Taavo Somer wanted to design Isa, his wood-rich Brooklyn restaurant, without squabbles or mistakes, so he built almost everything himself, from the door knobs to the tables.
“This way, your vision doesn’t get lost in translation,” said Somer, a trained architect with carpentry experience who co-owns Freemans and Peels restaurants in Manhattan. “When you’re trying to communicate your idea to someone else, they might have their own agenda or different ideas.”
The James Beard Foundation gave him the 2013 award for best U.S. restaurant design or renovation (75 seats or under) on Monday night.
As restaurateurs invest millions in new venues, they often take on the role of co-interior designer to create an ambience that will impress customers.
“I really enjoy the construction process,” said Ryan Hildebrand, chef and partner at Triniti restaurant in Houston, a Beard design-award nominee. “It’s just another creative outlet. It’s like cooking.”
The 27-year-old Beard Foundation began honoring design excellence in 1995 because a restaurant’s style “contributes to the overall satisfaction” of the dining experience, said Mitchell Davis, the foundation’s executive vice president, in a phone interview.
The other contenders this year for best restaurant design with 75 seats or less were Commune Design, a California-based firm that created the look for Farmshop in Santa Monica; and Capella Garcia Arquitectura for Spanish chef Jose Andres’s Minibar.
Alejandro Barrios Carrero Design’s work for Juvia in Miami Beach took the prize for best design for a restaurant with 76 seats or more. The nominees included architect David Rockwell for his design of Andres’s Jaleo at the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas, and Houston-based MC2 Architects for Triniti.
When Andres hired architect Juli Capella to design his avant-garde tasting room, Minibar, the chef took the lead in choosing every detail.
“I’m not an artist, Jose’s the artist, and I just interpret his vision and add my touch of creativity,” Capella said by phone from his Barcelona office.
Some architects and interior designers spend months searching for the perfect decorative details to satisfy a chef’s vision. Blue Hill at Stone Barns co-owner and design director Laureen Barber scoured stores and suppliers to elevate the interior of the former barn house in Pocantico Hills, New York, to a room for fine dining.
She found designer American maple-wood chairs by De La Espada in SoHo. The bar was made of limestone from a quarry in France.
“We took great effort to cover the touch points our customers came into contact with and that were thoughtful and consistent with the idea of being on the farm,” said Barber, the sister-in-law of Blue Hill Executive Chef Dan Barber.
David Chang, chef-founder of the Momofuku restaurants, turned to Canada-based Anwar Mekhayech to create a home for Momofuku Toronto, which opened in September.
Mekhayech designed a glass-cube dining room facing the city’s University Avenue, with flying-saucer-shaped lights and white-oak floors and tables.
“From the street, the restaurant looked like an Apple store, it looked amazing,” Andrew Salmon, Momofuku’s president and Chang’s business partner, said in an interview. “If we put our logo, a peach, on the window, people would have thought we sold iPads.”
Hildebrand of Triniti and architect Chung Nguyen collaborated on an airy, arty ambience for the 5,400-square-foot dining space. Photographs by Annie Leibovitz and some Tseng Kwong Chi pictures of Jean-Michael Basquiat and Keith Haring hang on the walls of the private dining room. The chandeliers and chairs are by London designer Tom Dixon.
“A lot of people say my restaurant feels like a loft, and for me that’s a home run,” said Hildebrand, known for inventive dishes such as a foie gras breakfast plate with donut holes and sausage. “Dining out has become such a multisensory experience. It’s important to have great food, but it’s equally important to have a great space.”
Muse highlights include Ryan Sutton on dining, Alec D.B. McCabe on books.