Restaurant diners are not nourished by food alone.
What the chef sends out of the kitchen takes center stage, of course, and the quality of the service is critical, too. But the atmosphere surrounding us as we eat also plays an important supporting role in a restaurant's performance.
Restaurant design includes things like theme or concept, architecture, landscaping, furniture, flooring, table settings, color choices and lighting as well as elements like signage, tables, menu design, a Web site and even the playlist on the sound system.
Ultimately, all the senses, not just taste and smell, are engaged.
Think, for example, how one reacts in a restaurant when high noise levels prevent easy conversation, or the temperature is too cold to enjoy the meal. Lighting levels that are too dim or too bright are uncomfortable. And what does advertising in the bathroom say about the restaurant? How about dusty plastic plants, or sterile, slap-it-on-the-walls decor probably purchased in bulk through corporate headquarters?
All of these elements have an impact on the diner's experience, even though they have little direct relation to the meal or to the way it's served. In the rich stew that is the Madison dining scene, every restaurant, from hamburger chain to haute cuisine, has a distinctive look and feel, whether through conscious design or simple default.
Matt Aro, of Aro Eberle Architects, has designed restaurants for local restaurateur and chef Shinji Muramoto. He sums up the dining experience this way: "I think successful restaurants rest on a three-legged stool, balancing product, service and space."
To help understand more about restaurant design - that vital third leg of dining out - 77 Square took a look at five different area restaurants where the atmosphere plays a deliberate part in the experience.
Southwest on the near east side
Wearing cowboy boots that looked like they had more than a few miles on them and a black western shirt, Madison architect Ed Linville and local restaurateur Monty Schiro, similarly attired, recalled a road trip they made together to the American Southwest about a dozen years ago.
They were looking for inspiration for what was to become Eldorado Grill, which Schiro imagined as something new to Madison: a fine dining Tex-Mex restaurant. Linville was the architect who had helped Schiro with several other restaurant concepts, including the original Monty's Blue Plate Diner.
"I think people are looking for an authentic experience," Linville said.
Schiro, the founding partner of the Food Fight Inc. restaurant group, had the space for the new venture. It was in a former candy factory on Williamson Street, and the building had good bones but needed a thorough cleaning and redesign.
"What I like about working with Monty is that he can create a picture of what he has in mind with words, and his energy helps morph that into an image in my mind," Linville said. "So much of what we did at Eldorado, and the other projects, too, had this great spirit of creative play."
In their tour of towns and restaurants in the Southwest, Linville and Schiro were taken, above all, with the quality of the light.
"We sandblasted everything in the space to get rid of the grime, and we were left with this golden color that was perfect," Schiro said.
Linville built an elaborate housing for indirect lighting that would mimic the filtered light of Southwestern shade structures. He created signage for the restaurant and built a remarkable hanging light fixture that included stretching an elk skin over a frame.
Every design detail, down to the silver and leather conchos decorating the end caps on the restaurant booths, was created to evoke the feel of the Old West and stir the imaginations of generations of Americans who grew up with a romantic notion of cowboy culture.
Schiro hired a master painter from the Southwest to create a multilayered treatment on the walls, providing a patina that deliberately looked rich and well-worn, not crisp or new.
In addition, Schiro, Linville, and Eldorado chef and co-owner Kevin Tubbs - who is originally from Texas - have included their own western artwork and memorabilia to contribute to the look and feel of the restaurant.
"This is one beautiful place," Tubbs said. "It's been busier than ever after 11 years. Instead of looking tired as it gets older, it looks better."
When Joe and Deirdre Garton bought Dr. Willie and Margo Waskow's small farm southwest of Madison almost 30 years ago, they wanted to continue to preserve the beautiful, Civil War-era Italianate stone house and barn.
They chose to do that by turning both buildings into restaurants: the house for fine dining, and the stable into a bar and grill serving sandwiches and more casual fare. Thus began a Madison area institution, Quivey's Grove.
"From the beginning, there was no question that the food here would reflect the setting, the history of this place and of the area," Deirdre Garton recalled as she talked about the dream her late husband, who died in 2003, first visualized and then brought to reality.
"He wanted to celebrate Wisconsin foods, ethnic groups and recipes because he believed that was the right choice for this place, and that it did something to preserve our common history," she said.
Decisions regarding landscaping, wall coverings, paint choices, artwork and table settings all were in keeping with the property's history. A commitment to that heritage drove many of the design decisions the couple made with architect Arlan Kay, who also worked on the development of the historic Fess Hotel (now the downtown Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.).
One of the most distinctive - and practical - design choices was the decision to create a long, lighted fieldstone tunnel between the two buildings.
"We were well aware of the Wisconsin winter, and we wanted staff members to be able to move easily back and forth between the buildings," Garton said.
The tunnel, which also functions as a storage area for wine, has been the delight of children for more than 25 years, just as the traditional garden and grounds have been the setting for two generations of weddings.
Craig Kuenning, longtime manager, said Quivey's Grove's strong identity as a Wisconsin original has kept the restaurant well-focused for many years.
"We try to stay true to who we are, and a number of items on the menu have been there from day one. We stay within our framework, but we also make adjustments over time to reflect changing tastes," he said.
But he added that some current food trends - braising cuts of beef or lamb, for example - are fun to see because they're so familiar.
"We had braised lamb shanks on our very first menu," he laughed.
"Joe always told me that we should make every decision about food or service or how we presented things with the idea in mind that we were inviting guests into our home," he said.
Choose your chi
Stepping through a pair of heavy curtains into La Brioche True Food on busy University Avenue is a bit like boarding the train to Harry Potter's Hogwarts: Everything looks comfortably familiar, yet you are clearly in a different world.
The warm, enveloping ambience didn't happen by accident. Partner and feng shui master Jackie Patricia worried over every detail, from the richly patterned, old-fashioned wallpaper to the pair of glittering chandeliers to the silk and brocade pillows in the waiting area.
They are all part of an effort to create a feeling of relaxation and comfort and to reflect Patricia's studied use of feng shui (pronounced fung shway), the Chinese art of using design to enhance good energy and turn away negative energy.
"All the lines and colors bring everything into connection with everything else to create a space for you to connect with your community, your loved ones - for you to reconnect with yourself and your tummy, and for us to connect with you," Patricia wrote in the restaurant's introductory brochure.
Everything is tuned to create a feeling of peace and self-awareness. Several nights a week, patrons are soothed and entertained by live music, and cell phones and laptops are forbidden.
"This is not a place to work," she said. "It's just about good eating and heart-to-heart relating. It's a place to reconnect with your sweetie, your children, the food, your friends."
Don't expect to see any obvious evidence of feng shui; there's nothing Asian about La Brioche True Food. Instead, guests simply absorb the atmosphere Patricia has worked to create in the three sections of the restaurant.
The front exhibits fast chi (energy), with lots of glass and movement, where windows open onto the parking lot, guests arrive to pick up and pay for pastries, and diners pay for their meals.
The medium chi of the middle section says "stay awhile."
Patricia said she made the back dining room "almost womb-like" with high-backed chairs, intimate booths, warm lighting and mahogany wainscoting for a kind of slow chi atmosphere that encourages guests to truly relax.
The decor "challenges the food to be as warm and nurturing," she said.
The food is the province of Patricia's husband, David Yankovich. Yankovich was a part owner of what many call the seminal event in Madison's restaurant renaissance: the original Ovens of Brittany restaurant on State Street. He purchased La Brioche Bakery in 1988; it moved and expanded to the full restaurant last year.
Yankovich is committed to local and organic food whenever possible. The menu, overseen by chef Angelo Cattaneo, includes such comfort foods as eggplant manicotti, chicken pot pie, and macaroni and cheddar, along with soups, salads, and five types of pizza.
For diners with a short attention span
It sounds like a Jay Leno line: What do you get when you cross a Jewish deli with animated circus toys?
But the answer - Ella's - can be delivered with a perfectly straight face, as anyone who's raised children near Madison in the last three decades will tell you.
Located at 2902 East Washington Ave. for more than 30 years, Ella's reputation as a destination restaurant has grown along with its burgeoning collection of whizzing, whirring antique toys and its remarkable 1929 vintage Parker carousel next to the parking lot. It's safe to say it's an amazing place, with a design that is totally distinctive.
And, frankly, it's the eye-popping, idiosyncratic atmosphere that draws crowds and dazzles what a friend describes as the short-attention-span crowd.
Owner Ken Balkin's vision, and his growing passion for animated antique toys, helped a small family business grow into an enduring Madison icon on the food scene - proof that the atmosphere of a restaurant sometimes trumps all other factors.
Forty years ago, Ella's was a small, often crowded deli on State Street owned by Balkin's family. It lured students and downtowners with signature dishes like sweet and sour cabbage soup, the grilled pound cake sundae, and corned beef and pastrami sandwiches.
While much of the original menu survived Ella's expansion to East Washington Avenue 32 years ago, Balkin began taking the restaurant in a whole new direction when he opened in the larger, more car-friendly quarters on the east side.
It began with just one animated, kid-captivating toy display, but the collection grew quickly. As Balkin added more gizmos and gadgets, he wisely began marketing to families and others with an interest in toy memorabilia.
"It's become a real passion for me," Balkin said, admitting that maintaining the hundreds of displays and moving parts requires daily maintenance from him and some of his employees.
But they aren't thinking of cutting back, and Ella's will add some interactive toys this spring.
"In fact, the paint is drying on them right now, as we're talking," Balkin said.
"Obviously, we can never lose focus on the food and the service, but there's no question that we are providing a unique atmosphere that makes us a real destination for our customers," he said.
Sign of the times
As a restaurant owner who came up through the ranks as a cook, Shinji Muramoto insists on having the kitchens in his restaurants open to diners.
He believes his cooks should be seen, not hidden, and the design of his restaurants work around that first principle.
"I want to teach people who work for me in the kitchen to be able to cook in front of people, not behind a door. I want them to be seen by the public," he explained. "I also think the customers are more comfortable knowing who is cooking for them. I want our regular customers to feel like they are coming in to someone's home."
Muramoto himself worked at several local restaurants including Wasabi, Restaurant Magnus and Opus Lounge before he opened his own first restaurant at 106 King St., which he built with the help of friends.
From the beginning, he was confident he'd have an audience for the imaginative brand of Asian fusion cuisine he brought to Madison. And he was right, with the tiny restaurant earning rave reviews for the food, service and elegant, understated atmosphere, which includes considerable attention to detail.
For example, Muramoto had a local ceramic artist create serving plates and dishes that would fit precisely and beautifully on the restaurant's small tables.
"It may sound cocky, but I didn't worry very much about filling our first restaurant. It only had 40 seats," he said.
In fact, he was so confident that he didn't even put a sign out front.
"You use a sign to bring in more customers, and I didn't really think that was necessary. Now, no sign has become my sign," he said with a laugh.
His first restaurant was so successful that within a few years Muramoto was planning a couple more restaurant projects, including the more casual Sushi Muramoto at Hilldale.
Aro, the architect who worked with Muramoto on the Hilldale project, said his charge from Muramoto on the architecture and design of the space was for it to be simple, contemporary and unpretentious.
The design included making the work station for the sushi chefs a visible part of the dining experience. The furniture is casual and modern, with combinations of black and natural wood. A vivid splash of color on one wall comes from an elegant red and silver painting created by Muramoto's wife, Kimiko.
Both Aro and Muramoto said that initially their insistence that the restaurant have no sign caused some consternation with the shopping center management.
"We had to explain that the design elements of the architecture itself becomes the sign. You stand out by notsaying 'look at me,' " Aro said.
Eventually, the management accepted Aro and Muramoto's argument.
"No sign creates a little bit of a sense of mystery. People come in, and they have this sense of expectation. They're tempted to try something new," Aro said.
And that's precisely the point, with the design supporting both the food and the service to create a complete experience.
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