What good is design? You can’t serve it on the rocks and you can’t put in on the menu. But design can help your business in ways that are as intangible as ambiance and as concrete as where to put the beer taps.
“A good designer integrates all of the owner’s I wants and What I can affords and gives the public something they cannot live without,” says Bob Puccini, a former in-house designer for the Kimpton Group of hotels and restaurants, who now works for clients around the world (including Kimpton) through his own San Francisco-based Puccini Restaurant Group. “There are no rules. You simply do what it takes to win.”
Design may be the single most important factor in determining the personality of a bar. It can create a mood, flesh out a concept, play variations on a theme. But it can also help with the nuts-and-bolts of an operation, by maximizing the efficiency of beverage service while also maintaining an effective flow of customers in, around and through the bar area.
“The primary goal has to be to increase sales,” says Brian Moore, president of the Burlington, Massachusetts-based U.S. division of Sonas Design, a company based in Dublin, Ireland that has worked for clients around the world, including Sheraton and Marriott. “More foot traffic means more customers means more profit.”
Seeking the advice of a designer or an architect who offers design services may be more important than ever for the bar business, and not just for aesthetic reasons. The legal demands upon bar layout are more complicated, assuring compliance with the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), and keeping up with the growing movement to restrict smoking in bars and restaurants. “One design feature that is becoming increasingly important, at least in some states, is air-handling equipment that limits secondhand smoke to the bar area alone,” says Joe Durocher, co-author of “Successful Restaurant Design” (Wiley & Sons).
Big City, Small Town
The need for strong design extends well beyond New York, Los Angeles, Washington and San Francisco, where creativity and budgets sometimes seem unlimited. There is a growing demand across the country for more exciting and evocative interiors, reaching beyond major urban areas to smaller markets like Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and Boise, Idaho.
“The consumer is much more sophisticated,” says Gregory Stanford, an interior designer with Rockwell Group, the New York company headed by David Rockwell that has done such major restaurants as Nobu and Vong in New York City. “Look at residential design now, and what people are doing in their homes. There are many more shelter magazines than there were 10 years ago. The consumer recognizes good design.”
At the moment, the major trends of the ’90s continue to dominate, even as designers are, as always, finding new ways to follow them. The biggest trend in bar and restaurant design coming out of New York in the past decade was “the big wow,” a high-wattage theatricality whose champion, David Rockwell, rejected the very rubric. “You want to create an environment that’s unique. You want it to be a memorable experience,” says Stanford. “But you don’t want a onetime Broadway show “Wow.” It has to be something that people come back to again and again.”
One of Rockwell’s recent projects, Citarella restaurant in NYC’s Rockefeller Center, demonstrates the effectiveness of a strong, but restrained impression. A subtle marine-life theme splashes throughout the elegant décor of this seafood restaurant, which opened last fall. In the large bar area, for example, bits of oyster shells and mother of pearl have been embedded in the terrazzo floor.
At the other end of the design and budget spectrum has been a sensibility that’s almost anti-theatrical: the growing popularity of lounges, low-wattage places that encourage sprawling, often through the use of couches and easy chairs. But even here, while working on spaces that are not meant to be flashy, designers are finding a way to be distinctive.
When Fred Sutherland worked up The Well, which opened last summer in Hollywood, a hotbed of new bars and restaurants, he decided to tweak the lounge effect. Most of the bar is outfitted in dark tones, but one corner is a pink plaster playground with black, patent-leather upholstery. Sutherland, who has worked on dozens of Los Angeles bar and restaurant spaces brand-new or born-again for his Venice, California-based Fredco company, thinks design is making The Well stand out in a crowd of clubs by drawing a diverse clientele. “We get first-time drinkers who like to get dressed up in nice clothes. We get rockers. We get fashion designers. We get young producers looking for girls. You try to create an environment that blends them all together.”
No one really knows how recent economic difficulties or terrorist attacks may affect the style of bars and restaurants, but there may be a move toward places that offer a measure of comfort. That might come in the form of a warm, inviting, upscale neighborhood hangout, which might be represented at the very highest end of that scale by a restaurant named Craft that opened last spring in NYC.
The Long Island firm of Bentel & Bentel handled the Craft interiors, which manage to be posh and understated at the same time. Behind the bar of this one-level restaurant sit two floors of wine storage in glass-front cabinets. Each of the 3,600 bottles on display has been laid down and “cradled in stainless steel mesh,” says Peter Bentel. “Somebody described it to me as lingerie for wine bottles.” Even though Bentel calls this a “back bar on steroids,” the display has, like the bar and restaurant that surround it, a quiet elegance through earth tones and discreet lighting.
Regardless of the style or the theme or the character of a place, designers have to keep practical considerations in mind, and that means dealing with the bar business at a time when operations have become more complex. Around the country, there’s a triple whammy of increased attention to wine service by the glass, a resurgence of interest in cocktails and greater selection of beer and that can mean a lot of bottles, glasses and taps. On top of this space crunch, many bars need to accommodate lunch and dinner service as well, which leads to deeper bar tops and bar chairs with backs.
“It all takes up space,” says Teri D’Amico, who has handled bar and restaurant projects in Miami, the Caribbean and NYC for her North Miami-based Teri D’Amico Interiors. “That’s why it’s so important to know what the philosophy of a place is going to be before we start designing. We can emphasize anything once we know what’s required.”
For 22 Bowen, a waterfront restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, an emphasis on wine became the driving force behind the bar layout. Customers sit at a V-shaped counter and face a glass-walled room filled with white wine that’s being refrigerated. “It’s very visible,” says Morris Nathanson of Morris Nathanson Design in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, which did the restaurant. “Wine sales are quite large. And a bartender controls all the wine, so it saves the expense of a steward.”
The increased focus on wine presents a visual opportunity through the use of specialized glassware. “Stemware makes a beautiful display,” says Nathanson. “When you design a back bar with mirrors and glass shelving for stemware, and then light it properly, this becomes as beautiful as a crystal chandelier.” And, says Moore, the more sophisticated presentation of wine appeals to women: “It fits a female notion of style — drinking a nice glass of wine from a special glass — like a guy holding a beer fits a male notion of style.”
King Cocktail Rules
The return of cocktail culture has created a population crisis on the backbar. “There used to be a half-dozen vodkas to display,” says Puccini. “Now there are vodkas that have a half-dozen brands within brands. It’s amazing.” At The Well, Sutherland made the back bar — or, in this case, the center bar, since the counter forms a square — a focal point for the whole room by placing the spirits on a tower of glass. “I back-lit it, I up-lit it, I lit it from every direction,” he says. “The bottles of liquor and the glasses are floating on shelves that go 40 inches high.”
At Town, a bar/restaurant in New York City that’s part of boutique hotel Chambers, the demand for cocktails made designers rethink their approach to the back bar. “We had a vision for a minimalist treatment, having a very small inventory of selected vodkas or whatever that the chef chose to accentuate,” says Stanford, who was part of the Rockwell team on the project. “The truth is it doesn’t work that way. If somebody wants a [name-brand vodka] Gimlet, they want a Gimlet, and you can’t say no. So every conceivable brand of liquor is back there now.”
The treatment of beer is more complicated, because fluctuations in sales have made designers cautious, especially those who don’t think tap handles are an attractive element. For Blue Smoke, a New York barbecue restaurant that Bentel & Bentel is creating for restaurateur Danny Meyer, the number of draft beers will be limited to six, and they’ll be dispensed through a beer tower without using branded tap handles. A larger selection of bottled beers will be highlighted in galvanized-steel bins on the back bar. “Blue Smoke is supposed to be down and funky,” says Bentel, “so we want the associations that come with cold, sweaty bottles.”
In every situation, designers look to owners for guidance: what will be the tone or style or feeling of the place? What will be served and how will it be served? Then, the designer puts it all together. At Deep, a Hollywood bar with a small menu, the owner wanted the look to be “decadent Berlin before the second world war, sort of ‘life is a cabaret’,” says Sutherland. The back bar furthers this theme, while also being functional. Along with liquor bottles and a painting of a nude woman looking over her shoulder, there are large two-way mirrors that provide a view of a room where women dance in lingerie. “I tried to be sexy and sleazy,” says the designer, “without being pornographic.”
Your business may not experience the same competitive pressure as Deep, which is located in a neighborhood where more than three dozen bars and restaurants are going for the trendy gold. But design can help you survive in a field where change is a constant. And it doesn’t always have to include major bells and whistles at a cost of thousands. Says Moore, “You’d be amazed at what a lick of paint will do.”
Ron Givens writes about beverages and restaurants for the New York Daily News, among other publications.