BDwest Closeup: Steve Rugo, Rugo/Raff Architects

Q&A with session moderator STEVE RUGO, RUGO/RAFF ARCHITECTS

The principal of this Chicago-based multidisciplinary firm serves up food for thought on the new menu for restaurant design, why there’s a great divide between what makes for a hot-list dining experience on the East vs. West Coast, and a taste of the topic he’ll be addressing as the moderator of the Food & Design panel, 1:30 PM – 2:30 PM, Wednesday, April 4 at BDwest in the Los Angeles Convention Center.

YOUR FIRM JUST WRAPPED UP THE AVIARY NYC AND THE OFFICE NYC AT THE MANDARIN ORIENTAL NEW YORK AS WELL AS CHEF DAVID BERAN’S DIALOGUE RESTAURANT IN SANTA MONICA, CALIFORNIA.

WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT THE DINING SCENES IN THE BIG APPLE VS. LA? HOW DOES THAT INFLUENCE YOUR APPROACH TO DESIGN?

There are big differences. Each city’s dining scene has its own vibe—and that’s not just about what’s happening inside the restaurant world. It’s a manifestation of the local lifestyle and culture. It’s also tied to the weather. Whether locals or visitors, people in LA are outside more; they’re unencumbered; they dress more casually. If a man does wear a suit to events like the BDwest Opening Reception or the B18 & Up-and-Coming Hoteliers Celebration, it’s typically with a tee shirt—something he most likely wouldn’t do in New York. If a man puts a tie on in Los Angeles, people look at him and probably wonder what’s wrong.

Local culture also inspires what kinds of restaurant, and dining design, resonate. Since 80% of U.S. fruit and vegetables are grown in the area, locals have been raised with the idea of “farm to table” food so it’s not a trend, it’s just a given. So, that changes the materials, color palettes and lighting that complement the fare. The California food scene is very much about the food and service, not design for its own sake.

Culturally, LA’s vibrant multicultural makeup means that “mom and pop” casual dining has become one of the city’s foodie highlights. From food trucks to unassuming strip mall venues, some of the most memorable meals are hidden in unlikely places. BDwest attendees can walk to unforgettable eats in DTLA. If they don’t mind a long walk or a short subway or a taxi trip, it’s well worth going to the Arts District, where we’re opening a bistro concept, Jolie, and that’s also home to some of the best food trucks. In the opposite direction is Koreatown, which even iconic chef David Chang points out as one of the best food scenes in the world.

That’s partly why I saw potential in the space that became Dialogue. It was in a renovated strip mall in Santa Monica, and while co-owner Michael Simkin wasn’t initially convinced, it was clear to me and to chef Dave (Beran) that we could transform this former fast food restaurant into an immersive fine dining experience. LA is ready for the idea of a 21-course tasting menu in a space like that (Dialogue was named Best New Restaurant by Los Angeles Magazine). We made some major changes to the layout and transformed the space into an intimate 18-seat venue with formal/informal fusion decor.

Ultimately, the blurred line of inside to outside makes a huge impact. For example, if we are designing a space where the weather outside can be brutal and cold, we would not add any windows so that the emphasis then becomes on the plate in front of you and not the outside environment. The design becomes about escapism and helping you forget the howling wind or snowstorm outside. That’s really the biggest difference.

The interior of The Aviary NYC. Photo: Courtesy of The Mandarin New YorkThe interior of The Aviary NYC. Photo: Courtesy of The Mandarin New York

HOW DID YOU BREAK INTO RESTAURANT DESIGN?

Actually, we didn’t start in that business. Over the years, we did several restaurants around Chicago that were owner/chef driven—more neighborhood type spaces. We were focusing on single-family houses, rehabs and other urban/suburban projects in 18 states. One of our residential clients, investor Nick Kokonas, and his wife were blown away by the food at Trio, a small but outstanding restaurant in Evanston, Illinois with a then-up-and-coming chef, Grant Achatz. Kokonas wanted to give him the chance to go out on his own. As a result, a small restaurant group was formed and Alinea was born. Since the original Alinea (which we redesigned in 2016), we’ve also created Roister, Next, and upcoming Progression restaurant in the Chicago area, as well as The Aviary NYC and The Office NYC, all under the Alinea Restaurant Group banner, as well as other restaurant projects.

WHAT’S ON YOUR BOARDS?

In Chicago, we’re currently designing a large supper club and bar event space in Chicago’s United Center. It’s going to have a retro feel with balconies, an atrium for outdoor dining and private dining rooms. Our latest project for Alinea Group, Progression, will be a music-led venue. We’re also working on some evolutions of the Japanese noodle restaurant Ramen-san for Lettuce Entertain You. And finally, we’re collaborating with a New Orleans chef who is moving to Chicago to work on a restaurant that focuses on Israeli/Lebanese cuisine.

Dialogue Restaurant
The dining area at the Dialogue Restaurant. Photo: Courtesy of Dialogue Restaurant

AS MODERATOR OF THE FOOD & DESIGN SESSION AT BDWEST, WHAT DO YOU HOPE IS THE KEY INSIGHT YOUR SESSION ATTENDEES TAKE AWAY?

We want people to understand that collaboration is key. It’s paramount that the chef, client and designer all be able to communicate openly. Dealing with a chef-driven property is much like designing a complicated multimillion-dollar house; there is a huge team of people, and you all have to get to the same page or it’s not going to work out well.

HOW IS SOCIAL MEDIA INFLUENCING RESTAURANT DESIGN?

Almost everybody is asking for an “Instagrammable” spot. One of our upcoming projects has that social media component designed in, with photo booths that print the date and name of the event on the picture. A digital copy can be instantly loaded to a person’s account. When I attended Design Week in London, there were a lot of well-known designers taking photos in front of the Woolsey sign outside and posting them on social. Everyone is caught up in this; we are all doing it. It’s simply a part of the process now, whether that’s good or bad.

The Office NYC at the Mandarin Oriental New York
The interior of The Office NYC at the Mandarin Oriental New York. Photo: Allen Hemberger

WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A SPACE AS A GUEST WHEN ENJOYING A MEAL OUT?

I want to walk in and think wow, this is REALLY comfortable and inviting and enhances what I’m there to do as opposed to dominating what you’re there to do. I am not as crazy about loud spaces. Granted, I like to look at pictures of hyper-dynamic venues; I don’t know if I want to sit in them.

To find out more on restaurant design from Rugo, Dialogue executive chef Dave Beran and the restaurant’s co-owner Michael Simkin, come to their panel discussion “Food & Design” at Boutique Design West (BDwest), April 4, 1:30 – 2:30 PM, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

View the complete Agenda here