Although a restaurant’s food is usually what you remember after a delicious evening out, it’s the less subtle — or in some cases bold — details that round out your dining experience. Were the chairs comfortable? Did you like the art on the walls? Was the music too loud? Was the restaurant’s design completely disconnected from the food on your plate?
The first annual CultureMap Tastemaker Awards recognizes that restaurant design is an art all its own and has carefully chosen this year’s nominees: Congress, East Side Showroom, Fonda San Miguel, La Condesa and Uchiko.
The subtle and organic dining room at chef David Bull’s 58-seat Congress evolved to let the exquisite food and carefully selected wine menu take center stage.
The restaurant’s simple, elegant design is based on the collective history of many restaurants, says Scott Walker, the restaurant’s vice president of operations. Because of the time Bull spent there as the executive chef, Congress draws upon the Driskill Grill's unique history. For example, at the Driskill, the banquets were the most requested seating. Comfortable banquets, which work for both couples and businessmen alike, line the dining room at Congress.
On the white walls hangs art from local Austin artists such as Elizabeth Lopez, who is also a bartender at the restaurant. Another artist, Sean Camp, Walker discovered on the East Austin Studio Tour.
People appreciate that the restaurant’s design is understated, but that there is detail, says Walker. Patrons notice the undulations in the wood frames around the mirrors that line the dining room, the slightly darker racer stripe down the pack of the cream linen dining chairs, or the chandelier strung its creator Amber Lewis.
The restaurant’s private dining room, with its very own wine cellar, has a wall of split Mexican bricks laid out in a diagonal fashion, cork floors (which recently replaced the original seagrass carpet) and a long, heavy table made from a reclaimed oak from a lake that seats 12.
For an unexpected touch, a recording of the The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery being read in French plays in the women's restroom and in German in the men's.
When East Side Show Room came onto the Austin restaurant scene just under three years ago, its design was frequently described as straight out of a Tim Burton movie. That was no mistake.
"I love Tim Burton," says East Side Show Room owner Mickie Spencer, who also drew inspiration from the cafes, music halls, cabarets of pre-War Eastern Europe for her restaurant on East Sixth Street.
East Side Show Room's building was built in 1908. Spencer combined two spaces to form the restaurant, removed the plaster on the walls to expose the original brick and combined raw, industrial elements with ornate details, such as chandeliers, to create a feel of something once grand that has begun to crumble.
Spencer, who is a metal work artist, made the restaurant's metal couch, lighting system reminiscent of an old factory's gas lights, and tables. In fact, almost anything that is metal Spencer designed and created — much of the metal work showcased at East Side Showroom was inspired by the time she spent living in Barcelona where Art Noveau architecture is plentiful.
The restaurant's color scheme of red, green, and gold with amber lighting comes from Spencer's appreciation for director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose masterpieces include Amelie, The City of Lost Children and Delicatessen.
The decor of Fonda San Miguel, a pillar in Austin's dining scene since 1975, has grown with time, says Tom Gilliland, co-owner of the restaurant. When Fonda opened over 30 years ago, the owners didn't have the budget to spend a lot of money of decor, so the restaurant served its classic regional interior Mexican cuisine within white, artless walls.
Once Fonda San Miguel turned the corner two to three years after it opened, Gilliland purchased his first piece of art for the restaurant on one of his yearly trips to Mexico. Since then, Mexican art has become an obsession for him and his way to contribute to the restaurant since he is not a chef.
Along with its authentic cuisine, Fonda is known for its rotating collection of art (the restaurant has three times as many paintings in storage as it hangs on its walls) showcasing both masters and contemporary Mexican artists.
"Mexico is a wonderful country for color, art and artists," says Tom.
Uchiko, the sister restaurant to Uchi (which Hsu also designed), evokes a Japanese farmhouse feel accentuated by Hsu’s use of natural materials and a palette of bronze, strained brick, rough-sawn walnut and wood siding burned using a traditional Japanese technique.
Continuing the natural theme, the restaurant's soft light emanates from walnut light boxes and an organic branch-like fixture of glass globes that spreads across the ceiling.
La Condesa’s design was inspired by contemporary architecture in Mexico. Outside, a cast-in-place concrete staircase at the restaurant’s center leads up to Malverde. Inside, a colorful collage of billboard pieces from Mexico provides a backdrop for the dining space.
Hsu contrasted the cold industrial concrete and steel materials with the warmth of wood and fabric, complimenting the lively and flavorful contemporary Mexican food of Chef Rene Ortiz, which includes guacamole with chipotle puree and almonds, Mexican-style street corn and fresh and unique tacos.
As the saying goes, the devil is in the details; the same could be argued for both food and design.