Red lantern on riley

Converting an underused cocktail bar into a private dining room made perfect sense to chef/co-owner Mark Jensen, even when he had to roll up his sleeves and do the job himself. By Kerryn Ramsey

When Sydney’s Red Lantern team decided to transform their cocktail bar into a private dining room, they turned to Giant Design, the interior design studio commissioned when the restaurant opened in 2012.

Owners Luke Nguyen, Pauline Nguyen and Mark Jensen were surprised when the new project went to tender. “It was quoted from $75K to $160K,” says Jensen, who didn’t want to go past $50K. “I decided to project manage the refurbishment myself with the help of our landlord. We hired individual contractors and tradespeople to get the job done.”

Jensen admits there were hiccups during the five-week build. “The tradies would say, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there Monday’ but that could mean Monday in a month’s time. It was difficult, but fair play to my landlord who really got his hands dirty.”

Jensen was also prepared to do physical work. “It doesn’t take any technical skill to swing a sledge hammer, pull beams and cut things off,” he says. “I knew that the more I did, the more money I was saving.”

He also sourced new and repurposed materials, such as surfaces, furniture and shelving. Glass racks and shelves were cut out of the old cocktail bar and welded into new positions. “They’re aesthetically pleasing and are really functional,” says Jensen.

Red Lantern’s design reference is Indochine; when ordering furniture, Jensen drew inspiration from his skills in the kitchen. “Food has to be either visually complementary or it contrasts with the great flavour, and this is the same principle for furniture,” he says.

As for lighting, Jensen drew inspiration from the electrical wiring found in Vietnam’s cities’ streets. “You see electrical lighting and cords everywhere,” he says. “So, we ran metres and metres of electric cord from sockets, and dropped lights from the ceiling. Some have lamp shades, some have open bulbs. This is really in keeping with that street feel of Vietnam.”

In addition to the private dining room, the Red Lantern team decided to incorporate a new bar into the main dining area. Jensen expanded the dispense bar to accommodate glassware and bottles, and partitioned a small zone in front of the kitchen to create a wine fridge.

While he successfully completed the project within five weeks, he admits that “it was pretty close to the wire”. Tucked away in a quiet Darlinghurst laneway, the private dining room has become an ideal function venue. The room can accommodate up to 45 guests for a stand-up event, or 28 guests for a sit-down event.

Apart from the difficulty of meeting deadlines with tradespeople, Jensen also found it tricky getting the timing right for furniture delivery. “There was no storage, so everything had to be well-coordinated,” he says. “When one job was finished, the next one and to start straight away. Fortunately, that went off without a hitch. I guess the lesson learned is, if you want something done, give it a go. What’s the worse that can happen?”

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