Space: The word comes up over and over again. Because good designers and architects don't see their work as creating a place that accommodates a service; they think of themselves as constructing an entire experience that guests inhabit for the space of a meal...or a lifetime.  

"Architects and designers are notorious for putting so much energy and time into their own homes, because they want to enjoy them. So when you get to design other people's, you're living vicariously through that process," says Brown. "You're trying to imagine how you live within the space. How do you make those spaces feel really good? So much of it is just these subtle nuances, but overall, that's what makes it fresh and different."

Sometimes those nuances are cozy banquettes or a painting that makes a restaurant come alive for someone. And sometimes it's one signature fixture that occupies a space in the mind, like the six-foot wild and twisted chandelier that hangs in Coohills. According to Schwyhart, before his restaurant opened last November, owner/chef Tom Coohill had a vision of a giant "tree of life." So the roots of four cabernet grapevines from Simi Winery in Sonoma, California, were excavated and shipped to Denver by refrigerated truck, bundled together and strung with white lights. The rest of Coohills is touched by more subtle details, like the tabletops, charcuterie trays and pizza boards all made from recycled wine casks, or the patisserie bar that sits in the middle of the restaurant, beckoning night owls with fresh-baked pastries and coffee.  

Semple Brown Design created a cool interior for Coohills.
matt twing
Semple Brown Design created a cool interior for Coohills.

"They always say, 'Every inch in a restaurant counts,'" laughs Schwyhart. But few restaurants exemplify the mantra as completely as the new Squeaky Bean, which packs detail and whimsy into every nook and cranny. The space at the century-old, newly renovated Colorado Saddlery Co. building at 15th and Wynkoop streets has many classic Semple Brown characteristics — a lovingly restored historic facade, a comfortable and clean aesthetic — but Brown and Schwyhart give credit for most of the Bean's oddities to its owner, Johnny Ballen. "He wanted it to feel like the Bean grew up and moved forward, but also [have it be] reminiscent of the one that came before," says Schwyhart. "We tried to bring back the character of the original space."

If you wanted to pick an object that defines Ballen's baby, it might be the chandelier made from dozens of delicately strung vintage spoons. Or perhaps it's the Six Million Dollar Man LP that stares down at diners gathered around the warm, horseshoe-shaped bar. Or the menus that are clipped to old cookbooks. Really, it's all these things, paired with the edible artistry of executive chef Max MacKissock, that make the Bean...well, the Bean. "It tells a story about these guys and where they're from," says Schwyhart. "They're talented yet fun, and they bring a little character to their space."

Sarah Brown started her firm in 1982, at a time when high-quality eateries like the Bean and the Kitchen were about as rare in Denver as female architects. But since then, she's been involved in some of the town's major developments, including the renovation of the Icehouse into office and restaurant space, and a revival of Larimer Square as a dining destination. "From an urban-design standpoint, you can see how these spaces can enliven a city," Brown explains. "More people are going to start moving to Denver not just because it's a great place to live, but because it's this great experience."

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DonkeyHotay topcommenter

Sad what passes for "architecture" in this CowTown when compared to world-class cities like Shanghai, Barcelona, Vancouver or even San Francisco.

Denver Dave
Denver Dave topcommenter

Well, some of the restaurants in Lodo (and Uptown and Lohi for that matter) may be nice to look at but most are complete failures in terms of hospitality in my opinion.  One of the prime objectives in restaurant design should be to create an atmosphere that encourages one of the key elements to a wonderful dining experience - the pleasure of conversation with your dining companions.  The Kitchen Denver is an excellent example of a space that makes conversation virtually impossible because of the lack of any sound absorbing surfaces.  It's like having dinner in an airplane hangar with jet engines at full roar.  Cram 170 people plus staff into a space whose key elements are glass, hard wood floors, brick walls, an open kitchen, and high ceilings (the most common trend in restaurant design lately) and you get a place you want to go to with people with whom you are not on speaking terms.