The Designer and the Chef / by Nicole Bemboom

For the second The Designer and the Chef panel for the AIA San Francisco, moderator David Darling, of Aidlin Darling Design, wanted to celebrate the "idea of true collaboration" that is possibly no where more prevalent than in restaurant design. How do creators with strong visions and opinions come together to create a cohesive and wonderful whole  one that enriches the space, the location, the culture of the neighborhood and can sustain a lively business? Jim Zack, the founding principal of Zack/de Vito Architecture, who worked with David Lawrence of 1300 on Fillmore and Bryan Southwick of CCS Architecture who worked with Staffan Terje on Perbacco Ristorante and barbacco eno trattoria came together to answer just that question.

Courtesy of AIASF.

Courtesy of AIASF.

Great restaurant design is an exercise in extreme collaboration. Both architects and chefs craft strong, singular experiences. They actively develop strong points of view to share through their work. For a restaurant to come together, these defined visions must work as one. Everyone has their part to do to bring all these things together into "an experience that everybody feels comfortable in," explains Jim Zack. 

According to the panel, there are more individual pieces to restaurant design than any other kind. Of course, there is the food and the building and the furniture, but let's not forget the lighting, the drink menu, laying out tables for two tops and four tops and parties of ten, the acoustics, signage, the wineglasses, the kitchen design, the flow into and out of the kitchen, uniforms or black shirts or jeans, the band that plays on weekends, the neighbors upstairs, the bar, ventilation, the menu design and, yes, even architectural detailing. The list could go on indefinitely, and would lead to another endless list around the durability, price point, sustainability and so on, of each element. Is there flooring that absorbs sound, but is easy to clean? Can we find square plates in the right color that don't get too hot to carry to tables, break too easily or use up a quarter of the budget? Can we fit an entrée on top? Do they take up too much space on the tables?

“It’s like creating a language.
— Bryan Southwick

All of these individual elements must become part of one cohesive concept. There is so much to consider in the design that Bryan Southwick compared restaurant design to "creating a language." This is not just creating a visual language, it must speak to all the senses, through the food, sounds, aroma, atmosphere, the texture and weight of the plates, the feel of the seating. David Lawrence describes both culinary creation and design as organic processes that improve all the time, with "layers and layers to make the restaurant complete." Jim Zack agrees that it's all about "the layering and the editing."

If the concept and language don't work with the site, the context and the culture, it will never be comfortable or feel quite right. Staffan Terje explained that you "can't enjoy food if it's disjointed from the space," highlighting the importance of the chef-architect collaboration. At times, the chefs and designers have had to let go of original concepts because they were clashing with the space. That's okay, says Terje, "we're chefs; we have lots of ideas."

Sometimes the concept comes out of the space. When David Lawrence and Monetta White were approached to open 1300 as part of the Fillmore redevelopment, they were inspired and informed by the deep history and culture of neighborhood. This strong connection to heritage has kept the restaurant a busy hub over many years.

With Perbacco and barbacco, Terje and Southwick are "trying to give you an experience where you're at" and not attempting to transport you to Italy. Let's leave the theme restaurants to that. An authentic experience is a comfortable experience, perfect for the essential human activity that restaurants are all about.

The thing you actually do in a restaurant is so extremely basic; you’re eating together with other people.
— Jim Zack

Connecting a concept with a context. Developing a language for all senses. Creating a comfortable experience. Our intrepid panel does all of this to bring people together to do what we are meant to do: eat.