November 10, 2005

Designing a feast for the eyes

  • Independent restaurants are trying novel concepts to stand out in the crowd.

    Images courtesy BCRA
    The Blue Olive Ultra Lounge & Bistro’s signature design element is its ice bar.

    One of the Blue Olive’s unique elements is its hand-fabricated steel tables. In many resurgent South Sound urban areas, such as the recently reborn downtown Tacoma, the trend in new restaurant design is moving away from large-scale franchises towards independent, unique dining experiences.

    Designers must integrate proven restaurant techniques with novel concepts to maintain a successful, profitable customer base. From concept through completion, designers must always heed foremost attention to the owner's vision, menu and budget. The resulting design must be a process-driven, value-based response to this vision.


    It is uniqueness that in most cases enables independent restaurants to be successful; a special combination of taste, service and design that distinguishes the restaurant from anywhere else and becomes a special place to its customers, while always maintaining the expression of the owner.

    This is the driving force behind one of Tacoma's newest restaurants, Varsity Grill on 11th and Broadway in the reemerging Theater District. Varsity Grill owner Jon Tartaglia had a concept of a hybrid upscale family restaurant/sports bar with custom-designed elements to set it apart from its competition. "(Varsity) is almost exactly how we envisioned it," says Tartaglia, who wants his creation to become an establishment that people associate with good food and a comfortable, yet sleek and contemporary environment.

    The design challenge for Varsity was to distinguish the space enough so that patrons do not associate it with the restaurant that previously occupied the space, while keeping an eye on the budget. Both Tartaglia and the designers at BCRA felt Varsity needed a "hook" that would function as the focal point of the space; an attention-grabber visible from all angles inside.

    From this challenge emerged the concept of an unorthodox, 17-seat three-tier theater with a 120-inch plasma screen TV. Visible from all seating areas, the theater is available on a first-come, first-serve basis or as closed-off rentable space. The marquee theater is technologically able to host everything from game-day parties, to business luncheons, to private events.

    Combined with universal spaces, this family-style restaurant boasts a variety of levels and seating arrangements, including the traditional chair-and-table option, booths, lounge chairs, and the high-backed, upgraded theater-style seating with custom-designed 18-inch trays and drink holders. Scheduled to open in late November, Varsity will offer seating for 220 patrons.


    In restaurant design, it's easy to spend $200,000 on a kitchen and at least $100 per square-foot on construction/tenant improvement build-out and furnishings, fixtures and equipment. That's without any of the soft costs, such as taxes, and permitting and design/engineering fees. Therefore, designers should focus dollars on areas that count, and are marketable for the owner.

    On Tacoma's Thea Foss Waterway, the Blue Olive Ultra Lounge and Bistro owners and interior design team chose to focus their attention on a few of key areas, thus, Tacoma's first ice bar was born.

    According to Blue Olive owner Kevin Glagavs, "We chose materials that balanced well with the ice, both aesthetically and functionally." The drink-cooling ice bar, a 16-foot band of ice inset into a circular handcrafted precious metals bar top, was the main focus because again, it makes a strong design statement and is novel enough to draw the curious. Other areas of focus were lighting in the dining room and the blue backlighting at the bar, as well as under the bar banquettes.


    Independent dining design is a specialized process, driven by the need for a highly organized, creative design and consultant team. With many projects, contracts and developers may dictate construction schedules and opening dates. Therefore, owners benefit from firms that offer a holistic approach to design, with multiple in-house disciplines to enable coordination and document competence.

    While the holistic approach delivers an efficient, cost-effective design, it more importantly delivers consistent vision from start to end, never deviating from the dream and passion of the owner. For example, the exterior imagery on the Varsity Grill's theater was designed by an in-house graphic design team mere steps away from the project's interior designers, architects and structural engineers. The DuraClear panels, ranging in size from 20 to 90 square feet, have been sandwiched around quarter-inch Plexiglas to produce a translucent exterior that simultaneously displays a design statement while allowing customers to view who and what is inside the theater. Once again, not only is the space fully functional to generate revenue on its own, but also it is an intriguing focal point.

    Inspired from visits to restaurants in Las Vegas, New York and Los Angeles, Blue Olive has broken the traditional way of thinking for Tacoma patrons by putting a unique spin to everyday items. Such was the case behind the design of the Ultra Lounge concrete and steel dancing tables, handmade by BCRA's custom fabrication division CreoWorks.

    The ability for BCRA to work on custom interior pieces simultaneously with architectural, kitchen, interior and graphic design allowed for all of the business' elements to resonate together. This helped to decrease cost while creating a strong brand and image.

    Not necessarily small in size, these diverse, independent restaurants combine the traditional and innovative. Promoting a project from within the firm, and efficiently using all disciplines and talents available, produces an outstanding result. The decor must vary to succeed in this competitive industry, but as a rule must be well done. Boutique-style dining is heightened by customized interiors that blend seamlessly with a customized dining experience.

    Kela Crisp is director of interior design at Tacoma-based BCRA. Crisp is experienced in hospitality, residential, commercial and educational design. She holds a bachelor's degree in interior design from the University of Northern Texas.

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