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David Rockwell

Rewriting the script of New York's Finest restaurants

Nearly forty years ago when my only childhood summer thoughts revolved around baseball cards, candy, and, well, baseball, my mind has preserved a rather concise memory of being dragged along on a grueling campground-hopping vacation in Vermont. During one particularly long drive when my brother and I passed the time by pummeling each other in the back seat, our car slowed suddenly and pulled over beside a big old brown barn. My mother had apparently spied a “barn sale” sign from many miles away – I’ve since learned that all women seem to have this superhuman ability – and as we entered the barn’s side door, my brother and I finally lost interest in thrashing each other and looked up. To our delight we saw what appeared to our young eyes to be a room filled with just about every single thing ever made in the world. Thousands of beautiful and amazing and scary items hung precipitously from walls, beams, and rafters, using wires and ropes and nails and other every feasible method of thing-hanging technology known to man, each item occupying a narrow range of hues from tan to gray.

David Rockwell - Rewriting the script for New York's Finest restaurants

When I walked into the Rockwell Group’s Union Square office for the first time, their space instantly reminded me of a colorized version of this dated relic from my memory. The walls were adorned with colorful combinations of shimmering materials, some of them recognizable, others so alien-like you couldn’t help but stare as you tried to decipher the creation’s genetic makeup. I walked through narrow aisles lined with hundreds of wooden boards, each of them containing a rendering of the creative energy from one of Mr. Rockwell’s inventive employees. Entire conceptual worlds dumped onto a 4-foot sheet of plywood, waiting to be brought to life. And as I paced slowly through this ocean of ingenuity, it’s easy to miss the occasional sleeping dog lying in and around their master’s cubicles – I almost stepped on one cute little one - their apparent lack of interest in passersby a likely indication of their content.

And speaking of being content, I watched Rockwell employees working on so many different levels – cube dwelling artists doting over detailed maps; designers poring over thick books of materials; excited model makers wheeling their new creations down the busy aisles loud enough so I knew to step aside for them, but quiet enough not to wake their sleeping companions. Mr. Rockwell is proud of the fact that over the years, some of his designers have left the company, and soon thereafter came back to work for him after comparing the quality of life and work elsewhere. While we certainly couldn’t prove his hypothesis of working-man’s bliss, if this room was a theatre (and in some ways it truly is), the name of the play might be “The Creativity Spa.”

If I was pressed to choose two simple words to describe Rockwell’s philosophy when designing restaurants, or for that matter casinos, hotels, theatre sets and retail spaces, those two words would most likely be “fun”, and “comfort”. When you walk into a place conceived from the minds of the Rockwell Group, it’s difficult not to notice that you’re in a special place. Mr. Rockwell and his talented team have made an art out of researching the very essence of their client’s minds, using materials and ideas that seem to be pulled right out of their dreams, and somehow fabricating an emotional connection between the space’s roots and its occupant’s imagination. We sat down with Mr. Rockwell to see exactly how he does this.

NYRI: How did you first become involved with designing restaurants?
DR: I was introduced to the owner of El Parador when he needed to renovate for a food event, and he had to open in two weeks. I had never done a restaurant before, so I brought in a friend of mine who built scenery and I designed it while he built it, in two weeks. That led to doing Sushi Zen which was my first complete restaurant. Since then I have become an avid fan of food and chefs. I think restaurants serve an important function in cities. They’re like little one to two hour mini vacations. When I think about Vong, when you’re on 54th Street and you come into that restaurant and then you go to that bar and then along the corridor and that curved wall, in some way you’re disconnecting from the city and reconnecting to this other world that is very food-centric.

NYRI: Since then, you’ve been involved in so many other great projects in New York.
DR: I’ve had a chance to collaborate with so many amazing people and I think that’s the thing that’s most compelling about restaurants for me. When I started doing sets for theatre six or seven years ago, in talking to producers and directors I realized there’s a strong analogy between restaurants and theatre in that both have a script. In theatre you’ve got the written script, but in restaurants the script is less clear. When we first started doing work for Jeffery Zacharian at Town, we had to get him to articulate his point of view about what’s urban, what’s special about his food, the point of view he wants to bring forward, what the service is going to be. All of that back-story becomes the script for every design decision. Design is not arbitrary; you make design decisions based on what kind of mood you want to create and what the overall concept is.

NYRI: How much of the design will a restaurateur typically preconceive before they come to you with their project?
DR: That ranges from absolutely none, to “I’ve cut out magazine images every day and I’m going to come to the Rockwell Group with a folder of things that I like.” One is much more prescriptive from the other. If you can define what you are going to do before you do it, it’s just not as interesting and it’s not as organic. In the case of Strip House for Peter and Penny Glazier on 12th Street, they knew they wanted a steakhouse, and it was in the old Asti’s space, which was a speakeasy in the late thirties. Part of what we were able to do is convince Peter and Penny and David Walzog to really spend some time in the space. It’s such a unique and special space; let’s design it while we are in the space. That’s one kind of an approach. With Ruby Foo’s, so much of the design there was dictated by Steve Hanson wanting this mix of Japanese and Chinese. We thought there was a way to make it about “Mott Street meets modern.” You know, take the excessive marketplace of Mott Street and introduce a more serene Japanese aesthetic, but what really drove that design, frankly, was that 75 percent of the space was upstairs. It had been a restaurant many times and failed. We seem to have this repeated obsession with stairs in New York City, primarily because so much of the real estate is upstairs or downstairs. So with Ruby Foo’s, we had to convince Steve Hanson to throw away 25 percent of the space by cutting open the floor. So an operator would look at that and say “I’ve just given away 25 percent of my space,” and our point was, but you’ve made the 50 percent that’s left upstairs “A-plus”.

NYRI: What drives you to find new ideas each time you take on a new client?
DR: The thing about restaurants that’s constantly engaging for me is how many levels you can analyze a problem from. What does a restaurant look like when you walk in the front door, how does it welcome you. If you are the first 10 people in a 200 seat restaurant, what does the restaurant look like with 10 people in it? How do you stagger the entrance? When we did the first Nobu with Drew and Bob DeNiro and the whole team, one of the things that we kept arguing with Drew about was seating layout. Because one way to look at operations is: no banquettes; total flexibility. However that’s also like creating a catering hall in Great Neck, so trying to come up with a place that’s both accommodating and welcoming and has the sense of everyone kind of being in a “power booth”.

NYRI: What was it like working with Drew and his team?
DR: Well remember after we did Nobu, we did Next Door Nobu and then we did Nobu Vegas, and we just completed Nobu Dallas. So I think at this point there is a kind of comfort level between us, and you can speak short hand. That’s one of the great things about doing multiple places for a chef or operator. We know what’s important to Nobu. He was very involved in the kitchen layout, and Drew continued to be involved in the operational layout. I think what drove Nobu 57th Street was us seeing that 12 years ago when Nobu was completed, so much of what happened there had become ubiquitous for fusion Japanese. The blackened cod is everywhere; there are black river rock walls everywhere; the scorched ash, the open sushi bar kitchen relationship, all of that was new 12 years ago. It just became part of the dialogue.

NYRI: Has anyone come to you with a restaurant design idea that you thought was a little crazy?
DR: We’ve had a lot of people approach us about wanting to do restaurants who aren’t in that business, and I think people assume that it’s somewhat sexy, its fun, its visible. But people who aren’t in that business have no idea what hard work it is. Every night you have to sell 150 – 300 people on it again and again. I think the more adventurous and inventive you are in restaurants the more you realize that at a basic level a restaurant needs to be comfortable. It’s a very personal thing, you’re taking food into your body, so ideas that seem like they are gimmicks tend to not last. One of the biggest challenges is when we have someone come to us and say they want something like Nobu or we want something that looks like Pod in Philadelphia with Steven Star. We steer them away from that and let them know if that’s what they want we’re the wrong person.

NYRI: Is longevity an important component when you’re designing a restaurant?
DR: I think that with restaurants you certainly want a design that will stand the test of time but if you are so concerned about timelessness, you can miss being relevant. If I think about those experiences when I was eleven going to Fiddler on the roof and going to nice restaurants, those memories that I have last a lifetime and are a part of who you are. So I think with a restaurant you certainly want it to last, but if you put on a straight jacket of “everything needs to be timeless” you miss the opportunity to take risks. When we first did Nobu, a lot of those references to nature hadn’t really been done in that way before. You don’t have any way of knowing whether it was going to work or not. You just have to think about what you’re passionate about and what the chef is passionate about.

NYRI: How do you match a particular chef or restaurateur with a new design?
DR: I think that what happens with a restaurant is, in the relationship between us and the operator and the chef, what you develop is the DNA of the restaurant. At Café Gray so much of that restaurant was about Gray, and it was also about the space. So when we looked at the space with Gray we had 75 to 100 linear square feet of window that was like cinemascope - very long. So we thought about how the two main assets of this restaurant were Gray, and the view. The view had a 3-foot tall parapet wall made out of concrete, so we said why don’t we ramp up, which means in some ways we can have a decompression space so we’re getting away from the city, and then when you come into this bar you’re up 2 feet, and you look past the kitchen to the view. So that was finding the DNA to the restaurant that linked Gray’s professionalism and the precision in how he cooks, and lifting the curtain. If you think about theatre and looking backstage, and then we’re saying that we are going to have the view and the chef link hands and be the main asset.

NYRI: Do you think people are fascinated watching the people in the kitchen?
DR: I think that when you are in that restaurant it feels like a party. Everyone is excited and there’s a buzz. I think that when something works you can’t put your finger on what exactly are the 2 or 3 components that make it work, but one of them in Café Gray is that there is activity in the kitchen, but the activity is down two feet. So I don’t think it’s the place to go if you are a food network fan and you want to see exactly how they’re cooking because it’s not that kind of view. We put all the service stations behind this millwork wall so that they are invisible. What’s normally visible is invisible and what’s usually invisible is visible so I think the combination of waiters just appearing and this activity creates a sort of buzz that you would never get. The traditional way to lay this out is of course to put the kitchen on the left side, because it’s got to connect to the service elevator somehow; but then you will just be in a traditional kind of hotel dining room.

NYRI: What are the mistakes that restaurant owners make when they design a restaurant?
DR: One mistake is to not look at the design through the point of view of procession. By that I mean what does it look like when you first walk in, what does it look like when you meet the host, what does it look like when you move around, we tend to look at things cinematically. And I think if you look at a procession through a space, you get a better sense of the room than if you look at it in the sort of owner master plan – let’s look at it from an aerial view. Another mistake is to not spend enough time upfront discussing what’s going to be unique about it. I think it’s dangerous to pull out images from magazines and say you want it to look like this or this place in a movie. Doing the work to really find what is unique about you as an operator or you as a chef and the location.

NYRI: What if someone is on a limited budget and they approach you about designing their restaurant?
DR: Well we have a lot of chefs call us and get advice on networks of other designers we know. In some cases I think they’re surprised when we say “you know I would really like to do that”, because it’s not all about budget, it’s about creating something great. But I think if it’s for a chef, just thinking about doing their own thing its good to look at ideas that are around the periphery, don’t just think linearly. Think about things like “What are my interests”, like seasonal fresh ingredients or “what part of the world are you interested in? What neighborhood do you like? What spaces interest you?” I think people sometimes make a mistake creatively, by trying to solve a problem linearly when its best to think around the periphery and all around the edges and if you start to define those then the center becomes clearer. Don’t just say “I want to be Jean Georges”, as attractive as that is, and everyone wants to be Jean Georges, think about what are your unique assets.

NYRI: When people see that a restaurant was designed by David Rockwell, of course it’s not just you, you have a large team behind you. What is your roll on the team?
DR: The way the firm is set up here is, there are 5 studios, and each studio is led by 2 people, one of whom is a designer, one of whom is more of an architect or project manager, and those two have a team of 10 or 20 people underneath them. Because of the 150 or 160 people, they’re not all designers. There’s also admins, we have writers, model makers, interior designers - we also have a bunch of dogs running around the studio. The studios aren’t project-type specific, which is normal organization for an architecture firm. We like to mix the projects up. And my main role is at the very beginning of projects and at the very end of projects. Because that’s when I feel I can have the most effect at setting a creative direction, at pushing our group to investigate. There’s probably one thing that I make sure of is that we don’t get apathetic. For me, once you start to not be creative and not be curious, you might as well be doing something else. Towards the end of the project its about making sure that whatever idea you have and whatever the concept is, it survives all the constraints of schedule, budget, the dog ate my homework, didn’t make it on time, its not fireproof; there’s a million reasons why not to innovate. I am also blessed with great people; a lot of people have worked here for 15 years, and it’s really a blessing to be entrusted with affecting the inner life of cities.

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