How did you all get into the restaurant side of design?
Eric Robinson, co-owner: Dot2Dot in Dorchester was our first restaurant. And that happened through word of mouth and on a recommendation, because Kevin and I both live in Dorchester. That was fun and interesting for us. That grew into doing Savin Bar and Kitchen, also in Dorchester.
Kevin Deabler, co-owner: We also worked with some of the brokers and retail developers over in Kendall Square, and that's how we got connected with Steve "Nookie" Postal [of Commonwealth]. After we had those two projects under the belt, we worked with him, and that opened up our exposure to the restaurant world. That soon led to La Brasa, and since this industry is very word-of-mouth, things took off from there. Also, in working with Nookie, we really started working with chef concepts.
ER: You start to get to know chefs and learn about the nuts and bolts of their operations. We also added Jess [Haley] to the mix around the time that we were working with Commonwealth. She's now the lead on design aspects of the firm.
So how does the process of designing a restaurant start? How do you get from the point of someone coming to you with an idea to officially opening the restaurant?
ER: SRV was our most recent project, and it really represents what we can do, from the exteriors to interiors to — even the night before opening, Jess was there putting finishing touches on things. From the beginning to end, we have a full integrated approach.
Jess Haley: When SRV came to talk to us, they were already talking to a few different firms, and our approach is to start just by listening. They already had an approach and a concept. They had already taken a trip to Venice and had done their research and knew their concept, but from there, they needed the help of a designer to tie it all together. They had a space already and were starting demo in a month, so it was really quick in the beginning.
Once we got hired, it was just a list of what they liked and what they didn't like. They already had a Pinterest board of images that they liked, and after we interviewed them, I went back and came up with a series of images that we had mentioned to make sure we're on the same page. Like, they started out saying that they want marble, but that could be anything and very different. So I pulled together a lot of imagery to make sure we were talking about the same thing. Then I asked them to tell me what they thought of the images and whether or not they loved them or hated them. It just helps me to focus my attention on what they want. They wanted a very social bar area, so we talked about different ways to make that work. So we came up with this idea of swinging barstools to give flexibility.
They had also taken a lot of pictures while they were in Venice, and I had done a lot of research on Venice. We wanted to make sure that it fit into the South End and didn't appear gimmicky. We wanted to make it fit into the neighborhood and feel like a neighborhood bar. So I focused more on the rustic aspects of Venice while mixing it with other materials to balance it.
KD: Natural light is a huge aspect with SRV, and we wanted it to run all the way through from the sidewalk, the interior, and then to the back courtyard. There was a lot of collaboration with the internal office and the team over there to make that happen.
What do you think are some of the most important architectural components in a restaurant as opposed to other buildings?
JH: I think the flow and the way the place functions. That's the most important to me. With SRV in particular, they really wanted the bar to be the main focus and to be roomy but still have a connection to the main dining room. So for us, we had to make sure the restaurant could function properly.
ER: We think a lot about the experience of a patron and sort of think about their track through the restaurant. And then we factor in other things like waitstaff, etc. but really try to think about the diner's perspective to make it a memorable experience for them. There are several times you can walk into a restaurant and not feel like you know where to go and what to do. And that's really where Jess pushes forward, making sure that from a function and design perspective, it works and makes sense. Last thing you can have is people tripping over others, so our process is to make sure everything is integrated.
Last thing you can have is people tripping over others, so our process is to make sure everything is integrated.
KD: Space and foot traffic is so much more important in a restaurant than in other spaces. Like Erik said, we split things down to every person who's here and where they will be. There are a lot of details, and it's very different from any other type of design. After you do a few restaurants, you start to see what works and what doesn't. There are also some hard rules that must be followed — the adjacency to cooking and cleaning products for example. All things that you learn fast that you don't utilize in other spaces.
JH: It's also hitting the patrons with design elements that they won't forget. We're trying to create memories for patrons so that they'll want to come back. We talked a lot about integrating a lot of little details, like the wine bar in the back, which houses only wines from friends and family with little notes on them.
ER: There's just a really great blend of experiences. It could be someone who comes in quickly to grab a glass of wine. Or maybe it's someone who wants to stay and have a more leisurely experience or someone who utilizes the private party room. So that's something that we considered too. We wanted it all to be cohesive and provide all of those situations with the same experience. So we start with how things operate up front, and then we build out from there. We were at the friends and family the other night just watching certain corners of the restaurants to make sure they worked the way we had designed them to. Happy to report, there were no collisions!
How do you source all of your materials?
JH: We tagged certain items that we wanted to find. In SRV, we had all this shelving in between the dining room and bar area, so we had to think about what we wanted to put on those shelves. We ended up going to the Brimfield flea market.
ER: Yes, we sometimes go with the chefs too. We went with Nookie, and actually most of Commonwealth is from there.
JH: Yes, that's a great example of sourcing.
ER: We went out there with all of our plans, and we measured items and hand-drew them in as we bought them. It really started with Commonwealth, and we've just expanded our resources. The sourcing part is so huge in us accomplishing our goals.
JH: With SRV, I had come up with this idea of using decanters as a chandelier, but that means we had to find 33 decanters at good prices. We headed out to Brimfield, and I imagined this person who was selling loads of decanters and I could just pick and choose what I needed, but it ended up that I'd find them one by one there, and on eBay, and through many different sources. A lot of the details in SRV are custom.
It's this process of picking little bits of inspiration and thinking about what it is we're trying to do here.
KD: It probably looks easier than it is. Sometimes we come up with a great idea, and then executing that idea is another thing all together. That is something that we as a firm really get into. We try not to float ideas that are not feasible, but it's this process of picking little bits of inspiration and thinking about what it is we're trying to do here.
ER: A lot of the chefs have a certain vision for their food, and they know their craft inside and out, but when they make the leap to a physical environment and thinking about how they want their space to represent their food, it's a interesting thing. There are lots of different ways to approach achieving this, but we want each space to be reflective of that space and that chef. It takes a little more effort and interfacing, but it's been really awesome to develop that process.
Is there one element of a particular restaurant that you are most proud of?
KD: I'm sure we all have very different choices. For me, it's Coppersmith — the entire space and how it just opens up. We wanted the rawness of the space to show itself, and it has beautiful skylights and brick walls.
ER: The fire pit and oven at La Brasa is mine. Everyone was super involved in it, and it's the heart of the restaurant. Aesthetically, we knew it had to be awesome and really anchor the space. It was a custom piece, so we were concerned about the regulations and working with the fire department. For me, it was about this element that was really about the restaurant and the chefs and making that happen.
JH: Oh, I don't know! I love the facade of SRV because the whole thing just opens up. Well, at least it will when it's not winter. It's also a part of the South End that is not as tapped into, so I love that our clients took a risk, and I love what this is going to offer, and it will change that area.
ER: How funny, the designer picked an architectural element and the architects picked design elements! I want to throw one more in too because we're so proud of it. At Commonwealth, the vision was the feeling of a Vermont barn. It's in a big contemporary building, but the pallets in the dining room provided that feeling of it being in a barn with the sun shining. So we backlit the pallets to give it that feel. We wanted it to be comfortable and modern, and I feel like we did it, and Nookie is happy with it.
Has working with restaurants changed the way you all go out to eat?
KD: Absolutely. We're all foodies to some degree, and I think we just genuinely appreciate the space and the whole experience more. It's definitely opened my eyes and taste buds.