Set designer Kris Moran had five months to source props for Wes Anderson’s 2001 comedy drama film The Royal Tenenbaums – which starred Gene Hackman, Bill Murray, Gwyneth Paltrow and Ben Stiller – including three to prepare things.
“When you’re on set, [during] filming, it runs [at] around US$200,000 per day,” Moran says. “You have to be prepared or everything stops.”
And for the interiors of the Bombay Bread Bar restaurant? One week.
The Bombay Bread Bar is the new incarnation of Indian restaurant Paowalla in New York’s SoHo and is the most recent example of a thoroughly modern restaurant tailor-made for the Instagram generation.
When merely turning up the lights won’t do, restaurateurs are enlisting experts from stage and screen to make dining spaces that double as photogenic lifestyle moments.
Fashion haunts such as Ralph Lauren’s Polo Bar, which has locations in New York, Chicago, and Paris and was co-designed by Lauren, have known this for years, but the trend has gone Hollywood.
At the Bombay Bread Bar, what was once a buttoned-up, monochromatic space is now a vibrant, colourful room, with a giant tiger mural animating the bread oven and a curtain of yellow flowers at the door.
The Wes Anderson restaurant
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“I wanted Paowalla to be fun and energetic, and I wasn’t succeeding,” says chef Floyd Cardoz.
More importantly, he was doing only half the business he wanted to.
Cardoz considered closing, but his friend Will Guidara, co-owner of Eleven Madison Park, encouraged him to hire Moran, whose work also includes the comedy drama The Darjeerling Limited, starring Owen Wilson and Adrien Brody, which featured a highly stylised view of India.
Paowalla’s transformation into the Bombay Bread Bar would be notable under most circumstances, but that it happened in a week – the amount of time it takes most restaurateurs to settle on a paint colour– is astonishing.
It’s also extremely cost-effective.
Moran hung the home-made, lotus-printed paper on the walls herself, added blue walls (“straight from the Wes Anderson colour palate”), and put bright oil cloths on tables.
A two-day painting project was done overnight.
Costs were around US$70,000; a typical New York restaurant refitting can easily hit, and surpass, US$1 million.
“Most traditional designers look at things from an architect’s point of view, big-picture design points that get expensive,” Cardoz says.
“I said to Kris: ‘We need to make this fun’. One week later, she’d done it.”
Moran says: “On film sets, you can’t say ‘No’. You make a good plan,.”
She compares co-owner Cardoz to a director.
“In film, we approach things from a story point of view.
“It’s different than a restaurant designer who focuses on trends – or a new fabric.”
The results [and Instagram likes] speak volumes: The Bombay Bread Bar has been packed since it opened in early March, with an energetic crowd putting back tamarind margaritas, chickpea battered onion rings, and saag paneer pizza on corn roti.
LA prop paradise
Out west, star chef Curtis Stone liked the props that stylist Kate Martindale chose for 2013 What’s for Dinner? cookbook so much that he asked her to work on his house and then on the re-conceptualisation of his elegant, 24-seat restaurant Maude in January.
It’s now an intimate salon, replete with vintage fabrics and art deco furniture, where guests currently dine on the food and wine of Spain’s Rioja region, with such dishes as a large, wood-grilled chuleton (rib-eye) and Spanish tortilla.
“One of my biggest clients is Lauren Conrad,” says Martindale, who styled the celebrity’s best-selling 2016 book Celebrate as well as Kate Hudson’s 2017 book Pretty Fun.
“Believe me, I understand the importance of spaces that telegraph a lifestyle.”
For Maude, the two-week renovation meant installing velvet, dark-navy leather décor, and antiques that range from old ironstone plates to flea-market artwork in vintage frames.
“We did not have the budget for fine art,” says Martindale, revealing only that it was in the high five figures.
So instead, every time Curtis changes the menu, she’ll swap the photographs.
“Restaurant designers go over budget all the time. They say: ‘I need that chair’. Stylists are used to working with tiny budgets,” she says. “We MacGyver a lot.”
Atelier-turned dining room
Roman and Williams design firm principals Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch created the sets for such films as P ractical Magic, starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock, and Stiller’s Zoolander.
Yet they’ve become renowned for their restaurants, including Le CouCou, which re-introduced New York to fine dining, with grand chandeliers, enough candles to light up a medieval palace, and a kitchen awash in copper.
“It’s the lighting,” maître d’ Michael Cecchi-Azzolina said in a 2017 interview about what makes the restaurant so special.
“Roman and Williams made the place feel like a stage by lighting every table, so diners feel like they’re the centre of the room.”
Room with a view @lamerceriecafe @rwguild #lamerceriecafe #lamercerie #rwguild #romanandwilliams #romanandwilliamsguild #53howard #soho #shop #eat #drink #read #relax #settlein #getguilded @ss0522 thank you for the photo!
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Now the designers have flipped the script: at their new La Mercerie, inside the Roman and Williams Guild, all the products are for sale, from plates and glasses to flowers, so fans can turn their homes into high-style dining rooms.
The ‘Hamilton’ effect
When the Times Square institution Bond 45 reopened in autumn 2017, it did so with the help of David Korins, the Tony-nominated scene designer for Hamilton and War Paint, as well as Dear Evan Hanson.
For the upstairs room, Korins recreated the feel of the former restaurant, with tiled floors and mirrored walls, as well as a marble island adorned with antipasti platters.
In the subterranean downstairs space, he managed to create the vibe of an Italian patio, with video installations of the Mediterranean and an abstract star field of light bulbs overhead.
“The design process is similar to Broadway,” says Korins. (Donald Holder, the Tony Award-winning lighting designer for The Lion King and South Pacific, also had a hand in the project.) “You work with your collaborator, whether its the director or the restaurant owner. You do sketches, you figure out how people will move through the space, then you install.
“Basically, a restaurant is a theatre preview that’s 360 degrees and includes food. Each night, you see hundreds of scripts acted out in a dining room.”
David Rockwell, a trailblazer in the hybrid world of restaurants and theatre design, concurs, but with a caveat.
His Rockwell Group has designed dozens of restaurants, including the new Union Square Café and Nobu downtown; he has also won a Tony Award for the set design of She Loves Me, and his newest project is Broadway’s upcoming Lobby Hero.
“Both [restaurants and Broadway] are centred on scenography and storytelling,” says Rockwell. “But while they do share a lot of things, they use very different tool kits, from material selection to technology.
“I think the power of theatre is the fact that it is temporary, experienced in the moment, and a particular performance cannot be repeated.
A restaurant interior – that’s much more permanent.”