Welcome to Dining & Designing, a column in which Eater National joins with the forces of Curbed National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating.
NYC-based architect Richard Bloch has been designing for four decades, earning his chops by working beneath Phil George at Le Bernardin and continuing on with Masa and Bar Masa at the Time Warner Center, The Plaza Hotel revamp, and, most recently, La Silhouette in Midtown Manhattan. He just wrapped up Corey Lee’s lust-worthy Benu in San Francisco and is working on a 6,000-square-foot gourmet market at a hotel on Fisher Island, a luxury enclave with its own ferry access from Miami, and another hush-hush project involving a major landmark building. We spoke to Bloch about Masa Takayama’s strong sense of design; the best meal he ever had, and his own NYC loft, which has an incredible glass house on top.
When you start any project, what’s your approach?
I ask for two things: the restaurant’s menus and the check average. That is fundamental. You can’t design a restaurant if you don’t know those two things. There are different kinds of menus, but the restaurant idea begins with the owner, not the designer. The concept—the restaurant idea—is best designed in a menu.
You get to see what the items are—French, Italian, Japanese—[and] you also get a sense of style. If the menu begins with 12 appetizers, of which ten are deep-fried foods... well. A menu that has six appetizers, including ceviche and exquisite salads: great! The restaurant idea flows in two directions—design and food—and one instructs the other. But mostly, design has to be informed by the food.
How would you describe the kinds of restaurants you do?
We do a lot of real-world restaurants. We do a lot of stuff that aren’t three- and four-star, New York Times-rated restaurants. We do some that have no stars: they just make money. And I like doing those, too. The only thing we don’t do is thematic restaurants. I just don’t do that. I won’t do a restaurant that looks like a coal mine with waitstaff that wear flashlights on their head. That’s an extreme example, but oddly enough, a real one.
Do you always try a chef’s food before you design the space?
Always. I have to eat their food. Thomas Keller was very kind, and invited [his former understudy] Corey Lee to cook for me at the French Laundry. I ate in the kitchen. They have one stool. You can reach out—there is no separation. It is exquisite. It is a show. It was 15 courses—13 savories and two desserts and he matched wines (there was a variety of beverages, wines, Madeira, sake) at every course. It was an absolutely perfect 3.5 hours that I really didn’t want to end. It was the greatest Western-style meal I’ve had in my life.
Which features do the best-designed restaurants share?
The best designed restaurants magnificently and seamlessly describe the restaurant idea. One great restaurant (I showed Gael Greene) in Tokyo, is Owan. It is very small—16 seats—and in a tiny corner in the middle of Tokyo. It’s not easy to find. There is no English menu, and no English spoken. It is a young man, 33 or 34. He had a designer but he planned the design. It absolutely speaks to what the restaurant is about. It has 12 seats at a counter that surrounds the kitchen, where you can watch him prepare and cook. Washing is done off in a corner you don’t see, as is the bathroom. In the rear of this very tiny restaurant, behind a screen, there is a modern version of a tatami room. There is no vestibule—if cold air rushes in, they shut the door. The façade is floor-to-ceiling glass, so the whole scene is right in front of you. Instantly, you understand the place. It is simply done. The counter you sit at is low, the chair is comfortable, deep and generous. There is one corner, although [the counter] is U-shaped, and it has a vase with flowers he found that day. That seat would not have been a good seat, so he uses it for that. Somehow this place is just perfect. And the food is wonderful.
Tell us about [Corey Lee's] Benu [in San Francisco]. I’ve heard reservations are very difficult to get since it was so hotly anticipated.
I don’t have any trouble. Benu is the kind of restaurant that I would design for myself if I just went totally crazy, and wanted to go into the restaurant business. I’m not a food critic—I’m just a designer/architect—but in my opinion Corey Lee is an absolutely tremendous chef. He is spectacular.
Food aside, what did you learn about Corey?
I got a sense of his style. It’s one thing to talk to someone but if you are an artist—take Picasso, he was an interesting guy but in the end you don’t judge them, you judge their work. With food, in the end you judge the meal. What was important for me was to understand the style and character of the food.
For instance, when I did Masa, Chef Masa Takamaya said, "You have to come eat my food." He already had a strong design in mind. I collaborated with the guy, at best. Like all the great chefs, these guys don’t just look at the food on the plate—they see the plate on the table, and the table in the room. And beyond.
Are there any chefs you’d like to work with?
There are chefs I’d die to work for. I’d love to do a project with Thomas Keller. I think he’s one of the great American chefs. Also young chefs I’ve been very lucky to work with, like John Fraser and Corey. They are really not easy projects, but wonderful experiences because they are the most demanding.