Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Pig, Goat & Oysters in Chicago

Our time at Chicago's Neocon 2012 last week was equal parts exploration of product design and restaurant design. My dogs may be barking, but the many miles trekked in the Merchandise Mart and on the streets of Chicago were well worth my sore muscles today.

the Publican
Sunday brunch... our chance to observe the dominant, racetrack communal table seating up to 100 people. Our clients either love or hate the idea of communal seating, but as popular as the Publican continues to be, Chicago seems to have embraced it.  The high back chairs and the pure volume of noise seem to be key.  The ladder back provides seated privacy, a psychological barrier between you and the patron who may be standing... waiting... just behind you.  The noise allows you to carry on a conversation with your group and not necessarily hear every detail of your neighbor's.

We enjoyed hanging at the 3-tier, pub-style banquet table stands at the center of the restaurant... purse hooks included :). We were impressed at how much floor space was dedicated to standing tables with no seats, but it provides a comfortable space to wait in this "No Reservations" joint.  And, it wouldn't hurt to grab a beer and first course plate. The restrooms are communal as well, 5 single stalls with an adjacent bird bath sink.

GT Fish & Oyster Bar
Only a few blocks north of the Merchandise Mart, we strolled over for lunch on Monday. This was my favorite meal of our trip, which may not be fair since seafood is my true love.  The design combines both traditional and non-traditional elements (inspired by the chef's approach to the menu). The design uses details of rustic fisherman nets, anchors, and materials evoking the feel of cottages or boat decks. We appreciated the high contrast palette of warm, light greys with black, the boomerang communal table (yacht-like) transitioning the bar to the dining area, the fish mural above the banquette looks as good in person as in photos, the brass table corner guards, the placement of mirrors, black venetian plaster in the bathrooms, mosaic tile flooring in the bar area  . The service was impecable and perfectly timed.

The Girl & the Goat
We showed up at 5PM, hoping for one of the coveted walk-in tables.  We lucked out with a 2-top bordering the bar and facing the super long expo line with chef tables. Perfect. Our server was also perfect, guiding us through our first goat selections. The chairs and pendant lights we've seen before, but the fire-screen back bar is just as cool in person, as is the long expo line anchored by (2) 2-top date tables- ON THE LINE.  That is one of the best "special occasion tables" we've seen. There were many thoughtful details such as ledges holding a water carafe & menus at the table. 

I still remember my first visit to Blackbird. There was little to see in that part of Chicago, and you worried the cab driver was taking you to a back alley... and he wasn't coming back. Fastforward more than 10 years and it's one of the coolest areas of Chicago with restaurants from top chefs and taxis looping the streets. avec has long been admired by our clients and by our studio for it's simple design.  We stopped by post-dinner and were lucky to grab a few seats at the bar.  Everything is wood in this simple, rectangular box: wood stools, wood tables, and wood benches.  Only the bar counter is stainless steel and the wall of green bottles screening the restrooms. The scale and intimacy reminded me more of a NYC shotgun floor plan... maximizing every nook and cranny. With a space so efficient, it's no surprise they take a straight-forward approach to service and hospitality.  Get in. Eat. Get out.  Luckily, we struck up a conversation with another guest at the bar to soften some of the hard edges.

violet hour
Ahhh, the speakeasy.  We just finished one, Eleanor's, tucked in the back of Muss & Turner's dining room through a door that looks like it's to a walk-in cooler.  Violet hour is disguised by an ever-changing mural painted across the front of the building and entry door.  We only knew the address because of Jess, the super cool server at Girl & the Goat that told us to go.  Just through the door is the holding area, someone's gotta come out before you can go in.  It's a surprisingly large space, over 150 seats at bar & lounge, but the floor to ceiling heavy drapes divide the volume into intimate areas.  And, of course, very little lighting other than candles.
Check out the House Rules:
Cell phones aren't aloud, so I had to snag these images online.

bar runs along side wall between drapery panels- see above pic
This is the current mural. We walked through door by whale's mouth.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lure's Final Stretch...ai3, Peace Design & Fifth Group

ai3 is hanging out with Choate Construction this morning.  Dan & Ethan are conducting the final, construction walk through of Lure. Peace Design will install the rest of the fabulous lighting and furniture shortly.  Here are a few pictures from last week's walk through.  Will share more later....

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Bowling ball in a swimming pool

Post by Amy Price
Ok, Ok, I admit it. I suck at blogging. And yet I LOVE to read them. So in celebrating my 5th anniversary at ai3, I’m writing my first entry tonight over a glass of wine. Ironically, I logged onto the website to see what was last posted and Joe posted this morning about the importance of experiencing our benchmarks first hand. What a perfect intro into the first Benchmark Recon post!
Since last summer, ai3 has been regularly visiting our neighboring restaurants, bars, hotels, and hotspots. Why? Because happy hour is a blast with this group and because Joe nailed it- you can’t get inspired from an LCD screen and you can’t smell that high res pork belly photo, I don’t care how much you paid for your Macbook.
Here’s how it works- every couple of weeks, a handful of us will rush out of the office mumbling about work left to do, maneuver midtown traffic and quickly settle into the selected destination for some hilarious small talk and unwinding under the guise of local research to size up the competition. Don’t get me wrong, we love our fellow architects and designers, but you can’t drink in someone else’s space without checking out the restrooms, locating the purse hooks (or lack thereof- tisk tisk!) and sampling the server’s favorite menu picks. We photograph details we love, discuss things we don’t understand, but more importantly, we ENJOY the space. We drink, we eat. We check out the scene, the demographics, the mood. We laugh about whatever witty design metaphor Dave created this week, we tease Ethan about his hair product, and then we go home.

This week’s happy hour started at the Optimist, Ford Frey’s newest nosh spot on the West side at 914 Howell Mill Road.  Two concepts in one, the Optimist and the Oyster Bar are both themed in a southern coastal d├ęcor that echo Ford’s style (in Smith Hanes’ hand) with textural fabrics, funky lighting elements and a great cocktail menu. The vibe was laid back, the bar service reserved, and the food and drinks were awesome.

Curiosity killed the cat and Dan, Lucy, Elisa, and I decided to peek in at Richard Blais’ new restaurant, the Spence. We had a great array of shared plates and a couple bottles of wine. The space was… nice. Dark, simple, and with the warm woody Johnson Studio feel we’ve all come to expect from a Concentrics space. My favorite element was ironically the restrooms- the signage was great. Little toilet graphics on door portholes- the women’s sign had the toilet seat down, the men’s room had the seat up! Unfortunately the staff ruined the element of surprise by warning us all about the subtle signage on the way to the restroom, but they were clever none the less.

We finished the evening off at STK for a night cap. We sat in the lounge and comments seemed to hover around the Vegas style of the space- not necessarily our scene, but definitely a great homage to Sin City, it was like being transported to the Strip! Dark, moody, glowy and with great restrooms, it was a great way to end a wonderful evening.

“What sound does a bowling ball make when you throw it in a pool?”
You’ll have to ask Elisa for the answer to that one.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Long Live the Road Trip!

I confess – I am addicted to Google Images – a client or a colleague mentions a spot for a beer or the best pizza in town or a crazy piece of architecture and there it is in all its 1080 x 1050 glory!

What the hell am I (are we) doing?

True inspiration has yet to come to me through this screen and really touched my design soul. Sure we research new design trends, a far off hot spot or an old school hotel, but we can’t afford to stop there.
I can recall every restaurant I have stepped into and how it felt to be there because the contextual surprise, tactile nature, sounds and smells are critical to our design process. Understanding a project in context and why a designer, an architect or an artist made the moves they made is fundamental to truly understanding and learning from a design response.

There are hundreds of sites that will provide an eye full of amazing design candy, but nothing is a substitute for siting in a space and watching the sunlight cross through, hearing a crowd, touching the bar top and sinking into a bad ass banquette for a round of sidecars.

Great projects at ai3 have always started with a “road trip” full of daylong walks from spot to spot, taking in the look and FEEL of great places. Dan started by stomping through the east and west village with our friends from Holemen & Finch before we ever picked up the pen. I spent a day in a downpour walking the street of NYC with Carolyn, Neal and Steven before we even talked about the design of Miller Union. Another trip with Steve, Robby and Bill shaped our view of ALMA.

Making the effort to experience places and space in person has always paid us back. In the typical world of billable hours and deadlines it is tough to balance, but at ai3 it is invaluable and a part of our culture that fuels the design process!