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Baltimore-area restaurants dig into design

Creating the environment that diners experience is almost as important as crafting the food they'll eat.

Six months ago, the walls in the main dining room at 924 N. Charles St. were brushed with paint strokes of a dozen colors — yellows, fuchsias, whites, blacks, even a bold orange. After weeks of staring at the swatches, owners Linda and Steven Rivelis made their choice: an iridescent hue called pink pearl.

The floor-to-ceiling shade delivers a shock as soon as you walk in the restaurant that will soon be the Elephant — and signals that the site is no longer the Brass Elephant. The paint may be the most obvious update to the space being reinvented by Linda Brown Rivelis and Steven Rivelis, but it's just one aspect of setting the stage for the new dining experience there.

"We really see our restaurant as theater, and so our actors are the wait staff, the culinary team and the general manager and the executive chef," said Linda Brown Rivelis, a partner in Very Special Older Properties. "It is a production. It's almost like: How do you create, in designing a restaurant, the 'Oh, ah,' so that the curtain parts and people go, 'Oh, ah'?"

For the Rivelis — and other up-and-coming and established restaurateurs in the Baltimore area — creating the environment that diners see, feel and hear is almost as important as concocting the food they'll serve. As the local food scene grows, restaurateurs are tapping professional designers as well as employing their own tastes and skills to create singular dining experiences that stand out.

Feeding the senses

Whether a restaurant is housed in the boiler room of an 1800s-era cotton mill, a historic mansion, a former brewery or an entirely new space, its design starts and ends with the guests who will dine there. Baltimore interior designer Patrick Sutton likens the process of designing a restaurant to creating a mini-getaway.

"You are creating a one- or two-hour vacation for somebody," said Sutton, who has designed restaurants for Foreman Wolf, as well as Atlas Restaurant Group. "You really are thinking about providing a place where you can transport the patron wherever it is they want to go for those couple of hours, so it's a lot about theater."

That's why the smallest details are so important. At Cinghiale, which Sutton designed, he said co-owner Tony Foreman envisioned a restaurant that felt as if it had been there for ages. Builders laid the tile floor before starting construction on the rest of the space. By the time it was finished, the tile had been cracked, chipped and dirtied, giving it an aged feeling.

The more restaurants can use those types of details to create a scene, "the more successful you'll be at transporting the patron to that place, and the more that they'll feel like they're taken away from the things that they want to be taken away from," Sutton said.

But there's more to restaurant design than the elements guests see. Nancy Mola, who is building out Gunther & Co. in Brewers Hill, said controlling the noise level and temperature are her highest priorities when designing a new space.

"I can always buy somebody a drink or a dessert, but if they're too hot or too cold or they can't hear their conversation, I can't make them come back," she said. "It's a very delicate balance of function and design."

Judith Golding, a partner in Cosima, the Sicilian restaurant coming to Mill No. 1 along the Jones Falls, said acoustics were one of her biggest concerns going into the space: an old boiler room. The restaurant is on track to open in January. Until owners began bringing in groups of 20 and 30 people to preview the space, Golding worried it would be too loud.

"You want a buzz; you want a vibe. You don't want a dead space, but people need to be able to sit around a table, an eight-top, and have a conversation," said Charles Alexander, a principal of Alexander Design Studio who designed Cosima.

Good design also means making a restaurant functional for staff. If servers can't move efficiently, they become frustrated, and that stress can be projected onto guests. At the Elephant, the Rivelises carved out two paths for staff to travel from kitchen to dining room instead of the one it previously had to achieve that efficiency.

Traffic flow is part of restaurant design guests may not notice if it's done right.

Historic to modern

Particularly in historic spaces, good design plays to a building's strength. At Cosima, the owners combined dominant elements in the historic space with their vision for the Sicilian fare that will be served there. They knew they wanted to cook with open flames, so they built the wood-fired oven within the boiler room's old smokestack. And you can't miss the enormous old boiler when you walk in.

The Rivelises spent time "living" in the Charles Street space to determine which elements of the old Brass Elephant they wanted to keep, tweak or scrap. The spent afternoons sitting on the floors with bag lunches and bottles of wine, remembering the restaurant in its heyday and dreaming about what its new rendition could be. (After nearly 30 years as the Brass Elephant, 924 N. Charles St. was briefly home to the Museum Restaurant & Lounge, which opened in 2012 and closed within a year.)

There are some details at the Elephant that the Rivelises changed to make the space more functional, like moving a mantel from one wall of the back bar to another, to create the framing behind the bar.

"People will go, 'I don't remember it being a bar here,'" Steven Rivelis said. "They'll be puzzled enough because they'll feel like it was always there. It's those little types of things that it's not jarring, but it makes you have a better experience in the space."

The effort to bring the Elephant into the modern era included creating different experiences under the one roof. Whereas the Brass Elephant squeezed standard tables into every room, the new Elephant will have different dining atmospheres in each space — a main dining room, two bars, two communal dining areas and a lounge. Each room has a different aura — above the pink downstairs (a tone chosen because it reminded the Rivelises of the inside of an oyster shell) are the all-black walls of the raw bar on the second floor.

"Our challenge from a design point of view is making sure they fit together in harmony, so it's not jarring that you're now moving into a different room" Steven Rivelis said.

Giving each room a distinct feeling was something restaurateurs and craftsmen Andy Gruver and Jason Sanchez strove for with their first restaurant, Fork & Wrench in Canton. Their new space, Modern Cook Shop, is a different design experience because it was one wide-open space instead of a mosaic of rooms. The restaurant-bar-market fusion is scheduled to open in the coming weeks in the Union Wharf building in Fells Point.

In some ways, starting with a blank canvas made the design easier, although Gruver said the challenge was fitting everything they wanted in the space. The result was an industrial composite of several sleek white bars, market shelving and seating. A window to the charcuterie bar is the first element that greets guests, with a checkout counter and hostess stand to the left. Beyond that are refrigerators and the bakery counter, along with racks of newspapers patrons can peruse while sipping coffee or pressed juice. The hot bar sits past the bakery on the left side of the restaurant, with the main seating area in the center. A wet bar in the back has 10 taps — two for barrel-aged cocktails, eight for craft beer. And a path lined by more shelves leads back to the charcuterie bar at the front.

The whole space is capped with planks of California redwood on the ceiling.

"The wood helps us warm up the space," Sanchez said. "You don't want a space that's sterile and uninviting."

Gruver and Sanchez are known for their do-it-yourself approach to building out a restaurant. At Modern Cook Shop, they designed and built all the chairs, tables, light fixtures and shelving. Gruver figures it took 16 hours to assemble each table in the space, starting with making 300 table legs.

"There's no assembly line," Gruver said.

Eventually the restaurateurs want to establish a design group so that if a customer sees something they like in any of their restaurants, they can order their own.

"That's part of the reason you do restaurants like this," Gruver said. "To inspire people."

Even if the food and decor are perfect, the dining experience can collapse if the restaurant's staff doesn't buy into the vision.

"When I've been able to deliver a design concept that's exactly what the restaurateur is looking for, and then the experience is not taught to the staff so it doesn't match up, it's a real disappointment for me," said Sutton.

He said there are a couple of keys to ensuring restaurants stand the test of time: using good proportions and quality materials. Those foundations aren't trendy or jarring, and for that reason they won't go out of style.

"In order to be a really well-designed restaurant and transport someone where they want to go, you have to reinforce it with every possible detail you can," he said. "It's no different than reading a great novel."

smeehan@baltsun.com

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