In a panel discussion last night hosted by the Seattle Architecture Foundation, Ethan Stowell (Ethan Stowell Restaurants); Chad Dale (Revel; The Walrus and The Carpenter); Deming Maclise and James Weimann (Bastille, Poquitos) explored the intimate relationship between successful restaurants and design. All four participants ultimately sided with simplicity, history and good lighting.
Even in dives, Maclise said, "I'm usually wishing they had spent a few bucks for a dimmers switch. That place could have been way cooler."
Still, he added, making the right choices about lighting, paint colors and wall hangings is academic if a restaurant isn't serving good food.
"Design can get people in the door, but if your food totally sucks, I don't think people are going to keep coming," he said.
The panel debated two examples of restaurants which have made design statements by ignoring every rule of restaurant design: The Eastlake strip mall venue that's successively housed Sitka & Spruce, Nettletown and Blind Pig Bistro - "you don't walk by and say, wow, I really want to go to that restaurant," Dale said - and Pok Pok in Portland.
Joshua Huston Can you spot the design in this picture?
"That place is a tent city," Weimann said, arguing customers were too busy enjoying their food to notice.
Maclise, who regaled the audience with tales of spending astronomical sums on rehab projects at the start of the recession, disagreed. "There is a design ethic there, even though they spend nothing on it, even if it's Scotch taped together," he said. "Those guys are geniuses."
Stowell jokingly refused to praise the restaurant: "That guy beat me out for a James Beard Award, so I think it sucks," he said.
Weimann and Maclise specialize in recreating environments plucked from around the world, often developing concepts around found objects and plotting globetrotting trips in the name of restaurant planning. But, as moderator Allecia Vermillion of Seattle Met pointed out, the dominant Seattle aesthetic is minimalist, with lots of metal and noise.
"Noise is one of those things that's an afterthought, and ends up being an 'oh no'," Dale said.
But there wasn't any 'oh no'-ing coming from Stowell, who said he cultivates clamor.
"I like a loud restaurant," he said. "I just do. An individual customer might say, 'oh, it's loud in here', but a quiet restaurant is definitely not what you want."
When Stowell senses his restaurant is growing too quiet, he turns up the music.
"People start talking louder, and they start smiling more," he said. "People want to have a good time."
The noise level was a subject of consistent complaints at Bastille after the Ballard restaurant opened, so Maclise investigated the cost of lowering it.
"I met with a guy who was prepared to charge us 40 grand, and he proceeded to tell me there are restaurants which pay to make their restaurants louder," he said. "He said he wouldn't change a thing."