Above: db Bistro, now closed. Overrefined corporate decor, dreary and visually bleak. New York in the 80s?
“The murals in restaurants are on a par with the food in museums.” ~ Peter de Vries, 1977
Vancouver is overrun with restaurants blighted not just with notably bad art but also with a type of generic commercial decor that makes you want to throw cutlery. In the end the main problem isn’t just the bad art; it’s too little actual artfulness inside restaurants all over town. Why do food writers never mention this when pondering why good restaurants fail? Food critics seem almost impervious to design unless it’s on a plate. It’s well known that Daniel Boulud’s db Bistro was too bourgie in its style and atmosphere for most of the clientele it should naturally have catered to, but try finding mention of this in the food blogs. It had zero originality, maximum nothingness.
Memo to restaurants:
1. Hire an artist (a contemporary installation artist, not a Sunday painter) to design your place. Don’t hire a corporate restaurant decor firm staffed by clones. Are you so sure that the “stuffy, overdone and bourgeois” thing actually fills tables? I challenge you to hire a pollster to prove it.
2. Murals are out. And be judicious with paintings. Both of these rules can be safely broken, but only by your artist consultant.
3. Under no circumstances should chefs choose paintings. Or, for that matter, their own wardrobes.
4. Not every restaurant has to look like a restaurant or men’s club in New York circa 1905. Who is it who loves the faux men’s club theme so much, the chefs or the owners (or their design firms)? I don’t even want to think about the philosophy that underlies these aesthetics, especially once it’s had a few drinks and starts telling jokes that involve a little lady or a darkie or a mick. The Edwardian era is over, boys, let’s move on. You’re losing well over 50% of your clientele. And I’m not going to even get into Klondike brothel (Gastown restaurant, you know who you are).
5. FYI there is a specific moratorium on maroon and dark red, leather or otherwise. There should also be a permanent injunction against maroon ever being complemented with hunter green. While we’re at it, never mix maroon and black leather in the same restaurant. Especially not if you’re also doing dark wood – dark wood that isn’t really dark, it’s just fake-stained that way. That’s faux men’s club meets faux English pub. Just no. There are already 75 restaurants in Vancouver working this. Strike out and be different.
6. Don’t try to reproduce somewhere else. This is food, not a ride at Disneyland. Work with the city you’re in, at least a little bit, or you’ll create a theme park, not a restaurant. Keep the Bugsy Malone atmosphere for your own living room. If you must.
7. Conversely, if you’re going for the fresh, Pacific Northwest theme, do not under any circumstances subject people to waves of frosted glass etched with whatever you like etching it with. Salmon, leaves, squiggles. (In fact, let’s call a moratorium on frosted glass, period. In restaurants it just looks 80s.) Materials tell their own story; you don’t need to.
Despite a few great counter-examples, a stuffy commercial blandness now blankets the city. Its design references have nothing— nothing—to do with local identity, traditions or materials. Or, conversely, with originality. You could be anywhere. Or, more importantly, nowhere.
Local restaurants that escape the generic design trap (and produce good food): Campagnolo and Rangoli by Bricault are nice. They’re less fussy, less stuffy, and less over-finished. Same with pretty much any Japanese restaurant in town (see Kibune Sushi below). And Bao Bei in Chinatown is very attractive—I think its owner Tannis Ling had a hand in the design—and I guarantee this is at least partly why you can never get a table there.
Some favourites, all with superb food: Below, Kibune Sushi on Yew Street, decorated with calligraphy from some of its eminent guests. It was a favourite of renowned BC artist Bill Reid’s.
Below, Boneta at 1 W. Cordova, part-owned by my friend Neil. What I like about Boneta is that the restaurant owners salvaged many of the building materials and did much of the work and design themselves, which gave the place a more real, DIY, non-corporate decor component even if it’s still pretty swank. They worked with existing building features, and they opted not to hire the unnamed restaurant decor company that is taking over the city.
Below, in the neighbourhood cafe/restaurant department, the lovely little Dunlevy Snack Bar (photos by Andrew Morrison/Scout Magazine). Unpretentious, creative, comfortable, seriously good food and coffee, and interesting details that are not easily captured in photos – you’ll just have to go see for yourself. That’s owner/chef Theo Lloyd-Kohl in the photo. Website is here.
Thanks to Scout Magazine for (unauthorized use of) many of these photos.