With the idea that a restaurant might be something as simply defined as tables, chairs, a kitchen, a chef, utensils and food that has been prepared for the table, what makes it modern? Is it the food or the space the restaurant occupies or the architecture? One might think that with the concentration of modern residential architecture in Austin modern restaurants would be entrenched within the culinary landscape. Just a question, but one we thought to ask Michael Hsu whose firm Michael Hsu Office of Architecture is well known for restaurant design (Uchi Austin, Dallas, and Houston, Uchiko, Shake Shack and many other establishments), Paul Clayton of Clayton & Little (Juliet, Niche, Josephine House and Jeffrey’s to name a few) and Jett Butler, an architect whose company Foda Studio develops brands and creates identities and strategies and who has worked on the branding and strategy for many restaurants in town including some of those listed above.
(Restaurant: Bullfight. Architect: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture. Photo: Nick Simonite)
MA: “How would you define modern?”
Michael: “I think of contemporary as a style, modernism as a style but “modern” as an approach.
MA: “Is there such as thing as a ‘modern’ restaurant?”
(Restaurant: Olivia. Architect: Michael Hsu Office of Architecture. Photo: Patrick Wong & Ryann Ford)
Michael: “Breaking bread, eating with people is traditional but our approach is to rethink dining and doing it in a way that makes people feel comfortable. We do our best to keep a project fresh because we are designing an experience and that has become one definition of modern dining. In the process of design we use storyboards as a chef might think through a coursing, of how things come together for the meal. We are addressing social choreography, and we must have an attitude about how each space in the restaurant feels, the bar, for instance, is different from other areas. We cannot rely on architecture to provide only clean spaces, like museum walls; it’s alienating to eat in thousands of square feet, so we must provide diversity and intimate levels of social engagement.”
(Restaurant: Vox. Architecture: Clayton & Little. Interiors: Joel Mozersky)
MA: “You design both classical and contemporary buildings. What is modern design in a restaurant to you?”
Paul: “There’s a comfort that is achieved from being in a familiar building in a modern way. In the process of renovation we like to use buildings texturally and in context, so we acknowledge the history but they work for today’s’ needs. We like to let the architecture be the backdrop and allow the finishes and fixtures to do the work. Truly classic or truly modern spaces are rarely accomplished in restaurants, most spaces are contemporary. Architects who show modern muscle in restaurant design are really designing in a contemporary style.”
(Restaurant: Clark’s Oyster Bar. Architect: Clayton & Little)
MA: “How do you determine the kind of restaurant you will design for a client?”
Paul: We like to start with information about the food but that’s not always available. We gather information, deconstruct it, reinterpret it, understand and then reassemble. Restaurants are not academic projects but we can use a similar process. Whether the style of the restaurant will be modern, contemporary or traditional, the backdrop depends on the food, the chef, and the concept of shelter that a restaurant implies.”
MA: “In your work developing brands what is your experience of a modern restaurant.”
Jett: “Modern is a much-abused word. The aesthetic is the ambiance of a restaurant. Modernity might be considered the manner in which menus and the food are assembled, such as at Odd Duck and Barley Swine. It’s more about the interiors and eclecticism than about place, sizes, and services.”
MA: “How do you define the aesthetic of a restaurant project?”
Jett: “It’s best if we can start with the chef. Chef lead projects are the best. What is the chef serving, how is serving and on what type of plate? What do the tables and chairs look like? Is the design high or low, and what about the music? We are seeing a sea change in terms of style in terms of how we are served. The hardest part is the evaluation process, the subsequent research and then we synthesize and place value on the components. There is also the architecture of the plate to consider as well as the architecture of the space. One should not mimic the other but should be in the same head space. Personally, I enjoy under-designed, unaffected, quirky and authentic places with a lack of affect but they are difficult to find.”
In Austin, we have the opportunity to eat modern style food in contemporary environments as well as the rough-hewn readiness of food trucks. What are your favorite places where the architecture and the food cohabit in harmony?