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June 14, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Seattle architects have the blueprint for hot new restaurants

Describing a recent visit to the Walrus and the Carpenter in Seattle’s Kolstrand Building, Frank Bruni of The New York Times writes of “a palpable conviviality that so many restaurants aim for but so few achieve. That kind of warmth and vibrancy often boil down to luck: to the animation of the crowd that gathers, the pitch of people’s voices.”

“It’s not luck. It’s something we think about,” insists Jim Graham, whose company, Graham Baba Architects, designed the Walrus and the Carpenter. Their imprint is on the blueprints of a growing number of local projects that house eat-and-drinkeries basking in the national limelight.

Graham and his business partner Brett Baba have the magic to create magic. Their work defines the look of the new Seattle restaurant. In addition to the Walrus and the Carpenter, they have designed (among others) the trio of Tom Douglas restaurants in the Terry Avenue Building at South Lake Union, Eltana and Skillet Diner on Capitol Hill and Revel/Quoin in Fremont. “It’s all about place-making. And we are basing all our decisions on how you get there,” says Graham.

Brett Baba (left) and Jim Graham, at La Spiga — their company’s first restaurant collaboration. Their offices are located downstairs from La Spiga (and Plum Bistro, which they also designed) in the Piston & Ring Building on Capitol Hill. [Seattle Times/John Lok]

At the Walrus, those decisions extended to the height of the banquettes and bar stools, a glass wall looking onto Staple & Fancy next door, and the placement of a chandelier — which casts a sensual glow over the central oyster bar, and adds to the drama of lighting that reflects the Parisian mood chef Renee Erickson was after.

Graham Baba was the architectural team behind the Kolstrand Building’s recent refurbishment, and their vision steered Renee Erickson’s vision for her restaurant, the Walrus and the Carpenter. Ethan Stowell’s Staple & Fancy can be seen through the “looking” glass in the upper right hand corner of the photo. [Seattle Times/Ken Lambert]

Bringing creativity to a space regardless of the budget is key to the architectural team’s continued success, says Baba. “If the budget can’t support a lot of design or decoration in the public spaces, you have to pare it down and let the building be the expression of the space.” The firm has proved that amply in projects like the Melrose Market and the Kolstrand Building.

Revel is another example. Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang’s Korean-styled comfort food takes center stage at Revel’s broad, butcher-block table. It runs the length of the room, parallel to banquettes, above which hang ’60s-era light fixtures. Those were rewired and repurposed by Graham himself in the workshop where he’s also created the cast-iron-skillet art installation on display at Skillet Diner.

At Revel, lampshades cast-off from a 60’s era chandelier — scrapped from another project — were reworked and rewired by Jim Graham. “They got a unique fixture,” Graham says, “and we cleaned out the basement.”

“Restaurateurs come in with ideas, and all of them cost money,” says Graham, the chief architect on their restaurant jobs. “If you can distill your idea to one or two big moves,” you get the biggest bang for your buck.

The counter was Revel’s “big move,” says Graham. “It’s a working counter, a sitting counter, it identifies the whole room.” At Eltana, the wood-fired bagel is their story; the placement of the wood-fired oven expresses that. At Tom Douglas’ Italian restaurant Cuoco, eye-catching red tiles embrace the open kitchen. “Wherever you are in the restaurant you can look back and see that,” says Graham. “It provides a window onto the heat, the fire, the cooking.”

Eltana, serving wood-fired bagels and more, on Capitol Hill

Graham and Baba, longtime friends and professional colleagues, teamed up in 2006. They opened for business in the Piston & Ring Building at 12th and Pike, which also houses La Spiga, their first restaurant project.

Taking a daylight tour of that visually exciting venue, I better understood the lengths these architects and their team of five can go to interpret an owner’s vision. Intimate spaces transform a vast space into many “rooms” (booths, a bar, a loft that doubles as private dining). Visual design cues throughout, like the sheaves of wheat embedded in metalwork, reference the fresh pasta and piadina made on premise.

Their design studio lies directly beneath La Spiga. “If they spill a bottle of wine, it leaks down onto our desks,” laughs Graham. “By the same nature, we get to enjoy the restaurant’s conviviality.”

Jim Graham, left, with Graham Baba designer Francesco Borghesi, in their office on Capitol Hill. When work is over, they don’t have to go far to find conviviality: the bustling bar at La Spiga, owned by Borghesi’s brother and sister-in-law, is right upstairs.

But one man’s idea of conviviality is another person’s screaming headache. Why, I asked Graham, are restaurants today typically so noisy. Because they are budget-challenged, he told me, and tempering noise — either structurally or through the decor — is expensive. “Noise is important to us. Adjacent conversations should be ambient. As with light, noise really affects your experience. If the light, or the sound, moves to the forefront of your attention, it takes away from the food.”

The restaurant experience gathers all sorts of sensual response, Graham says, among them a forced intimacy. “The environment says it’s OK to sit or stand close — whether you know the person or not.” For Graham Baba, conviviality is a key element that turns a space into a place.

“People don’t go out to eat to get sustenance,” Graham says. “They’re there for the experience, for the entertainment, the socialization, the human need for other people.” A restaurant, he says, “is where you can go and feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. And that’s what’s fun.”

At Revel, cooks share their workspace with customers, who sit on high stools facing the kitchen. Think about it, Graham told me: When you’re at a party, where does everyone like to be? Yep: in the kitchen.

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