Two disparate restaurants, located a continent apart, get new life from makeovers.
With few exceptions, restaurants, like most hospitality venues, periodically need to be re-energized. Tastes change and the dining public can be fickle. Neighborhoods, too, evolve and restaurants may feel the need to adapt to those changes. Diners may tire of the industrial and quirky and want something quieter. A carefully cultivated mood is just as important as eye-catching components, and each of the restaurants featured here have both—more than enough for a memorable meal.
Seasons Animate Redesign
While remaining in Toronto’s popular Queen Street West neighborhood, the reimagined Nota Bene restaurant features an all-new design concept inspired by chef David Lee’s new menu ideas centered on seasonal ingredients. Interior design firm +tongtong, Toronto, collaborated with owner/chef Lee to renovate the interior of Nota Bene, an established fine-dining restaurant that was originally designed by KPMB Architects, Toronto. +tongtong expanded the idea of the changing of the seasons to a concept of change itself. The design integrates elements that celebrate the beauty of change, by the powers of nature and by the ingenuity of man.
Upon entering the restaurant, patrons are greeted by a statuesque tree. The trunk is of a fallen ironwood tree resurrected from the floor of a Southern Ontario forest and treated with the ancient Japanese process of Shou Sugi Ban, a technique in which wood is preserved through carbonization rendering it matte black. The tree’s canopy floats effortlessly above with a rhythmic gesture inspired by the natural phenomenon of murmuration. This gestural expression is presented in geometric form using 3-D printed technology. Reaching the wood-trellised ceiling above, the art piece, titled Fuga, defines the entrance from the new bar area adjacent and introduces the anticipated drama further into the new space.
Chef Lee felt the original bar area lacked energy and connection to the rest of the dining space and the urban nature of the neighborhood. +tongtong used two large-scale elements that now connect the bar to the street and the dining room while maintaining defined and differentiated spaces. A reflective black ceiling stretches the length of the room. Deep and mysterious, the inverted pond offers an aerial view of dining room activity. A 43-ft. glass rail separates the new bar and dining room. Laminated within the glass, +tongtong created an abstract graphic mirror of a beehive and bees collecting honey. A layer of dichroic film renders the surface iridescent “like the wings of butterflies” said +tongtong principal John Tong. The partition doubles as a mirror that reflects the street life into the bar area and a perforated screen maintaining transparency to the dining room.
Another feature linking the two areas is a custom-designed wine display that is backlit and framed behind a glass wall. Columns of vegetable-tanned and oiled leather saddles gently cradle bottles of wine. The effect resembles young buds clinging to vines showcasing chef Lee’s extensive wine offerings.
The owner wanted Nota Bene’s dining room, known for its luxurious ambiance, to offer a new yet equally refined experience. +tongtong created an installation of more than 70 tumbleweeds sourced from Nevada. While seemingly fragile, these deceptively tough and well-traveled entities migrate across the ceiling of the entire dining room, injecting an airy touch of endearing whimsy to the room.
The energy of the previously closed kitchen is now exposed through a translucent macro-photographic mural of a fantastical space deep inside a chunk of glass.
The iconic white linens of fine dining are replaced with custom-designed DuPont Corian, Wilmington, DE, tables which drape over a frame and are then centered with playful inserts of walnut resembling bubbles cuddling together. In the bar area, the tables have removable serving-platter inserts for breads, charcuterie, and bar snacks.
The entire renovation took a year of planning and three weeks of onsite construction.
“Nota Bene is a well-established brand with very loyal followers. +tongtong was mindful in reinforcing chef Lee’s vision while bringing a new experience to a broader audience. We aimed to give the space the sensuality of material while maintaining a very sleek, architectural approach,” says Tong. “It’s a balance of warmth and modernity.”
John Tong, executive creative director and lead designer
Lisa Mann, creative director
Kateryna Nebesna, designer
Builder: Anjinov Inc., Toronto
Japanese Tattooing Inspires Decor
Sake Dojo, located in the Los Angeles’ Little Toyko neighborhood, captures the vibe of a modern Tokyo establishment, while exploring the ancient art of Japanese tattooing as its dominant design motif.
In homage to Sake Dojo’s “Japanese forward” culinary spirit, designers David Wick of Wick Architecture & Design, Los Angeles, and Andrew Lindley of + LAND Design Studio, Los Angeles—the duo behind Hollywood’s new Gold Diggers Hotel and culinary destinations such as Mexicano and Church & State—fused their impressions of Tokyo, from the traditional and modern to the humorous, and even fantastical.
Located on the ground floor of the recently remodeled Mikado Hotel in an historical building dating back to 1914, Sake Dojo is the fourth restaurant project Wick and Lindley have completed in Los Angeles’ flourishing downtown.
“We wanted the space to feel fresh and vibrant, and to express the cohesion of our impressions with art and cultural objects at the core,” said Wick. Lindley added, “We wanted to recognize Japan’s worldwide reputation for exceptional tattoo art in a way that reframed the experience.” He further noted, “By reimagining the scale of its application to beyond life-size, we took tattoo art from personal expression to a sensorial group experience.”
In the restaurant’s context, that experience becomes one of being enveloped by a “body suit,” this time with wood acting as the canvas instead of human skin, and wood grain deployed to mimic how ink sets on human skin. Wick and Lindley collaborated with tattoo artist Horifuji and printer Michael Hill of AōSA, Huntington Beach, CA, to create the lenticular walls of tattoo art and light that fill the space.
Featuring waves, water petals, and Koi fish, an aquatic theme is articulated in the main dining area on a 26-ft.-wide by 12-ft.-high feature wall near the entrance and on a 15-ft.-wide by 9-ft.-high adjoining wall, before rising 5 ft. above the bar and running its entire 50-ft. length. The sequencing of the perforated plywood panels goes beyond the merely decorative to the purposeful by housing lighting systems, covering mechanical diffusers, and containing HVAC above the bar. In the restaurant’s private dining room, floor-to-ceiling sliding perforated panels continue the design motif, cleverly enclosing the room and providing dappled views inside and out.
Throughout the 3,283-sq.-ft. space, Wick and Lindley layered a tongue-in-cheek environment with vintage décor that includes a series of American movie posters in Japanese, including “Life Aquatic” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” as well as vintage cameras, sake bottles, and Japanese cookbooks. In the expansive bar area, which is Sake Dojo’s claim to fame, an expanded steel liquor cage and generously sized bar amplify the sake theme, where guests can order more than 120 varieties on tap.
The effect overall—a high-design environment with a welcoming, energetic and urban vibe—is exactly what Sake Dojo’s proprietors envisioned. “We are deeply invested in Little Tokyo’s transformation,” said Sake Dojo co-owner Don Tahara, who alongside partners Mike Gin and Enrique Ramirez, also opened Far Bar in 2006. “David and Andrew have a long history of exceptional design commissions in downtown L.A., so we appreciated not only their creative chops, but also their commitment to transforming the neighborhood, while respecting its cultural significance.”