Listening to the Food

Emerging restaurant designers who understand the connections between menu, price, and place

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The space for Gusto 101— an Italian bistro in Toronto— was formerly a mechanic’s garage. In transforming it into a restaurant, Munge Leung preserved a good deal of its gritty character.

The word "restaurant" was coined to denote a place that refreshes and restores. Today, where food is as much lifestyle choice as necessity (at least for the fortunate), the ability to refresh and restore depends not only on the cuisine, but on sourcing, service, and—above all—a design and location that somehow frames what’s on the plate. Of course the food is still important. But the space needs to tell the story, whether in exposed beams and cinderblock, neon lights and Japanese comic-book iconography, or polished mahogany and mohair.

The three restaurant designers featured here work in different countries and markets, and for broadly different clientele. One studio specializes in high-end boutique eateries in North America. Another creates dynamic brands for fast-food chains in the U.K. A third applied its expertise in furniture design to create an unlikely comfort-food mecca in Los Angeles. All three work to achieve harmony between menu, price, and place. In cross-media partnerships, they’ve learned how to accent aromas, tastes, and textures in three dimensions. They know how important it is to listen to the food.

For Alessandro Munge, a partner with Sai Leung in the Toronto-based studio Munge Leung, restaurant design is all about pairing plates with place. “When that dish hits the table, your enjoyment of that dish also depends on what you sit on and what the table is made of,” says Munge. “It’s not just about the food.”

The Hawksworth Restaurant in Vancouver pays tribute to the great outdoors.

Photo: Martin Tessler/courtesy Munge Leung

Born in Europe and raised in Canada, Munge likes to distill iconic elements to their essence. At Gusto 101, an Italian bistro in Toronto’s revitalized Fashion District neighborhood, rusted license plates and an ivy-draped vintage Goodyear sign atop the former garage space helped create the city’s liveliest rooftop garden. At Weslodge, marble countertops and custom-designed light fixtures hanging from the ceiling evoke the freedom of a turn-of-the- century saloon, while a somewhat secluded second-floor seating area hints at the forbidden pleasures of bygone days. In Hawksworth Restaurant, an elegant four-room eatery set in a 1920s Vancouver landmark building, the wall décor includes handmade acrylic-resin, faux-relief flowers, and a soft tree-like background pattern. “Everybody does trees in Vancouver,” Munge says. “I wanted our homage to the landscape to be more subtle.”

The secret to designing a successful restaurant, Munge says, is grasping a chef’s vision. “When I meet with a chef, I don’t just need to know what kind of food he or she wants to serve. I need to know why he or she wants to serve it here.”

For Toronto’s Weslodge, the architects created a modern Western saloon feel, complete with spittoons on the floor.

Photo: Eugen Sakhnenko, A Frame Studio Inc/courtesy Munge Leung

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