July 1, 2008
Speaking From Experience
Part of what makes Tony Chi so very good at—and famously opinionated about—designing restaurants are the years he spent
owning and operating them.
It’s a crisp night in February, and designer Tony Chi is seated in the bar of South Gate, his just completed restaurant in Manhattan’s Jumeirah Essex House hotel. The room’s kinetic interplay of bars, columns, and tables receding toward a fireplace—all reflected in prismatic mirrors—has vitalized the crowd. But the 50-year-old Chi remains pointedly dissatisfied. He’s upset that the operators installed greenish glass on the wall-size transparent wine cabinet instead of the clear panes he specified. When the waiter is momentarily distracted, Chi mutters, “This is what I hate—they walk away without saying, ‘Excuse me, Mr. Chi. Be right back.’” The designer even complains about the ice in his Johnnie Walker Black Label, which he claims isn’t hard enough and causes people to drink more. “He takes this very, very personally,” Scott Dawson, the hotel’s general manager, says later. “If we’d let him, Tony would have selected every waiter, every hostess.”
In fact, as one of very few designers with extensive experience as a restaurant owner and developer, Chi has selected staff—and much more. His singular operational know-how has made repeat clients of celebrity chefs like Alain Ducasse, Michael Mina, and Wolfgang Puck, and such major brands as Hyatt International and InterContinental—turning Tonychi and Associates into one of the most successful hospitality-design firms in the world. As it happens, Chi’s aesthetic and functional interests were braided virtually from the start of his career. Around the time he launched his firm in 1984 (following graduation from the Fashion Institute of Technology’s interior-design department and a stint working for restaurant designer Charles Morris Mount), Chi opened Lai Lai—the name means “come, come”—in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen district, with his wife, Tammy Chou. She describes the place as “a Chinese trattoria, for which Tony did the most casual all-black interiors,” and it became a neighborhood fixture. Chou comes from a food family whose properties included the popular Zen Palate restaurants, which Chi also designed.
His unusual designer-restaurateur role opened doors, and the firm stayed busy until the 1987 stock-market crash. “The day it happened, I realized that the people who sponsored my work were a bunch of speculators,” he says. “I said to myself, I will never again allow myself to be controlled by a single economy.” Fortuitously, Chi’s published projects had caught the eye of Paul Hsu, whose Hong Kong–based Elite Concepts did restaurant development. Hsu wrote to Chi and invited him to work with the firm. Following Black Monday, the designer accepted.
Chi’s timing was impeccable. “Hong Kong was mostly five-star hotel restaurants,” Hsu says of the reason he and Chi decided to open up the kind of buzz-driven place Chi had been creating back home. “The Brits were so formal, they were so,” —Chi pauses, then explodes—“UPTIGHT, these guys! So we said, ‘We’re going to break that formality.’” The partners found a space in the up-and-coming Lan Kwai Fong district, and Chi designed a casual, chic Italian restaurant at top speed. “In Hong Kong, rent was high and leases were short—so you had to move fast,” Hsu recalls. “Tony finished the job while we were building, and the place was running in about forty-five days.”
The venue, called Va Bene, was a smash and helped transform Lan Kwai Fong into one of Hong Kong’s hottest dining districts. Over the ensuing decade Chi and Hsu created and operated some 17 restaurants, of which they owned about five, eventually expanding into Indonesia, the Philippines, Shanghai, and Singapore. Along the way, Chi amassed an incomparable wealth of knowledge, not only in the aesthetics of design but in human behavior. “He can envision a room with customers and how they’ll act,” Hsu says. “So when he comes up with a design, he knows how it’s going to play out in the end.” Chi also developed an insider’s understanding of what Jumeirah Essex House’s Dawson calls “big-picture considerations.” He explains, “For example, when we asked Tony to design a restaurant that would be as attractive to local people as guests, he said, ‘I’ll design two restaurants. Because if that’s your goal, you don’t want to do breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the same room.’ And he worked with the space to create a patisserie in back and a main dining room in front, facing Central Park.”
The outcome, Tonychi and Associates’ design principal, William Paley, says, is “Tony’s holistic design/operation philosophy.” And according to Chuck Kelley, COO of Mina’s management company, Mina Group, it’s highly unusual. “A lot of designers want to build a beautiful room and have you fit your concept into it,” Kelley says. “Tony gets that it’s not about two people working in separate areas, and maybe there’s no connection, because he’s been a restaurateur.” He adds, “Tony is one of very few designers who puts energy and effort into the operational side.” Given that Mina Group has worked with such first-tier designers as Adam Tihany and Philippe Starck, this is no small praise. Dawson cites this strength too. “Waiters’ stations, places for computer screens, staff circulation, drawers for cutlery—these are things the operator normally has to fight for,” he explains. “Tony produced them all. And, having worked with other designers”—who, he implies, lacked comparable knowledge or interest—“that for me was huge.”
Despite the designer’s admission that “because of my experience I’m extremely dictatorial,” collaboration is key. “If you and I are going to have a baby,” he says, “let’s talk about how we will raise it.” Chi does so in depth. “I pace Tony on every detail—concept, menu, layout—and we go back and forth on all of it before we start,” Mina says. “It gets down to, ‘This booth looks great, but the staff won’t be able to service it because it’s too deep.” The resulting designs, he believes, “really capture the essence of the concept.”
At Stonehill Tavern, which opened in 2006 in Orange County, California, Mina sought to downplay his image as a star chef known for refined seafood and cater to a more conservative crowd. “Michael had the idea of doing modern stylized in-terpretations of classic tavern food,” Kelley recalls, “and Tony did the exact same thing in the design.” Chi began by rezoning the large open space into an inviting bar with booths, a private dining room finished in strong materials, and what the designer calls the “dining hall,” its relaxed atmosphere enhanced by bookshelves. Then he added a subtle glamorous accretion of detail: replacing traditional hexagonal floor tiles with a marble-and-onyx mosaic, crafting mouth-blown glass enclosures for the bar booths (a contemporary nod to the stained-glass window), and dressing waiters in what Kelley describes as “an old-style barman’s outfit” that’s been overhauled. “The vest is white instead of black, and the black slacks have a modern cut,” he says. “It’s a classic uniform with contemporary flair, and that’s the way the whole restaurant feels.”
For Saltwater, which opened at MGM Grand Detroit last October—and where Mina’s reputation was a selling point—the designer drew inspiration from the ocean itself. “The sea is very mysterious. It’s a sheet of something—what’s beyond it, you never know,” Chi says. “I thought the translation of ‘sea’ into design had to maintain the idea of a plane on which we allow things to happen.”
In part, the designer literalized this with an 18-foot-high wall sculpture featuring overlapping circular ripples. But to suggest the sea without, Kelley says, “hanging an octopus from the ceiling,” Chi chose clean materials. He crafted the dining-room columns from glass and finished the ceiling in onyx, lapis, and white-marble mosaic tiles that reflect shimmering light. “You might not say, ‘This reminds me of the ocean,’” Kelley ob-serves. “But as you enjoy your dinner, this sense of it overwhelms you through the different details.” Though not too strenuously, Chi insists: “You want to create a stage, to allow things to happen. But if I do too much, nothing will happen.”
Chi’s comment points to an essential quality of his designs: however visually impressive, they rely on the participation of patrons to complete them. To encourage this, Paley says, “Tony’s always trying to work a plan so that when you walk into the restaurant the perception is positive.” This can be as simple as having guests enter through the bar, as at South Gate, “so they see people right away, rather than arriving at five o’clock and saying, ‘Gee, am I the first one to be seated?’” Chi says. Saltwater, a casino restaurant that’s overflowing on weekends but can be quiet otherwise, posed a more complicated problem. “The task was to make the room feel full no matter what night of the week it is,” Mina says. Chi responded with a capacious circular bar that serves as a dining alternative. “Michael offers little bites—small plates of fish,” Chi observes. “So in the foreground you have people enjoying their little bites and a drink, and that energy radiates 360 degrees into the lounge and dining room.” Whatever the gambit, Chi knows the value of a good first impression. “I can’t do too much, but I need to control the first part of the symphony,” he explains. “If you start in a tone that you like, you shouldn’t have a problem having it go on for the evening.”
It’s hard not to trace this strong connection with the customer to Chi’s childhood. Growing up on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Taiwanese-born designer was impressed by the professional graciousness he observed in restaurants, an acknowledgment of the patron’s need to feel special. This he refers to memorably as “mannerism”—not the sixteenth-century antecedent to Post-Modernism but rather “style and hospitality.” Chi recalls his experiences sentimentally, “In the 1970s, when my mother took me to a restaurant, the maitre d’ would take her hand and say, ‘I am so happy that you walked in my door.’” Then he scowls. “Now they say, ‘Do you have reservations?’”
If there’s one area in which Chi’s intimate knowledge of how restaurants operate meshes most powerfully with his sensitivity to experience, it’s in his conflation of design and functional elements: he animates a room’s components by literally putting them to work. His signature wine cabinets, which offer the elegant allure of jewelry-store windows, exemplify this. “We keep wines by the glass in them so a waiter can turn to his side, open a door, serve the wine, and put it back in,” Kelley says of the setup at Stonehill Tavern. “It creates a seamlessness of service that’s hard to find in most restaurants.” It also generates an operational floor show. “I’m always fascinated by how I can manipulate the way people work,” Chi admits. “That function is beautiful by itself, and that beauty becomes the backdrop of the dining room.”
Given this depth of experience, it’s no surprise that Chi can be not just combative but unyielding. Yet those who’ve locked horns with him admit that when the designer is intransigent, it’s for a reason. Dawson recalls a standoff over the South Gate bar’s expensively mirrored ceiling. “Tony explained that this would reflect movement from the street, there would always be this animation and light, and I did not grasp it,” Dawson says. “But he was adamant that they could not be cut. And now those mirrors are one of the restaurant’s talking points—they’re very, very dramatic.” Mina, for one, remains unfazed by Chi’s fastidiousness, which he perceives as integral to his nature. “Tony’s passion is what drives him,” Mina observes. “He’ll walk away from a project if it’s not going to be there.” Yet this perfectionism is only partly driven by practicality. For Chi, who, Paley says, “wears his heart on his sleeve,” design is emotion—an intimate connection to the customer experience at the deepest level. “Any designer can build a dazzling body,” Chi says. “I want to create restaurants that have a chance of building a soul.”