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Jason Alley (left) and his partners incorporated rustic and historical touches when designing Pasture. In contrast, the lighting and polished metal accents at S@mple give it the contemporary vibe desired by owner Adam Bell. Left: photo by Adam Ewing; right and portal image: photo by Kirsten Lewis
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Left and inset: A painting inspired the art deco décor at Xtra’s Cafe in Carytown. Below: At Joe’s Inn in the Fan, the long bar invites customers to sit and eat — or drink. Brittany Claud photo
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Designer Helen Reed worked with Jimmy Sneed on his new restaurant, BlowToad. Mike Shield photo
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Selba owner Todd Boyd created a sunny garden room in the former motorcycle shop. Mike Shield photo
A blustery Friday night along an otherwise deserted section of East Grace Street is broken by a steady stream of light and noise from the glass façade of Pasture, one of Richmond's newest "it" restaurants.
Inside, some diners remain chilly while others warm to the minimalist design. Reactions to the layout and décor range from cold to cozy, spartan to stunning.
Chef Jason Alley and his wife, theater set designer Mercedes Schaum, along with partners Ry Marchant and Michele Jones, spent two years repurposing the former Montaldo's clothier into a grazing eatery where updated Southern fare is served on small plates and surroundings are purposefully sparse. The goal was to create a sleeker, more upscale companion to Comfort, Alley's 9-year-old Broad Street favorite.
"We wanted to do something that was unique to this city and very reflective of this space — clean lines, a lack of visual clutter — where people could just really enjoy each other and the food," Alley says, during a break between hosting a business meeting and making potlikker noodles.
Many of Richmond's famously finicky foodies love it, but others are less than charmed by the flattened barrel-stay walls and personalized mechanics' shirts. The polarizing response has left Alley baffled and a bit wounded.
The partners "have all been surprised at how strong a reaction it has gotten," he says. "I try to keep some of the more hurtful comments to myself, but some have said it was stark, but not in a pleasing way, that it was cold or harsh. It's not really any particular demographic or class. Eighty- or 90-year-olds will say it's so beautiful in here, and 30-year-old hipsters will say it's like a cafeteria."
Such is the inexact science of restaurant design. One person's intimacy is another's claustrophobia. One's deafening echo chamber is another's jumpin' joint. And one's upholstered peace and quiet is another's stuffy library full of eavesdroppers.
The constant, from the relative hush of Lemaire to the cacophony of Edo's Squid, is this: Nothing is accidental. From the time you pass the maître d' station, you are a marionette with a credit card. From your feet to your fanny to your five senses, every facet of your experience has been meticulously planned way before you arrive.
Restaurant layout and décor are painstakingly detailed ahead of time by owners, designers and chefs. They direct the experience like conductors leading orchestras — the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and feel are their instrumentation.
Some is overt, but much is subliminal — a notion that Helen Reed hesitates to address, as though she's spilling a family secret. "Sometimes it can be, yes," says Reed, whose H.L. Reed firm has designed numerous restaurants over the past 20 years in Richmond and beyond.
Studies have shown that loud music, particularly with an upbeat tempo, prompts a person to eat faster, which turns over tables more quickly. The same can be said for uncomfortable chairs. Restaurants have been known to employ aromatherapy to stimulate appetites. And at Pasture, walls are devoid of artwork to force-focus customers' attention on Alley's food, according to Schaum.
Some diners and message-board posters yearn for a return to dim lighting and padded booths. Elderly clientele wax nostalgic about tea rooms at Miller & Rhoads and Mrs. Morton's over lunch at The Colony Club, where old Richmond is preserved with antique sideboards, wing chairs and Oriental rugs. But the well-established trend here and elsewhere is reconfigured historical and industrial spaces outfitted with hard surfaces, mile-long bars and cranked-up music.
When S@mple owner Adam Bell was planning his Uptown restaurant, he knew he wanted a big-city feel. "From the get-go, my idea was very, very modern with clean lines and bold materials — bricks, solid colors and metals." He credits contractor IronOak for helping his vision take shape. The minimalist décor and gray, black and white color scheme can be altered by grouping the modular tables differently, changing the images on the 24-inch LED computer monitors and adjusting the LED lights, with 46 colors to choose from.
"We can customize our entire restaurant for mood," Bell says. "We can use blues for a calmer night. Or reds for a wild late night. … It gives us the ability to dramatically change the mood and feel of our restaurant with the click of a couple of buttons."
Anne Bloomsburg, a freelance editor and vocalist, and her husband, musician Pierre Picardat, are among the first customers in line when a new Richmond restaurant opens, which essentially has been every week during the past few years.
"I love restaurants with a long bar, a bar for eating as well as drinking," Bloomsburg says. "I love new places — Selba and Pasture, and Popkin Tavern — for that reason. And I love Joe's Inn's bar. Those places all have great food, though, too. If the food's not good, I'm not going to want to eat at your bar, no matter how long and inviting it is."
And after all, eating is the intent. Surroundings shouldn't figure in too heavily, but successful restaurants devoid of carefully crafted atmosphere — Mamma 'Zu, with its rickety furnishings and chalkboard menu, for example — are rare.
Design teams — owners, decorators and chefs — spend months, even years, drawing up a space that synchronizes with their menu and demographic. The inspiration can be as simple as a photo, another restaurant or, in the case of the art-deco-styled Xtra's Café in Carytown, a painting of a woman, which drove the café's color scheme and design. Some spots ram a gimmick down diners' throats, although the trend is away from over-theming. Mariachis Authentic Mexican Grill's new restaurants in Midlothian, for example, are uncluttered and monochromatic, with nary a sequined sombrero or fake cactus in sight.
Local celebrity restaurateur Jimmy Sneed recently opened BlowToad in the former Double T's Barbecue space across from Carytown's Byrd Theatre. He acknowledges that his design is "evolutionary." He adds, "I don't sit down and plan. I know what will work and what won't work. I just don't know how to get there."
That's where Reed comes in. In addition to being Sneed's design muse, her portfolio includes Q Barbecue in Midlothian, Gibson's Grill, the original design for Ruth's Chris Steak House, the just-opened Mint New Casual Cuisine (formerly Davis and Main in the Fan) and Tom Haas' highly anticipated 525 at the Berry Burk downtown, which will feature subtly pinstriped upholstery in an homage to the dressy menswear that was part of the building's previous identity.
Most of the budget for BlowToad, originally intended to be a pizza-and-beer joint but later given a wider menu, "went into the back of the house," the site of a coal-fired pizza oven, Reed says, as Sneed roars at kitchen workers to tone down the noise.
Existing dark-pine paneling, which created a claustrophobic feel, was stripped off, and walls were painted a whitish gray to lighten and enlarge the space. Reed's signatures, a punch of color — red in this case — and sinewy curves, are evident. "I personally look at a space and say I don't want to spend a lot of money on this, but I want it to be warm and inviting and reflect the food and the attitude," Sneed says, as workers hang curved metallic sconces a week after the restaurant's opening.
On the other side of the design spectrum is Selba owner Todd Boyd, who crafted multiple atmospheres — four distinctly different dining experiences — out of the former Cliff's Honda dealership in the Fan. "I didn't want a shotgun — one giant open space," says Boyd, whose day job is in real estate.
Boyd spent more than two years crafting a restaurant that would be all things to all people, short of a kiddie play place. There's a 30-foot-long bar, a bustling booth and table space up front, an intimate dining room that can be closed off for private events and a sun-drenched garden room with fruiting plants. "I always wanted a section where you could see outside the building and be looking at plants," Boyd says. Instead of an outdoor patio — de rigueur in new Richmond restaurants — he built it indoors.
The color palette in Selba, "jungle" in Spanish, reflects Boyd's experience as an ecotourist living in a treehouse in Costa Rica for a month in 1999. The scarlet was inspired by macaws, greens reflect jungle flora, purples match the hue of acai berries and the slate floor represents rocks.
Secco Wine Bar owner Julia Battaglini admits that she was clueless about design but says that she stumbled into a gorgeous space with a little help from her artistic friends.
"Not having any design sense or grounding in pesky things like engineering or spatial relations, I originally envisioned a glass-walled cheese cave that joined River City Cellars and the wine bar," Battaglini remembers. "Tom [Brickman, her friend and former business partner] would ask pertinent questions like, ‘Cool, but where are you going to put the bathroom?' "
The small space and building-code requirements dictated the design, but Brickman captured a wine-cellar feel with an archway. "It's easily my favorite part of the space," Battaglini says.
Rarely does any aspect of restaurant design inspire more loudly disputed opinions than noise level. Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's reviews even include a decibel key for prospective diners.
Chic urban spaces with high ceilings and hard surfaces create noise traps that can leave diners yelling at their companions, one of the knocks on Pasture. At The Frog and the Redneck, one of Richmond's boisterous hot spots from 1993 to 2001, "people would ask, ‘Could you turn the music down?' We'd say, ‘No, this is the ambiance here,' " Sneed says. "I do know that the most popular restaurants I've seen are the noisiest. You don't see many loud empty restaurants."
Arts patron Pamela Reynolds, former president of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' Board of Trustees, is a frequent diner at Richmond's high-energy restaurants. Her solution? "Just talk a little louder. It's just a part of Edo's, like The Roosevelt, Stella's or others."
"Noise only bothers me if it is noticeably irritating the person with whom I'm dining," Anne Bloomsburg says. "I prefer enough ambient sound — music, hopefully — so that I can comfortably converse with my tablemates."
Boyd installed acoustical ceiling tiles and carpet in Selba's private room and used egg-crate foam covered with burlap to deaden noise in the greenhouse space. Meanwhile, Alley says that soundproofing "wasn't as important to us as keeping the integrity of the space. We wanted it to be a lively, occupied space as opposed to some precious little room." He fought Schaum on designing an open kitchen, which amps up the noise quotient and exposes code-required harsh lighting. "The draw is Jason Alley," Schaum says. "What's the point of having this awesome person in the kitchen and no one can see him?"
Budget, rather than noise, however, is the elephant in many new dining rooms. Economy of design has given a second life to salvaged materials, existing fixtures and historical buildings.
"It sounds cliché when I say Tom was driven by the materials, but, for example, he walked in one day and said he'd found two pallets — $25 each — of salvaged door-frame end pieces at Habitat for Humanity Restore," Battaglini says. "A nail gun and a can of Minwax, and they're now the bar and back wall detail."
BlowToad recycled Double T's tables and chairs. "No sense spending another $15,000 on furniture just to make it look fancier when these are comfortable," Sneed says.
Experienced restaurateurs understand that atmosphere is important, but food is critical. Which of those takes precedence is a chicken-and-egg argument best left to the consumer.
"The happy irony is [that] lots of people who come in the first time come in because it looks the way it does, not because they have any idea how awesome the wine is," Battaglini says. "They, of course, come back for the wine and food, but the design drew them in the first place."