A Feast for the Eyes

There has been a flurry of restaurant opening activity in Oakland County lately. Ferndale has seen One-Eyed Betty’s and John D Bistro both open within the last two months, with Woodward Imperial (which will serve California-style gourmet tacos) and Local Kitchen and Bar (serving contemporary American and upscale comfort food) opening soon. The Roberts Restaurant Group – which operates Streetside Seafood in Birmingham, Town Tavern in Royal Oak, and Beverly Hills Grill in Beverly Hills – recently opened Roadside B&G in Bloomfield Hills in the former Brandy’s location, and are currently working on their next concept, Bar ML in Birmingham. Craft beer lovers have a new mecca at Clubhouse BFD, which just opened in February in Rochester Hills. And there are about a dozen other upscale, big-budget concepts currently in the works in Birmingham and Royal Oak which just goes to show the restaurant industry is on an unprecedented upswing in 2012.
One thing all of these places seem to have in common is a whole new focus on interior design. Previously it seemed that design aesthetic in restaurants and bars was never anything more than an afterthought; if the bar itself was interesting (glossy polished wood perhaps, or industrial chic metal and concrete) the rest sort of fell by the wayside; the emphasis was all on the menu, the wine list and the staffing – the rest would just get covered in tablecloths anyway.
Which isn’t to say places like the Lark or the No. VI Chophouse had poor design; but much like the plate that plays host to your food, the interior design was more or less invisible … there, just not outwardly noteworthy or memorable. You may remember your exquisite meal, but most likely you didn’t go home talking about the exquisite mural.
But all that is changing. Restaurateurs seem to be placing a whole new value on interior design, hiring on architecture and design firms to shape the space and local artists to give it life.
At John D Bistro, Ferndale’s newest hotspot that just opened on March 10, owner Eddie Farah knew immediately that he wanted to hire Ron Rea of the Birmingham-based Ron and Roman architecture and design firm to design the space (which was formerly Club Bart, a beloved if a bit worse for wear dive bar). “I went with Ron because, well let’s be honest: the guy’s the best,” Farah says. “He sees things like nobody else does.” Farah was adamant about letting Rea have absolute freedom to do whatever he wanted in the space. “A lot of bigger names have gone to him and said, ‘We want it to look like this’ and, ‘We want it to look like that.’ I said, ‘Do whatever you want to do.’ He never has the chance to do that. And this is how it turned out!” John D has fast become a media darling with write-ups in every major publication and spots on the Craig Fahle Show on WDET and Fox 2 News. And all of them mention Rea’s work. “I have a great chef and a great menu; I might as well have the best design team and they the best in the Midwest.” He adds, “The first name in restaurant design is Ron Rea.”  
In fact, Ron Rea is becoming something of a rock star in the restaurant design realm (and he is befittingly elusive). Rea’s work started to get local media attention just over the past few years, as he has been the go-to designer for all of the Roberts Group restaurants as well as the Andiamo Restaurant Group’s Rojo Mexican Bistro and Hour Detroit’s “Restaurant of the Year” Joe Muer Seafood. He has designed well over 450 restaurants from New York to L.A., and is slowly but surely redefining what “restaurant design” means in metro Detroit. In addition to John D, Rea’s most recent work includes Crispelli’s, Clubhouse BFD, and the forthcoming Local Kitchen and Bar.
Rick Halberg, owner of Local Kitchen and Bar, says: “We place a lot of importance on how our restaurant is going to look simply because it is an expression of what we’re doing. I’ve known Ron for many years and I know Ron can design to his own tastes or work with me as a client and design to my tastes including working with a budget.” Halberg says that Local will be an “underdesigned” space, with a lot of woods and metals made to be very comfortable and open.
While Rea’s restaurants are all distinctly unique, once you get a little familiar with his style you know when you’re in a Ron Rea restaurant. There is a certain painstaking attention to detail, a certain artistic design flare, a certain je na sais quoi that defines them. If you walk into a restaurant and immediately notice the design, chances are Ron Rea is behind it.
For the most part. There are actually a few DIYers that have recently sprung up that have taken design into their own hands and have done so rather successfully. Certainly this is the exception and not the rule; as Rea noted in an August 2011 interview with Crain’s Detroit Business, “…not everybody can [successfully design their own restaurant]. More cosmopolitan cities have owners that can pull it off. We don’t have that here.”

Perhaps he spoke too quickly. Torino Espresso + Bar in Ferndale, which opened late last summer, sports an urban-industrial aesthetic with a European vibe. Business manager Noah Dorfman hired local artisan concrete designer and metal fabricator Drew Derkacz to custom-make every single surface, including 500-lb concrete slabs with wooden inlays and distressed aluminum accents. (They needed a special Class V porcelain tile that could handle the drilling needed to affix the tables and bar to the floor.) The outdoor patio features custom carpentry made to look like a European sauna. The walls throughout are adorned with mixed media paintings by local artist Aaron Miller and “old-school” black and white Italian photos in wood frames juxtaposed with Ralph Steadman prints. “We wanted to be able to showcase this European experience that metro Detroit really doesn’t have,” says Dorfman. “We wanted to fill a niche of the kind of place where we wanted to hang out at, so we developed the concept and designed everything ourselves.”

Also in fabulous (and apparently handy) Ferndale, One-Eyed Betty’s is another example of DIY design that impresses. Operating partner Beth Hussey came up with the concept herself; when the aesthetically out-of-place Cantina Diablo’s closed its doors in January, she and her team went right to work with a hammer. “It’s my concept. I designed it; we had no general contractor.” she states. Where Diablo’s red-soaked neon and dozens of visible flatscreen TVs from every angle never really meshed with the Ferndale community, Betty’s has the kind of comfortable neighborhood bar feel with an appropriate artistic touch that makes it right at home in Ferndale, and Ferndalians feel right at home inside.

The wooden floors, long communal tables (reminiscent of a German biergarten), comfortable booths, exposed ductwork and hand-written chalkboards make it feel like a homey but still urban environment, and the subtle art pieces located throughout give it that distinct personality that reflects the DIY artisan culture of Ferndale. Hussey worked with Richard Gage of Richard Gage Design Studios, a local artist based in Hazel Park who put her in touch with other local artists and helped her source interesting reclaimed pieces to decorate with. Some works inside Betty’s are from Clinton Snider, who was commissioned to find “relics” in Detroit and turn them into art pieces which were then displayed at the Detroit Institute of Arts “Relics” exhibit. There is also an “Exit” sign located by the door which was an actual sign on I-75 that had fallen and left discarded on the side of the road; Gage then framed it in metal.

Gage is also currently working on an elaborate bottle cap logo sculpture, and later on customers will be able to actively contribute to a bottle cap mural that will be designed as a sort of paint-by-numbers project on the back wall. In a March 2011 interview with Hour Detroit, Gage notes, ““The practice of using salvaged building materials has always been prevalent in homes … but it’s now transcending into commercial spaces.”

Salvaged space and salvaged pieces are a huge focus for Curt Catallo and his wife Ann Stevenson, who own Clarkston Union and Union Woodshop in Clarkston and are currently renovating the historic Vinsetta Garage in Berkley for their latest restaurant concept. They are keeping as much of the original structure as possible – the exposed brick walls, the weathered concrete floors, the high wooden beams, the glass block windows. “All of it, all you see, is all natural and all original,” says Catallo. “We would rather preserve than build new.”

Sarah Cox, design critic and editor of Curbed Detroit (a real estate and architecture blog) had this to say: “What is surprising about restaurant design in the Detroit Metro area these days, is the ‘secret’ aspect of it. Our designers are not super well-known on the national stage and there is even a lot of owner DIY (One-Eyed Betty’s comes to mind). What makes it even more of a secret, is that some places with great interiors are hiding in bland strip malls or places like the Ren Cen (not a place architecture enthusiasts tend to laud much from the outside). So what’s really great when you walk into Joe Muer or Clubhouse BFD, is the feeling that you just did not think THAT was HERE. And the attention to detail, materials, and textures is a welcome surprise.”

Clubhouse BFD is located in what could be called a VERY unassuming stretch of land over on the M-59 exit ramp at Crooks in Rochester Hills. Owner and longtime restaurateur Scott LePage owned the building which had sat empty for some time after he lost his previous tenant; finally he decided if he was putting any money into it he was doing it for himself. He admits that the concept for Clubhouse evolved over time (initially it was going to be yet another sports bar), but when he finally had the concept nailed down he hired on a dream team of metro Detroit’s finest to make it happen … and that team included Ron Rea. “It turned out exactly as I envisioned it,” he says. Rea gave the space a true “clubhouse” feel, adorning it with the kind of items that any adult male would love to have in his dream clubhouse if he could have one. Stuffed deer heads, Rock-em Sock-em Robots, airline seats as chairs, mounted Cadillac seats, genuine WWI silk parachutes strung from the ceiling; this is a place for men to be boys.

Whether it be a designer of national significance and notoriety or a heartfelt DIY effort utilizing local artists and old-fashioned human hand grease, the premium placed on restaurant design in Oakland County is at an all-time high, and is laying the groundwork for the rest of metro Detroit to follow suit. It’s one thing to be able to name-drop chefs; the next big thing will be name-dropping interior designers. 

John D Bistro – Irakly Shandize
John D Bistro – Irakly Shandize
Torino Espresso + Bar – Nicole Rupersburg
One- Eyed Betty’s – VATO
One- Eyed Betty’s – VATO
Vinsetta Garage – Nicole Rupersburg
Clubhouse BFD – Nicole Rupersburg
Clubhouse BFD – Nicole Rupersburg