One of America’s great chefs is also a kleptomaniac. Gavin Kaysen, owner of Twin Cities eateries Bellecour and Spoon and Stable, likes to steal spoons from the best restaurants around the world. His thievery is neither mindless nor malicious. Rather, he liberates the cutlery to serve as a fond reminder of his mentors and the special places where he’s cooked and eaten. He took a spoon from Paul Bocuse when he dined in the kitchen there. In 2005, he pilfered a spoon from Café Boulud, not knowing he’d eventually become chef de cuisine there. His hobby would eventually lead to a central design element (and part of the name) of Spoon and Stable: a piece of driftwood upon which a selection of his collection is mounted.
Until recently, this kind of detail in restaurant design wasn’t common. Building a restaurant requires a lot of capital in a business where margins are razor-thin. Many eateries are bootstrapped by chefs who, while creative in the kitchen, are light in the wallet. Design budgets suffer all too often in service to food and hospitality.
Even when restaurateurs have money, they tend to replicate what’s worked in the past. For many years, good design basically meant a smattering of reclaimed wood, some exposed brick and a chalkboard menu. “We were one of the first to do that look back in 2005, and at the time it was creative,” notes Adam Farmerie, principal and founder of New York City design firm AvroKO. “But eventually there is mimicry and Disneyfication of the idea, and it gets stale.”
Firms like AvroKO, Minneapolis-based Shea (which designed Spoon and Stable), and Chicago-based Studio K are revolutionizing restaurant design, creating rich multilayered experiences that are almost as crucial to an eatery’s identity as what’s leaving the kitchen.
“Going out to eat is the new night event for people; we are the dinner and the show,” says Kaysen. “But if the space has no energy and no soul, why go back?”
Shea principal Tanya Spaulding echoes this sentiment: “In Europe, we go out with our friends and might commandeer a table for five hours,” she explains. “In the United States, they’re always turning tables. But that’s changing; now dining is also entertainment.”
A lot of new design is based in what Farmerie calls “hospitable thinking,” the idea that design can make guests feel unthreatened and reduce their anxiety. Designers often start with a focus on the transition from outside to in. At Spoon and Stable, for example, there’s a roll-up garage door, which conveys the restaurant’s conviviality and makes you want to join the party.
At GT Prime, a Chicago steakhouse designed by Studio K founder Karen Herold, the aesthetic is that of a magical hunting lodge set amidst a forest. The gigantic front door looks like it’s straight out of Harry Potter, something that might allow entrée into Hagrid’s house. The first time you see it, you wonder what lies inside.
Kevin Boehm, partner in Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group (which has tapped both AvroKO and Studio K), believes increased competition and changing attitudes require a new approach to design. “We live in an ADD world,” he says. “People flip through photos, stories and songs with staggering speed. Creating layers aesthetically within our spaces keeps people interested. It’s deceptively intoxicating, and we think it keeps people coming back.”
It’s no secret that attention spans are short in the age of social media. People are consuming content in real time and shifting their focus every second. Which begs the question: If a restaurant’s design isn’t Instagram-worthy, will people even know it exists?
Generational shifts and food television have also played a role in dictating modern approaches to restaurant design. Millennials love transparency, and because so many people tune in to cooking shows, they like to see how the sausage is made. “That’s why we have a lot of open kitchens, like at Spoon and Stable,” notes Shea founder David Shea. “People like to see you making the pain au chocolat. We like to lift the veil.” At Minneapolis’s World Street Kitchen, another of the firm’s creations, you can sit at the tasting counter and watch the lamb belly get griddled or the lemongrass meatballs get rolled.
The aesthetic at Momotaro in Chicago, an AvroKO design for Boka Restaurant Group, is inspired by the Japanese salaryman, an idealized version of the businessmen who shaped the country into a modern-day financial juggernaut. The menu, for example, features yearbook-style photos of corporate workers. The bill of fare is delivered in an interdepartmental mail envelope stamped with Japanese characters. And the back-bar menu is designed to look like a vintage Tokyo stock-exchange trading board.
The walls within the bathroom area are adorned with 991,000 individual pen strokes done by local art students, an homage to the obsessiveness of the Japanese salaryman. This ink-stallation also doubles as a tongue-in-cheek nod to bathroom graffiti. The downstairs bar, Izakaya, features a vintage Japanese payphone. You’ll probably notice it on your first visit, but you likely won’t realize that if you pick it up and listen, you’ll hear prerecorded snippets of Japanese conversation.
Rose. Rabbit. Lie., a Las Vegas supper club designed by AvroKO, features Gatsby-esque finishes and makes you feel as if you’re dining in the manse of a jazz-age millionaire. Bugs and butterflies encased in glass in one room suggest that this particular tycoon was a dilettante entomologist.
AvroKO has multidisciplinary teams, made up of architects, interior designers and graphic designers who study the work of behavioral psychologists and scour bookstores and libraries for inspiration. Farmerie says the firm’s approach is grounded in the Bauhausian principle of Gesamtkunstwerk, or looking at a design as a total work of art.
“We like to say we work from dirt to spoon, meaning that from the breaking of the ground to when the first spoon is laid on the table, we handle everything in between,” he notes. “We do a lot of research, watch a lot of films and read a lot of books. We live in a Pinterest age, but — not to sound like an angry old man, because I’m not that old — mood boards are just making choices based on aesthetic. If the design is not driven by a more artful point of view, it loses something.”
AvroKO also puts its money where its mouth is, creating and operating its own restaurants and bars, like New York City’s Ghost Donkey and Saxon + Parole, where the team tests many of its design theories. In one experiment, they watched how diners reacted when neighboring tables were placed nine, 12, 15 and 24 inches apart. It turns out the ideal table spacing is somewhere between 12 and 15 inches.
Shea starts before the dirt, helping restaurateurs write their business plans, scout locations and select real estate, something the firm did for Spoon and Stable. “We talk more people out of opening restaurants than into opening them,” says Shea. “We don’t want to see our clients fail, so we make sure they understand everything about the business before they start.”
There’s a saying that you can eat your worries away. Which is to say that gorging on a fabulous multicourse meal or lingering over a masterful pastry can help you forget the evils of the world. The fastidiousness of these designers adds another layer to that idea. Which is to say that when you enter the restaurant worlds created by these firms, they can be so transformative, so escapist that you almost feel like you’ve become someone else: a friend of a jazz-age tycoon or a hunter of magical beasts. You might even find yourself a little disappointed when you step out onto the curb after your meal. But, more likely, you’ll be grateful for the fantastical experience.
Dialogue, which opened last year in Santa Monica, California, is poised to become one of America’s best restaurants. Chef Dave Beran, formerly of Chicago’s Alinea and Next, serves a menu that evokes the emotion of the season, riffing on things like the memory of the smell of his mom’s chamomile tea or the tang of classic French onion soup served in the form of a deep-fried croquette brûléed with Gruyere cheese that bursts with soup when you bite into it. Sweet courses don’t come only at the end of the meal but instead are woven between savory courses, a neat trick that keeps the palate interested. You have to punch in a secret code to gain entry to the eatery, which is located on the second floor of a food court above an ice-cream shop. There are a lot of iconoclastic things going on at Dialogue, but one of the quirkiest is a gold spoon mounted on a piece of wood that hangs over the kitchen pass near the tasting bar.
It’s a gift from Gavin Kaysen and his brother, Sean. Beran and Gavin developed a friendship working together on the global culinary competition Bocuse d’Or. Beran was an admirer of Sean’s craftsmanship at Spoon and Stable and asked him to do some of the woodwork at Dialogue. As a friend of Gavin’s, Beran knew he needed to keep a close eye on his spoons. Despite his vigilance, he discovered he was short one after Sean completed the job. He called Gavin, saying,
“I know you took the spoon. I need it back; we only have 20 of them.”
A few weeks later, Beran got his spoon back, but it was mounted on a piece of wood trim left over from the Spoon and Stable buildout. Beran decided to hang the work of art in his new eatery. “Gavin and Sean are very good friends of ours,” he notes. “Gavin is someone who I have always looked to for advice, both personally and professionally. It’s an honor to have a piece of his restaurant in mine.”