August 1, 2006
Having just completed a Midtown steakhouse, New York downtown darlings AvroKO are set to reach a wider audience.
“Our clients like the idea that we can work in so many different disciplines,” says Adam Farmerie, a partner in New York design firm AvroKO. He’s giving a tour of his firm’s just finished project, Quality Meats. For the amber-lit Manhattan steakhouse, a property of the Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group, AvroKO designed not only the space but also details like tables, lighting, waitstaff uniforms, and water-bottle graphics. Since joining forces six years ago, the quartet—architects Farmerie and Greg Bradshaw and graphic designers William Harris and Kristina O’Neal—has carved out a niche in Lower Manhattan as a one-stop shop for soup-to-nuts restaurant design.
The creative force behind such downtown hot spots as Sapa, the Stanton Social, and Public (which they also own; see “Open Table,” April 2004, p. 28), they often draw design inspiration from their Nolita locale; their offices, above Public, are just north of New York’s Little Italy. A streak of gritty nostalgia runs through much of their work. Channeling a vanished New York, they frequently unearth a building’s original substructure, finding beauty in the construction history buried beneath layers (and years) of drywall and paint. In a milieu—New York restaurant design—dominated by the sort of big-ticket theatricality pioneered by David Rockwell and Adam Tihany, the firm stands out for its focus on intimate, even bleak, spaces and its frequent use of found repurposed materials. The terribly photogenic foursome—the subject of a good deal of media attention and the upcoming book Best Ugly—is in constant demand these days, with ongoing projects in Toronto, Santa Fe, and Las Vegas.
Smith & Wollensky Restaurant Group CEO Alan Stillman, a 40-year veteran of the business with 16 eateries nationwide, had been toying with ideas for updating his brand when his son, Michael, lured him downtown to Public last year. “I said to my dad, ‘You’ve got to come check this place out,’” the 26-year-old former art-history major says, recalling his infatuation with AvroKO’s unique aesthetic. As impressed as his son, Stillman senior arranged to have lunch with Harris and Farmerie. A few months later they were in business together.
In a significant departure from the work they’d been doing, AvroKO signed on to conceptualize an entire restaurant chain, agreeing to export to suburbia their trademark dark urban shadows and raw industrial surfaces. But just as they were starting to map out the first three of these stand-alone Wollensky’s Grills, Stillman offered a detour—a sort of test run, working under his son’s supervision to transform the Manhattan Ocean Club, a dated seafood restaurant on West 58th Street, into a modern steakhouse. Despite having recently hired the talented young chef Craig Koketsu, who’d worked at the four-star Lespinasse, the restaurant wasn’t bringing in the traffic they’d hoped.
“We had this new chef, fabulous, we loved his food,” Michael Stillman says. “But it was very hard to get people into a 20-year-old restaurant. We brought AvroKO in to see what they thought of the place. It was the middle of December. We said, ‘We want to close in January and open [as a new restaurant] in April. We haven’t even approached the chef yet. What do you guys think?’ They came back and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
For its first completed project beyond the boundaries of downtown New York, AvroKO drew on the history of the space and of the client. The oversize Quality Meats sign that adorns the front barroom today has long been a part of the Smith & Wollensky corporate identity. A re-creation of a classic butcher-shop icon, it hangs in all 11 branches of their flagship steakhouse. “It’s a piece of Americana, that actual sign,” says Farmerie, who first noticed it during a meeting at Smith & Wollensky Boston. “We said, That’s an excellent name for a restaurant—that’s the restaurant!” he continues. “They’d been surrounding themselves with this sign for years and years.”
Once the name opened the door to the motif, an old butcher shop in their Nolita neighborhood called Albanese Meats & Poultry became the main inspiration. For years the partners had been strolling by the little shop on their way to work. Last winter, while still in the early stages of their talks with Stillman, O’Neal finally walked in. “We were all kind of curious about it,” she says. Harris continues (the partners have a tendency to finish each other’s thoughts), “All of us would do a double take and wonder about this vestige of the old community and how it had managed to hold on.”
Inside the shop O’Neal found crates of meat piled high, a jumble of old neighborhood photos, and an 80-something-year-old man named Mo carving steaks to order from behind a Plexiglas case. Well-lit, barely trafficked, and entirely out of place on a block now teeming with jewel-box boutiques, the family-owned business—a relic from an era when its neighbors were Italian, not hipster—had been in the area for nearly a century. Before long the AvroKO team had joined the after-work scene at the shop—partaking of Italian nibbles and homemade wine with Mo, his son, and a revolving cast of would-be Scorsese film extras.
With its white tile, tarnished cleavers, and well-worn chopping blocks, Albanese offered a framework for Quality Meats, filtered and translated into an overall mood. “We asked ourselves what is really pure and honest and interesting about the whole idea of crafting cuts of steak,” Harris says. “Albanese is stripped down, raw. There’s no fluff at Albanese Meats.”
The accelerated timetable left no opportunity for structural changes to the Ocean Club’s convoluted floor plan, which leads guests up and down steps through several separate dining areas on two different floors. There was also little room, beyond mood boards, for putting solid details on paper—not a problem for the four partners, who have an intuitive, almost organic, rapport. They entered the low-slung all-white restaurant space in early January and began to demolish. “The client didn’t see any sketches or renderings,” O’Neal says. “It was a complete trust factor.” As materials came down, on-the-fly drawings—on bits of cardboard and stretches of unfinished Sheetrock—outlined their replacements. “The most effective way to do it was just to grab a big fat Sharpie and start drawing,” Farmerie says. Many of those early blueprints are still there, buried in the walls or under the marble-top bars.
The AvroKO team toyed with ideas that took a literal approach to bringing Mo’s shop into the restaurant. Along with tinkering in unlikely ways with the sorts of materials found inside—the white Carrara marble would line the bar tops, the butcher block would become a base for the staircase—they began collecting antique meat cleavers and experimenting with possibile applications for the waxy brown paper that is often used to wrap meat. “We tried to get wide enough slabs of wax paper to go up along the stairs,” Farmerie says. “We wanted to incorporate paper into the space,” Harris continues, “but it wasn’t working.”
Though only physically included at the very last minute—as a mounted art installation in a hidden back room—the cleavers offered a whiff of danger that informs the whole mood of the space. For example, the dining rooms’ most striking (and macabre) design centerpiece is the meat-hook chandeliers that hang over a central series of tables. “They kept showing up in sketches,” Michael Stillman says of the light fixture inspired by a black-and-white image from a meatpacking facility. “And me and my dad would go, ‘We don’t know what it is, but we like it. Whatever it is, it’s going to be cool.’”
The light fixture is as functional as it is eye-catching, composed of filament bulbs dangling from steel hooks that have been sandblasted, refinished, and mounted on rollers so that they slide horizontally to illuminate different parts of the table. “We grabbed this massive hook that would be used to stab into things,” Farmerie says. “We removed it from its existing condition and represented it in a new light as this highly finished, nickel-plated thing.”
The butcher-shop motif might have been far more blatant had AvroKO pushed through a plan to cover the walls with life-size portraits of working butchers, including Mo. Instead they were interpreted into waitstaff uniforms. Still, Albanese Meats did inform much more of the space than first impressions suggest. The graphics feature a strong, simple, readable font and—on menus, matchbooks, and bottles—a version of the small-print FDA stamp that adorns every cellophane-wrapped package of meat. Meanwhile, the dark- wood steel-bolted slats that traditionally line meat lockers were re-created on the dining-room walls. “We’re poking around in the back of the meat locker and we find this great wood, this great screw pattern,” Harris says. “Why not take that and make it into an element?”
Even Mo’s neighborhood gatherings, featuring cheese and cured meats, have their equivalent at Quality Meats. The butcher’s homemade wine finds its equal in the restaurant’s house red, bearing an AvroKO label. And the original front bar was chopped in half to create a separate nook, where charcuterie is served. “Before you even make it to the bar to get a drink the first thing you should do is hit the charcuterie bar,” Harris says. “It encourages a more social aspect in that area.”
The overall sensibility of the restaurant reflects a slower-paced New York, as evidenced in a rolling cart devoted to tableside steak sauce made to order with fresh-snipped herbs. There’s also a cheeky glass-enclosed nook down near the bathrooms with two oversize armchairs set around an old-fashioned phone offering free local calls. The AvroKO team likes to play with what might otherwise be throwaway spaces—in this case a former storage room. “It becomes this added spice,” Farmerie says. “This little room, it just galvanizes everybody’s imagination. It doesn’t have to participate as part of the function of the restaurant. You can completely do anything you want with it.”
The phone nook is one of many design curiosities in the edgy new restaurant with an unlikely Midtown locale. And as experiments in design dissonance typically go, Quality Meats is just the beginning. “Imagine walking through this fancy outdoor mall in Boca Raton, and you walk into a space that looks like this,” Michael Stillman says. “Until this restaurant was completed, everyone in the company had been looking at me like I was insane. But suddenly they’re starting to get it—‘I can see that working in the Grill.’ This has opened their eyes to how this aesthetic can work for a wider audience.”