Restaurant architecture is no stranger to the influence of trends. The latest theme to show up in the design of dining destinations is to create restaurants that are meant to evoke the feeling of a home. Restaurants including Dupont hotspot Mari Vanna, the new Sisters Thai, and the upcoming La Tagliatella in Clarendon all go beyond abstract ideas of "homey" or "comfortable" to a more literal interpretation of someone's house, or a particular room within it.
"I think a little bit of it is that they want to create this nostalgic feeling for themselves or for the guest, to evoke something that was part of them growing up," said Allison Cooke, senior designer at CORE DC, which handles many of the city's restaurants.
Cooke has heard a request similar to this from several of Core's clients, including Rockville's Sugo, from the Cava team. "The client said, 'We want this to feel like our grandmother's kitchen,'" she said.
Indeed, design touches that evoke a particular room aren't uncommon. Bookshelves and library-esque decor can be seen at Sisters Thai, Rasika West End, Ambar and the upcoming Grill Room in Georgetown. D.C.'s Mari Vanna (which markets theme nights like "Karaoke in Grandma's Basement") is stuffed with knickknacks and furniture more commonly seen in a home than in a restaurant.
Sometimes the touches are more subtle. Not a lot of people's living rooms feature cactus-shaped couches like they have at José Andrés' Barmini. But Cooke said that Andrés really did want the bar's design to evoke a modern, European-influenced home — one request was that no stainless steel would be visible anywhere. "That's hard to do at a bar," she said.
Designers like Cooke use tools like lighting and finishing materials to capture a homey feel. Lighting should be "softer, more indirect," Cooke said. Fabrics might be more worn to evoke the impression of someone's favorite Sunday chair.
La Tagliatella's Italian home-inspired design isn't unique to the U.S., where the company is just beginning to expand, explained Dan Maas from the firm ai3, which is helping the restaurant chain expand here. The first local location of the Spanish company's restaurant opens in Clarendon April 1.
"I believe that Italian culture really comes up through the kitchen, with grandma in there making pasta," he said. "It's very familiar and relatable to everyone; it evokes their childhood growing up." At La Tagliatella, you're not necessarily going to see an old woman hunched over her dough, but you will see touches like big chandeliers, historic photos on the walls, and wooden materials that help create the look.
"I feel extremely strongly about this idea of memory and how it evokes feels of comfort," he said. "You talk to any celebrity chef in the country, and one of their main goals is to have their food be relatable in that way."
Maas believes that European restaurant design can often be more over-the-top than some U.S. customers are used to. "I think it's successful in its attempt to transport the customer to a different place. I didn't get it until I went over there and saw it for myself."
The upcoming Del Campo in Penn Quarter, Victor Albisu's South American restaurant, will also take its inspiration from outside the U.S. Cooke studied photos of estancias, a type of home found in Argentina, to get ideas for the restaurant's design. Del Campo is slated for a spring opening.