Dining & Design

~ By RICHARD FOSS ~Originally published in LA CityBeat in April of 2007

Restaurant design in America used to have more to do with cultural kleptomania than creativity. Italian restaurants in America looked like Medici palaces or Tuscan farmhouses with candles in Chianti bottles, French places echoed Versailles, and American eateries echoed either the farm or an English drawing room.

Unless, of course, you were in Los Angeles, where theme restaurants caught on early. By the 1920’s we had restaurants that looked like Anasazi cliff dwellings, high-security prisons, and pagan temples. We even had the Pink Rat Café, a Norman castle where the waiters dressed like pirates., though it closed after six weeks amid rumors of shimmy dancing and general depravity. What we didn’t have in the early 20th century was any design that was native to California – until sixty years ago, when the firm now known as Armet Davis Newlove created a new category of restaurants.

As architect Victor Newlove recalls, “We just about invented the concept of a California coffee shop back in 1947. We embraced the international style, with lots of glass and modern materials. We wanted the screens, the walls, the artwork, to be part of the dining experience. There’s no cultural anchor… Look at the Norm’s coffee shops that had a roof like a flying wing. It was evocative of an age, the age of speed. Lighting became important, and you could look inside the restaurants for the first time. For the first time, part of the attraction of the restaurant was the animation of a lot of people.”

It was a new idea, an exuberant, in-your-face style that owed nothing to the past. Those who have grown up with these visual clichés might find it hard to believe that they were once groundbreaking, but Newlove still does.

“I remember sitting down with the guys from Denny’s and designing a booth that was like a car seat – we wanted them to feel space age, like you were floating off the floor. We liked doing it – it was fun! It was more than that, though. We were successful because we recognized that a restaurant was a food factory. We started thinking about the flow and efficiency, and realized that it was the most important thing about the design.”

The concept caught on, and those efficient, bright interiors were built around the country. They were the visual symbol of a certain type of restaurant, reliable, cheap, and fast. “We wanted people to come in and have a good meal, but we didn’t want them to stay all day. Sterling Bogart, the president of Norm’s, told me that if he could install a timer on the table, he would.”

Only within the last few decades has that space-age décor moved upscale, so that higher-priced and creative restaurants use materials once associated with coffee shops. Architect Greg Lynn, who has designed public spaces around the world, points out that a coffee shop isn’t just a coffee shop any more. “We have segmented the high end and low end market in a way nobody would have understood before this generation. You can build a sandwich shop that is some renowned chef’s first experiment with a sandwich shop, and you can reflect that in the design. People will react to that, will know it’s not just another sandwich shop.“

Lynn, whose current project is a new café across the street from LACMA, expects his clientele to relax and linger in the very modern, Gehry-influenced space. “In Los Angeles, people are comfortable amid contemporary design. This will be a quick bite restaurant, but it will also be a comfortable, welcoming place with a relaxing patio. I expect it to be a white tablecloth room.”

Asked if he prefers to dine in modern spaces when he goes out, Lynn points out the importance of being true to the broader experience. “When I go to a classic restaurant, I like places that don’t tinker with the design. Like the Grand Central Station oyster bar in New York – I wouldn’t change a thing. On the other hand, I like adventurous food in adventurous spaces, and I like it when somebody experiments on me a bit rather than repeating something familiar.”

It might be agued that for modern Angelenos, experimentation is the only thing we know. Those who grew up in a chaos of cultures might not have an emotional bond to any of them. If so, there would be a generational divide among both restaurateurs and diners, with the oldsters preferring more traditional designs. Architect Mehdi Rafferty of Tag Front, designers of such stylish eateries as Boa and Cinespace, thinks it’s more a matter of sophistication. “It’s not a generational divide, it’s an educational divide. Those who have been exposed to different types of architecture, or who have grown up with it, are comfortable with designs that don’t have an explicit reference to tradition.“

Instead, as with many of Tag Front’s designs, there is an oblique reference to tradition worked into abstract designs. The giant faces on the wall of Nacional, picturesque unshaven men with cigars clenched between their teeth, are portraits of a Cuba both personal and stylized. Likewise, the design at Geisha House is far more dramatic than any place likely to harbor a traditional geisha – but the pattern of rectangular panels is reminiscent of Japanese shoji screens, the booth alcoves echoes of Tokyo subway cars. Even people unfamiliar with the formal constraints of Asian architecture will recognize a pattern, one simplified and exaggerated, but coloring the whole experience.

There’s something entirely appropriate in this, since copying traditional designs for novelty’s sake is what we’ve been doing in LA since the Pink Rat’s heyday in the Jazz Age. We’re doing it with more subtlety now, using it as an infusion to our indigenous design. We overtly display our modern materials, showing what traditional designers might have done if they had glass and chrome rather than wood and leather. At times the materials are exotic while the design and décor are tribal, past and future colliding without a nod to the present. It is no representation of any culture except our own, and in such spaces, our culinary wizards create tomorrow’s haute cuisine.

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