From Drab to Fab: Disparate elements merge in thoughtful restaurant design

Restaurant design is a lot more complicated than finding a location, choosing a theme and acquiring fixtures and furnishings. It requires space planning for proper flow so the establishment runs with the minimum amount of labor intensity and the maximum amount of efficiency. The front and the back of the house must work together seamlessly … even if they are designed by different parties.

The design must look good and work well while complying with all health department and other legally mandated regulations. In fact, “some of the main issues to be concerned with in restaurant design pertain to the [Americans With Disabilities Act],” said Robert Hertel, certified executive chef, certified culinary educator and assistant professor at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park. The ADA mandates specific standards for accessible design. “Make sure you’ve properly planned for entrances, exits and restrooms,” cautioned Hertel.
In some cases the restaurant is contained in a larger structure, such as a shopping mall or a hotel, where the building code requirements have already been met. New construction and rehab projects give the restaurant developer a little more creative control.

Legal and functional considerations aside, the design of a restaurant plays a critical role in attracting and keeping customers. Generally, the owner and interior designer will work closely together to create an ambiance that appeals to the target clientele.

According to Margie Weintraub, instructor of commercial and residential interior design at St. Louis Community College–Meramec and principal of Margaret Weintraub Interiors, “There are three keys to consider when designing a restaurant. … First, determine the physical qualities of the space, then design according to aesthetic preferences – consider theme, color and style. The bottom line is always cost, so understand all of the above, then factor in financial considerations and make trade-offs if necessary.” At three recently opened restaurants – An American Place, Sassafras and Savor – restaurateurs and designers approached these considerations thoughtfully, and as a result each project has its own personality.

Physical qualities of the space

When embarking on a renovation of Sassafras, the café at the Missouri Botanical Garden, “We began with the idea of bringing the outdoors in,” explained interior designer Nancy Sauerhoff, principal of NLS Design. “The wall of windows to the outside patio was already there; we wanted to carry the theme further into the space.” To achieve its goal, the garden engaged architects Kimble Cohn & Partners, who in turn recruited Sauerhoff. Together, they worked very closely with Peggy Lents, director of communication for the garden and primary liaison to the board.

The design team added a second skylight to echo the existing one in the Garden Gate Shop, visible below through a wall of interior windows from Sassafras’ location on the second floor of the Ridgway Center.

They also reconfigured the layout, breaking the large space into several more intimate seating areas. Banquettes were added for booth seating and to soften the acoustics. Previously, the restaurant was filled with hard surfaces that contributed to a cold and noisy atmosphere. The stamped and dyed concrete floor was left in the passageways of the new design but stripped of its high gloss and roughened for a more natural-appearing texture The new two-tone green carpeting in the seating areas was custom designed by the manufacturer to specs provided by Sauerhoff.

A little way to the north in the Central West End is Savor, at 4356 Lindell Blvd., housed in an 80-year-old structure that last served as a funeral home. The restaurant was conceived as a unique destination for world cuisine by proprietor Jonathan Schoen; his father, Dennis, an architect and developer; and executive chef Kirk Warner.

The first step was reworking the building to accommodate the traffic patterns and flow of a restaurant. Walls were opened up to provide new doorways, and hallways were reconfigured. A two-story addition on the back of the building now houses the kitchen and bar on the ground floor and the Flim Flam Theatre (for magic performances and corporate events) on the second level. Every utility in the building is brand new, and the sprinkler system is retrofitted.

Compared to their comrades at those two projects, the restaurateurs at An American Place, at the corner of Ninth Street and Washington Avenue, had it easy – the restaurant space was already designed as part of the renovation of the former Gateway-Statler Hotel. Originally completed in October 1917 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the structure is now part of the St. Louis Renaissance Grand Hotel.

Using original drawings by the building’s architect, George W. Post, for guidance, the restoration team painstakingly recreated the original splendor of the two-story, elegant lobby. Among the most dramatic elements of the space are the 150-foot-long vaulted ceiling embellished with elaborate bas-relief friezes, 12 soaring Botticino marble columns with ornate capitals, rusticated marble interior walls, five immense light fixtures that were replicated from historic photographs and the gleaming brass railing around the balcony.

Aesthetic preferences

Because the overall look was already in place, the remaining design choices at An American Place were made by the restaurant’s management team, including chef Larry Forgione and his business partner, Jeff Parrott. According to Erin Keplinger, assistant general manager of An American Place, they focused on appointments that would both complement the classic elegance of the room and create a unique identity. To bridge the distance between past and present, they selected very contemporary and geometric table settings as a counterpoint to the elaborate room.

Each table is set with a square silver candleholder and silver chargers (which are removed when appetizers are served); plates are heavy, square and white; flatware is hammered silver in a “swizzle stick” design. Servers wear navy trousers, white Oxford shirts with French cuffs and gold brocade vests. Their dusty-aqua neckties match the floor-to-ceiling draperies in the dining room.

Sassafras also relies on history for its decorative theme. The café was renamed to commemorate the sassafras grove that stood on the grounds when garden founder Henry Shaw built his country home there in the mid 1800s. Dr. Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, personally approved the new logo to ensure an authentic depiction of the correct species. Sassafras’ signature graphic, a beautiful botanical print from the Missouri Botanical Garden’s rare book collection, hangs just inside the entrance to the café.

Determined to use environmentally friendly materials, the design team at Sassafras found a variety of products that combine beauty with durability. Tabletops and divider walls are surfaced in a biocomposite material made from recycled paper and agricultural alfalfa. Walls are accented in cork, harvested from the tree in a manner similar to the way wool is sheared from sheep; the tree is never cut and its habitat remains undisturbed.

When it was time to bring in an interior designer at Savor, Dennis Schoen recommended Diane Zebell, a member of the American Society of Interior Designers and principal of Diane Zebell Style, whose assignment was to literally bring a building back from the dead. “We had worked together before, and he felt I’d be a good fit,” she explained. “We both approach projects from a perspective of innovation and invention – what can we do to be different than anything else like this?”

Jonathon Schoen’s direction was simple: He wanted “a unique, fun, trendy restaurant and bar,” said Zebell. “I’ve been fortunate to work with clients who share my mindset and allow me to create and fabricate. I gravitate toward projects where these are desired and valued skills.”

The menu was her inspiration and drove the entire design. “Basically there are four colors in the palette: wasabi, nutmeg/squash, red lacquer and copper. We used metallic paint for dramatic effect throughout the building; there are no white ceilings and every room has a shimmery quality plus at least one visual surprise for guests to discover,” she said.

A signature fixture was inspired by a photo she came across. Zebell proposed: “What if we could create this Asian-style lantern with the Savor logo and hang beaded tassels from the four corners but make it in grand scale 4 feet tall so it would fit above the grand entrance to the building?”

She drew a picture, got approval and undertook the complicated task. Along the way she enlisted an ironworker, a lighting expert and a bead supplier who all got very involved the creative process. To achieve her vision, Diane strung the beads and assembled the four enormous tassels in her own workshop. “The finished piece showcases the logo identity and also signals guests that something different will be experienced here,” she explained.

The bottom line

As so often happens with a gut rehab, the budget at Savor continued to escalate as the concept developed. Zebell and Dennis Schoen fabricated various elements of the décor – partly to achieve the exact look they wanted and partly because it was more cost effective. For example, the magnificent Venetian glass chandelier in the small front dining room was old, dusty and clear when it was discovered at a shop. They cleaned it up, and it was painted red to fit
Zebell’s palette.

At An American Place, the already - completed $270 million hotel renovation didn’t burden the incoming management. They had only to choose the table appointments and server attire, so they chose what they liked without consideration of cost.

Sauerhoff said that the Sassafras team was given financial parameters they worked within. One thing that helped them meet their budget was their ability to ask vendors for “civic pricing” on materials because of the garden’s status as a nonprofit institution.

Each design project must be approached on an individual basis. Whether a restaurateur works with a designer or not and no matter the establishment’s price point,
consideration must be given to each detail that customers will encounter. From the menu covers to the type of flooring to the soap in the bathroom, every element combines to contribute to the overall dining experience.