First-timers walking into San Francisco’s LoongBar from the courtyard of touristy Ghirardelli Square are instantly transported to another world. They encounter a seductively lit bar and lounge festooned with Asian artifacts and antiques. Elegant, even grandiose. LoongBar is based on cuisines of China, Japan, Indonesia and Southeast Asia. But the setting of the bar and restaurant are as much about drama and flair as about food and beverage, offering as it does a sensual and specific representation of the East.
Bar Louie, one of the Restaurant Development Group’s premier Chicago operations, makes a splash with distinct mosaics, murals and lighting effects.
The visual excitement of celebrity chef Mark Miller’s menu is fully reflected in the decor and design. To the right of the entrance, a darkened, intimate mezzanine bar offers sweeping views of the San Francisco Bay. Over the rail, there’s a view of the dramatic dining room. With its 40 foot-tall ceiling and dragon-bestrewn decor (Loong is the Chinese character for dragon) there’s no mistaking the well-defined character of LoongBar.
How is such a distinct and dramatic personality successfully achieved? By having a clear vision.
“It’s important to have a vision of not just the whole restaurant, but of the function you want the bar to serve,” says Stephen Jones, of SF Jones-Architects, Inc., Marina del Ray. “Do you want the bar to be a place that customers stop in for a drink on the way to dinner, or do you want it to have a life beyond the restaurant? And if so, what kind of environment do you want to create? It’s important to be clear on this point. A bar with intimate booths will attract a very different crowd than one where people want to see and be seen.”
Jones knows this topic well. He has designed such LA hot spots as BarFly, The Hump, and La Maison du Cigar, as well as David Paul’s Diamond Head Grill in Honolulu.
He’s currently working on a new spot, Buzz, in Newport Beach. “This place is all about angles,” Jones says. “The bar is kind of like a three-pointed star, a triangle with the two ends curved in. This is a place that people will come to check each other out. Behind the bar will be a large staircase, so no matter where you are in this bar, you can see everything that is going on in the place. The strategy behind the bar is to provide people with a place where they can be out on the scene and meet people.”
For the LoongBar venture, Mark Miller teamed up with Real Restaurants. “LoongBar is meant to be striking, mysterious and provocative,” says Bill Higgins, co-founder of Real Restaurants. “We had a very clear vision of our concept when designing this space. The bar is elegant, dark and candlelit, with various organic forms. We designed the bar area to have a life of its own.”
And that’s one of the most important strategies to address when designing bar space–the specific function of the bar in relation to the rest of the establishment.
There’s no set formula in regards to concept. “Creating an environment is vital to the type of business you want to do,” says Bill Higgins. “Design to the crowd you want to attract. If you want a gentleman’s club, a long wooden bar works; P.J. Clarke’s in New York is a perfect example of this. If you want a trendy place, you can take more risks. Think about what your clientele is drinking–are they chugging beer or sipping Martinis?”
Form Follows Function
In order for a designer to bring the owner’s vision successfully to fruition, two important factors must be understood: a clear idea of the concept and exactly who the clientele will be. Having communicated this, the owner must also keep his eye on the functionality of the design. Let the designer work with the form, but the owner is responsible for making sure the space is functional for the customers and the staff.
“First and foremost, the bar has to be comfortable for the customer,” says Doug “Bix” Biederbeck, co-owner of BIX in San Francisco. “Management tends to view things from behind the bar, and designers usually concentrate on the form and design scheme. The two views tend to forget how it feels for the customer.”
Biederbeck knows what he’s talking about. After years as manager of the famous Fog City Diner, he joined forces with Real Restaurants to open BIX, created for diners longing for the affluence and elegance of circa-1930s supper clubs. Tucked in an alleyway at the edge of the San Francisco Financial District, BIX helped set the national standard for modern-day supper clubs and was instrumental in the Martini renaissance.
“There are several key factors,” he explains. “The depth of the bar is the first thing to consider–does it allow the customer to dine as well as drink at the bar? Then, consider the rail or the edge closest to the customer. It should have a worn, well-rounded feel as opposed to a hard edge, because that’s where the customer leans, and it should be an easy grab, as simple as possible.”
“Bar stool and bar rail height are another key factor,” he continues. “There are standards that most bars follow, but you always want to make sure that your bar rail height works with the bar stools you’ve chosen. The stool itself should be easily moveable, not too heavy. You don’t want customers sitting down and then having to drag themselves awkwardly forward.
The finish of the bar is also a critical issue. “Make sure you use something that holds up well to abuse. We use a conversion varnish with a bulletproof finish. It’s a two-part varnish made by Sherwin Williams that meets environmental standards.”
And don’t forget the bartender. “You want to have the bartender not too close, but not too far away either,” says Biederbeck. “Don’t have so little space behind the bar that the customer feels crowded by the bartender. But don’t make him have to work to get a drink either.”
Moving beyond the physicality of the bar, recognition of traffic patterns and personal space is vital to a cohesive design. Roger Greenfield, president of Chicago’s Restaurant Development Group, advises restaurateurs to plan aggressively when it comes to space. “We opened a neighborhood bar, Bar Louie, and it become packed immediately,” he says. “What we learned is that it’s wiser to plan for success than to be cautious.”
And it’s not just the crowd, but their traffic patterns that need to be considered as well. “The flow of the room, especially a bar with a singles crowd, needs to feel natural, not forced,” says Greenfield. “The room has to be conducive to people walking around, seeing the rest of the crowd. It should also be simple for anyone in the room to be able to get a drink.”
But not all bars cater to the crowds looking for long sightlines that ease scoping out the room. “A bar should be a place that attracts people,” says Warren Platner, the designer of the most recent ’21’ Club renovation. “It should be a cozy place, a snug place. In fact, in some parts of the world bars are called ‘snugs’.”
“A bar is a place where people enjoy conviviality, but not necessarily in crowds. It should have a feeling of enclosure, and a character determined by intention, clientele, and location. Bars are very traditional by nature; the proliferation of bottles, reflections of glass, and the bar itself is reassuring to people because it suggests a certain substance and consistency.”
Bill Higgins is a believer in “the proliferation of bottles. My bars always have a lot of product showing,” he says. “I believe in the power of suggestion. Our bars tend to have anything you can imagine. A successful bar has to make a commitment for the space to have an extensive back bar. The last thing you want a customer to hear is the word ‘no’.”
Bar design encompasses not only the vision of the owner, the artistry of the designer, and the experience of the customer, but the functionality for the staff as well.
“Be creative and organized with your space,” advises Biederbeck. “Behind the bar is not just a work area, it’s a work space that is exposed to the customer.”
“The layout of the bar has to be efficient,” says architect Jones. “You don’t want a cocktail waitress pickup station placed where people hang out. Also, bartenders need to have easy access to the POS station so they can see what orders are coming up.”
“Always design the bar space so that you have plenty of storage space for beer coolers, refrigerators, and wine for back-up,” advises Roger Greenfield. “Other aspects to keep in mind include how many wells you need, your glassware and service areas.”
The design of Bar Louie’s second operation in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, left and above, differs slightly from the original, but incorporates the same motifs.
In the design of Pat Kuleto’s Farallon in SF, bar manager Michael Musil was able to bring his expertise from years at Boulevard–another of Pat Kuleto’s establishments.
“After spending time at Boulevard and re-working our behind-the-bar set-up until we found the system that worked best for us,” he explains, “it was great to have input as to what our set-up would be when Farallon opened.”
“We learned to design the back bar space around labor, which is your number one controllable cost. We create an environment for the bartender to succeed. If they can be efficient in what they do behind the bar, they’ll be good at servicing their customers.”
In designing the back bar, he says, many factors go into the mix: product placement and efficient well-placement, among others. Also, he advises that an operation’s most important beverage gets priority in the set-up. “If you have an extensive wine-by-the-glass program, allow space for the bottles and the glassware. The same goes for cognac and other after dinner drinks–if you sell a lot, make sure the glassware is stocked nearby.”
“A well-designed bar is like directing a movie,” says Musil. “You have a set designer and a producer, but the director has to keep a clear vision of how it’s all going to work.”
“A bar that is successfully designed and operated can establish itself in a way that others can’t,” says ’21’s Warren Platner. “People will gravitate to it because of its own distinct personality.”
That, and the personality behind the bar, according to Biederbeck. “A well-designed bar is crucial,” he says, “but remember that no bar design can compete without a knowledgeable bartender. If he doesn’t know how to shake a Martini, and doesn’t know his wine and spirits then the design is wasted. This business is about the customers, and the people who serve them.”
Executives at Plano, TX-based Metromedia, operators of the Bennigan’s chain, took a step back recently to refine the dining saloon’s design.
Bennigan’s concept is based on the story of an Irish immigrant who opened a saloon in a former Chicago bank, pairing a varied menu with Irish hospitality. To this day, Bennigan’s still has the profile of a bank building, with the bank front and rounded swinging doors. So why change a formula that has worked?
According to Rod Downey, senior vice president of business process and operational work flows, “We wanted to give Bennigan’s more distinctiveness, and bring in more of a feeling of heritage. We have patrons who come in for a bar experience, and we have those who come in for a dining experience. We’re looking to optimize both experiences.”
Instead of the traditional Proto 7 design, which places the bar in the center of the operations, Bennigan’s execs went with a new design (Proto 10) that uses a glass divider behind the bar back as the divider between the restaurant and the bar. “With this approach,” he explains, “we can still keep the bar atmosphere in the restaurant without disrupting the dining experience.”
“With our first Proto 10 location in Arvada, Colorado (near Denver), we learned several things,” he says. “One, that those customers who are there for the dining experience still like to be able to see the bar action. Two, that we needed to allow more standing room in the bar–the next two Proto 10s that are opening offer the larger bar area. And third, we decided to elevate the booths in the bar 11 inches, because when customers are in the bar area, they prefer to be sitting at bar-level height.”
Building the prototype in Arvada allowed Bennigan’s the opportunity to fine-tune a concept through actual experience. “First, it’s vital to decide what part your beverage program will play in the establishment,” says Downey. “From there, the proper allocation of space in the bar sets the mood for the entire establishment.”–PW