With restaurants hoping to be more Instagram-friendly, some of Canada’s top chefs are looking to interior designers to make their spaces stand out and be even more reflective of their food.
And that means high ceilings, lots of natural light and breaking down barriers between the kitchen and dining room. It also means scouting out unique or historic spaces that are more than just four walls.
“Food is theatre,” says Connie Young, the principal at Calgary-based Connie Young Design.
Connie Young Design was charged with drafting chef Dale MacKay’s first Regina restaurant, Avenue, this summer. Ms. Young and her team were also behind Mr. MacKay’s three other eateries, all in Saskatoon.
Ms. Young says the 2,050-square-foot space at Avenue underwent extensive remodelling as it transformed from a former bistro called Malt City Whisky & Beer. It’s now a fine-dining yet casual establishment with a “men’s club vibe” and a menu that includes everything from a simple American-style cheeseburger to seared scallops with ponzu dressing.
“There’s not many spaces like that in all of Saskatchewan,” says Mr. MacKay, winner of TV’s first Top Chef Canada competition in 2011.
The current landlord purchased the century-old building, once a life insurance office, several years ago and invested millions of dollars, according to Ms. Young, particularly on the windows and the 22-foot ceiling.
Mr. MacKay says he loved the space from the first time he saw it, about two years ago. He says the vaulted, cast-bronze windows that cover the wall looking to the street are his favourite feature.
Ms. Young, whose team had just 2 1/2 months to pull the renovations together from signing the lease to opening, says it was easy to find inspiration for Avenue.
Her team began by thinking about the architecture from when it was built, in 1912. Steel was starting to be used in buildings at that time, and the designers came up with an idea of juxtaposing raw steel against other elements in the restaurant.
Their first thought was to make everything constructed out of scaffolding.
“We thought that might be a bit much for Regina,” admits Ms. Young. “We conceptualized that idea, and then refined it. The solution was a series of steel framework structures that floated within the space. It’s raw, but everything was very calculated.”
Avenue has both a finishing kitchen, where guests can see final flourishes put on dishes prepared in the back kitchen, and a large, open bar area where mixologists pour craft cocktails and fine wines.
This open-concept idea, where food and drink becomes theatre, is also central to Jackson, a new restaurant in the Ottawa Art Gallery designed by Ottawa’s West of Main Design and inspired by Group of Seven artist A.Y. Jackson.
Mr. Jackson was known for his landscape paintings, and the restaurant is a “modern adaptation of a landscape,” according to Sascha Lafleur, the owner and principal senior designer at West of Main.
Like Avenue, Jackson has a casual yet sophisticated atmosphere, she says.
A long bar with black and gold stools sit opposite living room sofas in a full-service dining area. The tables are customized and cut down so all the seating still works well together, with 45-foot high windows that let natural light stream in.
“Chefs want to make dining atmospheres a bit more casual and a bit more inclusive. They’re also putting on a bit of a show,” she says.
“Having those open kitchens or bar service at the table gives more food transparency. You can see the process. You can see the mixologists. It’s a bit more of an art [restaurateurs] want to show off.”
Having a dining room that can expand or contract easily is another trend seen at both Avenue and Jackson.
“A lot of restaurateurs have to take into account when they’re creating their special layouts is that they need it to be modular,” says Ms. Lafleur. “Most restaurants want to host events and they want to have weddings or group Christmas parties and have events. ... If you don’t have it so that you can open up that space to different settings, you’re really going to limit your ability to bring in income.”
The furniture at Avenue is nostalgic – wingback chairs with velvet fabric and solid walnut tables appropriate for a Mad Men-inspired liquid lunch – and all the tables are meant for two, which makes the restaurant fully modular.
“Every time you go it could feel a little different,” says Ms. Young. “The main restaurant has all tables for two. You can accommodate [all groups] by just pushing [tables] together and not moving a whole restaurant around. You start to find intimacy in this giant space.”