Changing rooms

A good design doesn’t come cheap, but you will reap the long-term benefits.

A good design doesn’t come cheap, but you will reap the long-term benefits.

A good design can make a restaurant look brand-new again. Sharon Aris talks with restaurateurs about the pleasures and the pitfalls of a successful makeover.

Dish was already a popular Byron Bay restaurant when owner Ben Kirkwood decided to remodel in 2001. But while the impetus was his landlord offering him the adjacent space for lease, greatly opening up their street frontage, more was at stake. “We felt it was the last roll of the dice,” says Kirkwood. For a while they were “moderately successful”—the place in-the-know locals headed for—but they weren’t capturing enough of Byron’s lucrative 1.3 million-a-year tourist market. In short they lacked the ‘wow’ factor.

For the redesign Kirkwood chose Michael McCann of Dreamtime Australia Design, largely because, while plenty of people had ideas, McCann had also worked extensively throughout the hospitality industry before switching to restaurant design, so he came armed with practical knowledge as well. “We really wanted something that represented what Byron was—modern, beachy, casual, stylish and elegant,” says Kirkwood of the brief, with the final result marrying international touches like Balinese day beds and Adobe mud finishes with whitewashed walls and linen furniture covers. At around $300,000 it wasn’t cheap, though the landlord was persuaded to bear some of the cost, but the payoff was there from the start. Opening with fortuitous timing two weeks after September 11 “when no one was going overseas” it immediately captured the imagination of locals and visitors and in the first year they doubled their turnover. Five years later turnover has now tripled and spend per head is also up substantially. But while Kirkwood gives substantial credit to the design—“people still walk in and say the place looks brand-new”—he points out they made sure the wow factor was also served up with the food, which has continued to win chefs hats. And to stay fresh, the restaurant renews itself by reinventing the food, which has evolved from Mod Oz and Asian five years ago to modern European with touches of Spanish and French provincial today.

So how big a role does good design play in attracting solid patronage? Melbourne-based architect Peter Maddison is even prepared to put some numbers to it. “Years ago I used to say what made up a successful restaurant was for a third the food, a third the service and a third the ambience. I’d like to think that has swung now. Everyone still expects a high quality of food and service, so I’d now say it’s 25 per cent the food, 20 per cent service, but 55 per cent the design.”

So while it’s clear a good design can refresh a brand, deciding how much to do can make or break your bank account. And designers agree, if you want impact you have to do more than change the light fittings. McCann points to structural changes: moving a bar from one side of the room to the other, removing a kitchen wall to expose the drama inside, opening up windows to a view or adding popular dining seating such as raised or lowered dining areas and booths. “Avoid at all costs cold minimalist design. I call it the ‘second bottle test’. You want as many clients as possible to decide they’re not going anywhere else and stay to have that second bottle of wine.”

McCann and Maddison also agree getting the design right in the first place saves you a lot of money in the future. “The better the design and the more effectively it targets the correct markets, the longer the design will last if properly maintained,” says McCann, adding this is also the very reason it’s important not to follow ‘looks’ or trends, as nothing dates faster than yesterday’s hot idea. Maddison for his part passionately decries the “throw-away” mentality of much of the business. “If a restaurant is designed well it doesn’t need to become redundant.” Though he also points out there is a limit to what design can do and it can’t change a bad location. “At the end of the day, passing traffic, accessibility, visibility, the area it’s in and how it relates to that area play a key role.”

Finally, it’s essential to pick a designer who you can have a good relationship with. “You have to be able to throw about ideas and not be embarrassed,” says Maddison. “It’s a long distance race to get a business open. There are a lot of hands involved and not everyone is perfect including the builder, the client or the architect.” The relationship he has forged with Luca Lo Russo, owner of the stylish Café Latte in Toorak, is a case in point.

Italian-born Lo Russo always had a strong vision for Café Latte, opened 15 years ago. “I wanted something that from day one had the feel of being a classic,” he says. “Something that had always been there, that wasn’t too new or trying too hard to please, without being too conservative.” Choosing to work with Maddison because he liked his style, this southern Italian eatery was literally designed and built from the ground up. It proved such a good working relationship that Maddison has overseen all three renovations since.

Motivated by a combination of the pragmatic need to repair the wear and tear, as well as improve operations, each renovation has stayed true to the original idea while improving the service delivery. The first upgrade was to the bar and kitchen, adding a waiting area with extra space and opening it up so people could look into the kitchen. The second was the removal of a wooden floor that had proved too high maintenance, replacing it with a terrazzo polished concrete with bluestones. The third, a major extension completed two years ago, was the addition of an upstairs function space and extra kitchen that included mirror-image staircases for patrons and staff respectively. The result is a space that hasn’t tired, with The Age’s Good Food Guide 2006 noting approvingly, “regular facelifts have ensured that this Hawksburn fixture is as bright and fresh as the day it opened in 1991”.

Before you go ahead with a renovation it’s imperative you know why you’re spending and precisely what you want to achieve. “Increasing profits is too wide a target to aim at,” says McCann. Instead, ask questions like ‘Do you want to maintain and increase your current market mix? Do you want to realign them, moving towards the younger or more affluent segments of your market? Do you want to totally change markets with the renovation?’

Then there was the question that confronted Rob Rubis when he acquired three levels of Sydney Tower: ‘What do you do when you acquire an iconic space that is celebrated for its spectacular scenery, but whose fine-dining reputation has languished?’

A large part of his answer was to create a space that matched the view. “The idea was it should reflect what an icon should be,” he says of the dramatic $2.5 million refit. “I wanted to create an iconic restaurant in a fabulous Sydney spot.” Designed by McCann, 360 Bar and Dining Room now exudes opulent features and luxury including carved mahogany wall panels, a tortoiseshell bar and spectacular handcrafted African Koto wood light sculptures.

Still, the makeover was far from pain-free. “It’s very hard to quantify what’s good and bad value in an iconic structure,” says Rubis. They were also beset by challenges including finding asbestos in the ceiling and discovering the original surveying was wrong. What was meant to be a six-week job turned into a 12-week job. With hindsite Rubin knows he could have waited another year before renovating the site. The building itself is due for a major renovation, which will overcome some of his sites’ greatest difficulties, including its uncomfortably long ride in a claustrophobia-inducing lift.

Indeed, while 360 Bar and Dining opened with a bang, there were huge expectations, says Rubis. “People judge you from day one —only now, nine months later, is it finding its feet. And there’s still work to be done in filtering word of the changes out to a new clientele. This is very much a long-term proposition. It takes time to change perceptions,” says Rubin. “I’ve done a lot of restaurants, built a lot, created a lot. This has been the most spectacular and most difficult. But if you do it right, you really make a difference. After that it’s just time and perseverance.”

And establishing longevity is the game. Doyles on the Beach is another Sydney icon. Open since 1885, it’s been managed by five generations of the Doyle family. “People love the idea this is old and it has been here so long. They want to come in and look at photos and read about the old times so we don’t want to lose that,” says general manager Ben Doyle. So the key for his restaurant is maintaining its look while improving its function.

“People think ‘good weather, it’s a Doyles day’,” says Doyle, waving across the spectacular view over the bay. “When the sun comes out, the people come out.” But what is a blessing in summer also makes for a quiet winter, so the recent changes have been aimed at improving the outdoor/indoor courtyard in the cooler months: the outdoor pavers have been replaced by polished concrete, a veranda has been deepened and carpeted to give a feeling of warmth, a gas fireplace installed and the frameless glass doors that open onto the beach have been replaced. And contrary to trend a staircase has been reversed so patrons no longer look into the kitchen. Not only had it created a traffic jam and hazard on the stairs as people stopped and tripped looking in but, “our kitchen is a very busy place and a busy kitchen can get messy”.

Doyle points out with four Doyle’s restaurants, the family’s attitude to renovation is judicious. “They each have things that need money spent on. So we have to plan. Things often get put off from one year to the next. You’ve got to always bear in mind that you can overspend.” And, he says, they’re also aware the biggest selling point is their food. “Changing the menu seems to be the thing that keeps the customers most interested. Change the menu, keep it a bit fresh.”

Indeed, as Robert Goldman, chief executive officer of Restaurant and Catering NSW points out, while a big bang can make you hot, it’s the retail mentality of “change each season” that keeps you fresh without always having to see a bank manager. “Restaurants should do little things such as change the menu or change seating or the way you greet people—so every time a customer comes in they feel there is something new. That way you give your customers a reason to come back.”

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