Great Good Places

New restaurants that look like they’ve been part of their neighborhoods forever all share a subtle but ambitious social agenda: to create and celebrate community.

Chalk it up to the uncertain economy, or credit the growing interest in local foods—probably it’s a bit of both—but there’s a notable pattern among new restaurants: they want to seem familiar. All across the country, places with a slightly old-fashioned, reliable vibe and ties to area farms are cropping up. Their designs, which invoke pubs, taverns, butcher shops, marketplaces, brasseries, and trattorias, make clear that they aspire to be community institutions, a part of the social fabric.

Often they do that by providing more than just meals. Some have counters to sell premium ingredients. Others host regular get-togethers. Many encourage you to mingle with strangers at family-style tables. An extreme example, Longman & Eagle, which opened last January in Chicago, also bills itself as an inn and will soon offer six guest rooms upstairs. Seattle’s Corson Building, as much a social experiment as an eating establishment (the Web site describes it as “a home, a restaurant, and a community”), may represent the height of the trend. The chef dishes up shared platters in a 1910 house with three communal tables and a garden and chicken coop out-side. For all their trappings, the four restaurants featured here—Amis, in Philadelphia; Marlowe, in San Francisco; Miller Union, in Atlanta; and Tavern, in Los Angeles—are the kinds of gathering places that the sociologist Ray Oldenburg praises in The Great Good Place for “offering both the basis of community and the celebration of it.” So pull up a chair and stay awhile. —Kristi Cameron

Miller Union: Atlanta

Miller Union, in Atlanta, takes its name from the stockyards that once operated on the site where the restaurant now stands. That same blunt sense of nostalgia infuses the chef Steven Satterfield’s approach to what he calls “seasonal, sustainable Southern” food. Sure, he wants diners to know that their wreckfish came from off the coast of South Carolina and their aspar-agus was just picked down the road, but he also hopes to encourage them to dine more socially.

Toward that end, he asked the architects at Ai3 to turn a 3,000-square-foot renovated warehouse into “a restaurant that would feel as if you were at a friend’s house.” They obliged by creating a series of small dining rooms with domestic-sounding names: the Nook, the Pantry, the Library, the Wine Room. “We worked to translate his idea into a variety of experiences,” says Joe Remling, an Ai3 principal. Materials set the tone: the Wine Room’s red wallpaper and reclaimed fencing recall barns, while the white-washed cabinets of the Pantry show off pickled radishes and bags of cornmeal.

On the third Tuesday of every month, the Wine Room hosts family-style “Harvest Dinners.” “We choose things that are better for large-platter presentation rather than individual plates, like a whole-roasted fish or Savannah red rice cooked in a cast-iron skillet,” Satterfield says. “We’ll serve salads on wooden platters, lots of vegetable side dishes, whole cakes or pies.” Ai3 amplified the sense of closeness with long tables and enveloping pendant lamps. “The idea,” Remling says, “was to provide a true communal dining environment where guests can share stories sitting shoulder to shoulder.” —K.C.

Tavern: Los Angeles

Suzanne Goin and her business partner, Caroline Styne, knew what they wanted for their new Los Angeles restaurant: a spot that would serve the city’s Westside neighborhood like a French brasserie. “We wanted it to be a place where you can go in by yourself for coffee and read the paper, or you can go for a business lunch, with your family, on a date, or late at night—a place where you can do whatever you want,” the chef says. The only catch? They’d purchased an 8,000-square-foot building on San Vicente Boulevard that once housed an outpost of Hamburger Hamlet, the faded burger chain.

“The space was so large that we were like, ‘What the hell do you do with it?’” says Ross Cassidy, a designer with the firm Jeffrey Alan Marks. “There were three clearly defined rooms. We wanted to make them relate to each other but have separate functions.” They started by taking advantage of the building’s corner location and existing architectural features. The atrium, entered from a quiet side street, became the formal dining room, while the sunny front area with the bustling main en-trance became the larder, where customers can get take-out, groceries, and coffee. “The middle section was very dark,” Cassidy says of the remaining space. “We decided to go with that darkness and turn it into a great pub.”

To create a sense of intimacy and encourage conversation throughout the huge building, they packed it with seating. “People come in for a drink and stay for dinner,” Cassidy says. “I think people on the Westside were starved for something like this—a place where they could hang out.” —K.C.

Marlowe: San Francisco

San Francisco restaurants tend to have a local flair, and Marlowe, in the city’s fashionable SoMa district, is no exception. For her “neighborhood bistro,” the owner, Anna Weinberg, asked residents for gustatory quotations that were then made into decals on the eatery’s windows. (“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.” —Julia Child) And while many of the elements—from the ingredients to the reclaimed- wood tables—were sourced locally,
the inspiration for the interior came from Weinberg’s great-grandfather’s butcher shop in South Boston.

Kendra Nicholas, the restaurant’s designer, originally had an idea for
a “feminine rustic farmhouse” but changed course after tasting the chef Jennifer Puccio’s food—robust dishes like roasted bone marrow with salsa verde. “It was just like, ‘Wow, this is masculine—we need to eat this steak with a big, big knife,’” says Nicholas, who is also Weinberg’s sister-in-law. The menu’s bold sensibility combined with Weinberg’s family history in a cozy space filled with touches reminiscent of an old-time meat shop: the day’s specials appear on rolls of butcher paper, chalk drawings of farm animals hang above an orderly row of sturdy steak knives, and white hexag-onal tiles cover the floor.

The space was designed and built in seven weeks—a remarkably short time frame even by restaurant standards—and perfectly suits Puccio’s personal style: “The fact that the restaurant is intimate, with so few seats, it feels like I’m cooking for every person in the room.” —Belinda Lanks

Amis Trattoria: Philadelphia

Marc Vetri, one of Philadelphia’s most celebrated chefs, had a somewhat atypical goal in mind when he sat down with the architect Michael Gruber to plan Amis, his newest addition to the local food scene. “I really wanted to create a neighborhood gathering place, a social space,” Vetri says.

Located in an old factory due east of Rittenhouse Square, the 90-seat restaurant has the look, and the slightly worn patina, of a place that’s been around for decades, instead of months. “The typical trattoria is very undesigned,” says Gruber, a principal at Jagr: Projects. “We don’t know how to do anything with no design what-soever, so what we worked for was something that wasn’t overwrought.”

Amis is a collage of the reclaimed and repurposed. “The building itself
is an old warehouse,” says Gruber, who had previously collaborated with Vetri on the restaurant Osteria. “The concrete, cement, and original windows were all retained. The artwork is old industrial molds that we found. Some of the lighting fixtures we got from architectural salvage yards. The communal tables are scraps of wood from a cabinetmaker’s shop that we glued together into butcher block.”

The restaurant’s spatial cues—clear sight lines, a wide bar suitable for dining, communal tables, and an open, convivial kitchen—all contribute to the social atmosphere. “Certain restaurants are like coffee shops,” Vetri says. “You don’t really go to a coffee shop for coffee. You go to hang out, to meet people. They’re about creating community. Recently, I think, restaurants have taken on that role.” —Martin C. Pedersen

Ellerbe Fine Foods: Fort Worth, Texas

A dilapidated gas station from the 1920s hardly shouts comfort. “We wanted to find a space that had almost the feeling of a living room,” says Molly McCook, the chef and co-owner of Ellerbe Fine Foods in Fort Worth, Texas. But when the McCook and her business partner, Richard King, saw the 3,100-square-foot structure in the historic Fairmont district, they instantly liked its vintage feel. The task of converting it fell to the local firm Jones Baker Interiors + Architecture.

“Molly prepares comfort food, but it’s not like any comfort food you’ve ever had,” says JB Jones, a principal at Jones Baker. “She shops almost daily at the farmers’ market. She makes the most incredibly interesting tater tots, of all things. She puts in spices and chives.” The challenge was imbuing an industrial envelope with that down-home atmosphere on an extremely tight budget. “Their vision was of a very clean, modern space with a little farm touch—bead-board siding, concrete floors, natural rafters in the ceiling,” Jones says.

Working with an existing 12-inch ramp, Jones Baker created two distinct dining rooms, furthering the separation by adding transom windows. “It sticks with the homey feel but at the same time, you can close it off and feel like you’ve rented a room for a private function,” Jones says. The bleached-burlap curtains were a pragmatic choice: “It’s cheap and it looks cool,” he says. McCook and King found secondhand chairs from used-equipment shops and a coffee shop that had closed. “A part that’s still in-progress is a mercantile corner where they sell locally produced products, whether it’s marmalades or Texas wines or goat cheeses,” Jones says.

The ultimate homey touch comes straight from McCook’s family: her grandmother’s and great grandmother’s aprons decorate the space. “I’m greatly influenced by my Southern childhood,” she explains. —K.C.

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