room. Dupoux, who designed The Strand, Café Tabac, and Opium, among other places, claims “green makes people's faces look white. You'll be looking at the woman across the table from you, and she'll have a white face, and you'll be thinking “Do I look that bad?” Good colors to use? Those that complement skin tone, such as orange, pink, amber, red, and purple.
Lighting, too, is an issue. The whole idea is to make diners look as appetizing as their dinners, apparently. That's why uplighting (those that shine up from the floor) is better than downlighting (those that hang from the ceiling), explains Haas, “because it doesn't cast shadows or turn people ghoulish.” Schwartz also takes lighting to heart. His ostrich-egg lamps, designed by Carl Myers of the now-dissolved firm Studiolido, are Nemo's pride and joy. (Myers now works for Noble House and designed Baleen.) Made from real, blown-out ostrich eggs, the lamps simply glow, “making anyone look good,” Schwartz notes. Plus, he theorizes, the egg shape subconsciously appeals to people because it's so elemental, not to mention universally recognized.
Still, designers often don't have much choice when it comes to dealing with design taboos. While Dupoux says most owners will give him free creative rein, others have specific ideas. For instance at the Mojito Room, a bar in the Amnesia building that Dupoux designed, the proprietors insisted on a green theme to reflect the color of that rum-and-mint cocktail. Thus the bar is frosted Plexiglas underlit with green neon. “It makes you look bad,” Dupoux notes sadly. He's also struggling with the old South Beach Brasserie space, soon to be Touch of South Beach, which he is restoring to its former Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall glory, in accordance with historical preservation guidelines. After uncovering the “very busy Cuban-tile floor,” he discovered that the most logical choice for the walls would be green. “But we're being subtle,” he insists.
On the flip side, many proprietors and chefs don't trust designers to make the big -- or miniscule -- decisions that will influence the clientele. Though he scored a success with Carl Myers's work on Nemo, Schwartz was less happy with Myers's design for Big Pink, whose Plexiglas tables are as vibrant as a rock star's dyed hair. “It does set a mood,” Schwartz concedes. “The pink is fun, and we want kids to feel comfortable. But the Plexiglas is horrible; overall it's a cheesy design.” Myers also designed the ill-fated Fish, which marked the end of the pair's collaboration.
Myers says he doesn't like to follow formulas. “When people create definitive rules, they miss out on opportunies,” he claims. He will acknowledege, however, that he's perfectly willing to indulge in whimsy. “Love it or hate it,” he says about his designs, “all I want is a reaction.”
Of course, most restaurateurs want the customers' reactions to be positive. To that end some choose to do the designing themselves. Jan Jorgensen and Soren Bredahl of Two Chefs delved deep into feng shui, the Chinese art of placement, when arranging their space. “Round things make people relax, while sharp corners make people on edge,” explains Jorgensen. “In the dining room, everything from the chandeliers to the backs of the chairs is round. But in the kitchen, we have a lot of sharp edges to keep everyone on their toes.” He laughs but he's also quite serious. “Even the flow of the restaurant, from the bar to the dining room to the kitchen, is like a circle.”
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Flow, apparently, is something that not enough restaurateurs consider when they want to open a new eatery. Architect Charles Benson, who designed Parrilla del Polo, describes flow as transition from one part of the restaurant to another. “You don't want interruptions,” he says, whether they be by service areas or staircases or tiny hallways. He cites the space at 530 Ocean Dr. as a flow problem, since it features steps leading from the bar to the dining room, which itself has “no headroom.” When you're a restaurateur, Benson says, you have to take into account the “dimensions of the space, the restrictions and encroachments into the space, not to mention the infrastructure -- the plumbing, electric, even the approaches from the street.” All these elements, Benson points out, can disturb the dining experience when not handled properly.
Flow is so important that Robbin Haas convinced Noble House not only to redecorate Baleen (formerly Mark's at Grove Isle) when he took it over but to virtually reposition it. Previously to find the entrance to the restaurant, you had to wend your way through hallways and walk past meeting rooms. Now gutted and rebuilt, Baleen has its own private entryway. “We didn't want just lipstick and rouge. The restaurant had to have its own identity,” Haas emphasizes. Still, “we didn't want it too trendy. A simple black dress will always be in style.” The compromise -- stylish but not boring, thanks to a monkey theme throughout -- seems to be working well enough to allow Haas and Noble House to open two more Baleens, the first to debut in San Diego on October 1.
By the same design standards, insiders can also predict which restaurants will make it -- and which might not succeed -- based on their designs. “The [Blue Door at the] Delano is really beautiful, with a big creative force behind it,” Schwartz offers. On the other hand, Dupoux, who currently is redesigning the flow for Pearl, a 7000-square-foot eatery that will open in the Penrod's complex, notes that “Bambú has bad flow. It's a difficult space to work with.”
Bambú's walls are sort of a greenish color. Together the two elements could portend a fate à la Aquaterra and Fish. Or they could be nothing more than designers' superstition. But chances are it won't be the customer who's able to tell.