Dining meets designing in Denver's restaurant concepts
Part of the project is always getting to know your different clients, getting inside their heads," says Sarah Semple Brown, who founded the design and architecture firm Semple Brown Design in the early '80s and has been designing restaurant spaces ever since. "It's like reality TV at its best."
Brown's job is to help transmute the desires and personalities of fickle restaurateurs into attractive, workable dining areas. From the jaw-dropping set pieces that have launched a hundred blurry iPhone photos down to the smallest of light fixtures, every detail must be in service of the overarching vision that the designers, owners and chefs look to achieve. "We're pretty respectful of the chef's needs," says Leila Schwyhart, a Semple Brown project manager. "We work together on creating a design; it's not unilateral.... Good design can't be done with one person."
In a normal year, the firm might design two or three restaurants in Denver. But the restaurant scene has exploded in 2012, and by the end of the year, Semple Brown Design will have finished another dozen restaurant spaces, all of which will emphasize design and architecture that are closely intertwined. "A lot of times people will hire a designer and then hire an architect separately," says Brown. "We have a more holistic approach, in that we do the central design all the way through the construction and architectural portions of the project."
Over the last year, Schwyhart and Brown have designed some of the hottest spots in LoDo, from Denver's version of the Kitchen to the new Squeaky Bean to the French-focused Coohills; a downtown outpost of quirky Hapa Sushi will open in September. All of these restaurants have an esteemed pedigree, highly involved and committed owners, and gaggles of devoted fans ready to pick apart any flaw or inconsistency. "The Kitchen and the Squeaky Bean both have talented, artistic chefs who have a vision for what their space is going to look like. We try to take their vision and then do what we do best," says Schwyhart, whose first big job as a Semple Brown restaurant designer was at the now-defunct Encore on Colfax.
Kitchen owner Kimbal Musk and chef Hugo Matheson had already added neighboring "community pub" [Next Door] and casual bar [Upstairs] to the wildly successful concept that got its start with the restaurant's incarnation in Boulder. Musk contracted with Semple Brown to create the Denver Kitchen in the former Gumbo's site at 530 16th Street, creating another member of the family that would share the vision but have a distinct identity. "This space was dark, the ceilings were low, the booths were back up against the walls. It was really closed off," remembers Brown. To bring the spot up to the Kitchen's sunny standards, the hallway between the two main rooms was widened, and the bar, previously jammed up against the kitchen, moved to the front dining room. The ceilings were raised by four feet to let in more light from the windows facing 16th Street, and also to reveal the building's beautiful original timbers. And since Matheson has always been vocal in his desire to have his cooking on public view, the kitchen was brought forward, complete with a prep table where servers wrap silverware and call out orders in the middle of the restaurant's hustle and bustle.
Yet it's what wasn't added that really defines the Denver Kitchen. The Sugar Building, named for its builder and original tenant, the Great Western Sugar Company, was built in 1906. The Kitchen's aesthetics skew clean, sleek and modern, but Semple Brown was careful to not obscure the past. When dealing with historic buildings, says Schwyhart, "you have to use restraint and not overdesign. You take away layers rather than applying them in order to reveal the history." Some of the brick and plaster now laid bare in the Kitchen was never intended to be seen, but it serves as a rustic reminder of Denver's bygone days. Little hints of this are all over the restaurant, from the vintage banisters the owners fell in love with to the tabletops made with reclaimed beetle-kill wood.
In addition to the found objects, Musk, Schwyhart and crew worked together to create signature pieces direct from their imaginations. The banquettes in the upper level, smartly color-coordinated with the neatly pressed shirts of the servers? The team needed a comfortable space in contrast to the lively community table. The chandeliers that glisten like halos of bubbles rising from the sea floor? The work of Musk's wife, Jen Lewin, who made them out of recycled lightbulbs. Some of the smallest details came from scratch, notes Schwyhart, pointing to the sturdy table legs that Semple Brown created for the Kitchen: "Nobody notices, but it matters!"
Semple Brown Design has created spaces for offices, residents, stores and cultural complexes, but restaurants come with the unique challenge of wedding the sights and sounds of a building to the tastes that come out of the kitchen. "I really think there's a correlation between cooking and design," Brown says.
"The greatness of their food is complemented by the space they use," adds Schwyhart.
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.
"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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