If you happen to see a unicorn prancing down Del. 52, a well-dressed male giving chase, pay no mind. That’s just Todd Danner, chasing his impossible dream—the perfect design.
“I don’t even think Frank Gehry looked at The Guggenheim and thought, ‘You know what? Perfect. I’m done here,’” says Danner of arQitecture. “The unicorn is a myth; so is the perfect project.”
Though perfect design isn’t attainable, his most recent challenge—one shared with fellow designer Rose Giroso of Rose Authentica—was. The two are the faces behind Pizza by Elizabeths in Greenville and the Stone Balloon Wine House in Newark, respectively, two of the hottest, and most beautiful restaurants to open in recent months. Their task was to create a complete dining experience that goes beyond looks.
“The full dining experience is about creating a destination,” says Giroso. “[Philadelphia restaurateur] Steven Starr does this fabulously. We are a very instant-gratification society. As designers, we have minutes to set the stage, to get you interested and keep you interested.”
People are definitely interested. In a time when the lipstick index spells “uh oh” in Ravishing Red on national headlines, the two restaurants are jumping. And though fabulous food and five-star service are obvious selling points, a large part of what keeps people coming back is how the decor makes them feel. “[Designers] need to get inside people’s heads,” says Giroso.
Pizza by Elizabeths simply pops with pretty. Eyes sweep to large, perfectly pistachio wooden structures that run from the floor to near the ceiling, each boasting pieces that emphasize the overall atmosphere: fun and fabulous. One anchors an ornate vintage gold mirror. Another pays homage to a namesake Queen, the most famous Elizabeth of all.
Page 2: Eminently Tasteful, continues…
Black French chandeliers hang from an exposed-beam ceiling. If you look closely, you’ll notice the black paint that covers parts of the ceiling is subtly striped. Lush greens, pinks and floral fabrics line the booths, adding a dash of Greenville prep for the Lilly Pulitzer set that, when mixed with bold black-and-white rugs, sleek bar details and unique lighting, avoids paint-by-number predictability.
The bathroom—about which a smug Danner murmurs, “You wouldn’t believe how affordable this was”—is outfitted with glittering crystal chandeliers and brocade-influenced silver-tone wallpaper that seamlessly blends vintage and now. And of course, the restaurant’s trademark—beautiful black-and-white Elizabeths—dot the walls, a curious, seductive sisterhood that coyly watches who’s coming and going.
In a word, it’s all about glamour, says owner Betsy LeRoy.
“Our old design was Mediterranean-Southwestern, with terra cotta and natural, neutral colors,” she says. “But it got dated. Todd immediately said, ‘You know what’s missing? Glamour.’”
“I really try to understand the goal of a client,” Danner says. “I approach my process like chili: Add a bit here, taste it, decide if it needs something else, let it marinate.”
Though Danner is hesitant to define his role too strictly, he is an architect who goes beyond stereotypes. “I do everything down to choosing candlesticks,” he says. “People ask who did that, and I say, ‘me,’ and they say, ‘But aren’t you the architect?’”
So why should function matter to a designer who’s choosing candlesticks? In the world of design, how things look and how things work go hand in hand.
Page 3: Eminently Tasteful, continues…
“The challenge was learning how people here operate,” says Danner. “I just came to watch. I saw how the staff moved, how the pizza was made, how guests move.” By learning such things, he was able to manipulate movement and behavior to set a distinct mood.
One of LeRoy’s concerns was making guests comfortable while they waited for tables. By fashioning a large ottoman of cushions layered atop an old, refinished bed frame, Danner created a sense of belonging for diners.
Danner also considered a guest’s emotional well-being when deciding where to put the wait stand. Sound crazy? It’s not.
“The placement is actually important,” Danner says. When guests who want to sit at the bar enter, they can feel awkward walking through the dining room to get there. To create an invisible boundary that cuts patron unease, Danner designed a narrow center lane from the entrance. It’s flanked by sofas and the bar. The wait stand clearly defines where the bar ends and the restaurant begins.
Atmosphere was important to LeRoy. She wanted to create a feeling of privacy. In a wide-open airy space of 9,800 square feet, that wouldn’t be easy. Yet with the aid of pop-art portraits of Elizabeths on oversized, rolling canvas structures, Danner closed the spaces between the tall columns to section off an area where diners feel a more intimate, emotional connection with the setting and their companions.
“People feel at home here,” Danner says. “A little girl told her dad she wanted her bedroom to look just like Pizza by Elizabeths. That says we did something right.”
Page 4: Eminently Tasteful, continues…
LeRoy agrees. She’s points out the many happy faces she sees on her kitchen staff, who, after working in a basement kitchen in her old space, now enjoy sunshine all day thanks to Danner. “Other local chefs saw the kitchen windows and said, ‘Why are you wasting all this natural light in here?’ But it’s not wasted. They are so much happier.”
Of course, there were glitches. “It’s a year later, and we’re still sitting with sun on our faces, because no one thought, ‘Hey, we need some drapes here,’” LeRoy says.
Unaccustomed to the acoustic properties of the space, Danner had to retrofit sound panels on the ceilings to buffer the din.
Danner says Pizza by Elizabeths is a work in progress (“I’m still not sure I like this glass display case,” he says), yet the big part—the atmosphere—is set.
“I want to show people through design that we’re trying to build a relationship here, and we’re swinging for the fences,” Danner says. “Ultimately, the goal is to have people like being here.”
“There is one woman who comes just to sit at the bar,” LeRoy says. “She told me it’s the closest she’ll ever get to ‘Sex and the City.’ Our food deserves this place. The lobster and white wine pizza has found a home.”
The Stone Balloon Wine House is one gorgeously cohesive restaurant where Italy clings to every detail. One would expect nothing less from a designer who trained in Venice. But the next time you visit, look closer. You’ll notice that every corner is a unique cocoon with a distinct mood.
Because wine is so important to the Stone Balloon experience, Giroso began by considering all the associations people make with it—“warmth, Tuscany, earth tones”—and designed with that in mind. “I want people to feel warm in the space,” she says. “So I invite them.”
Page 5: Eminently Tasteful, continues…
Large storefront windows give passers-by a clear view of the interior, which may be all it takes to lure them. A brick floor in the foyer subtly leads them off the brick sidewalk outside. It’s an easy transition to a vastly different world.
Inside, the ceiling soars so far above that it seems to disappear. Giroso filled the space in several clever ways. One was to design a mezzanine in the rear—a dining area that also defines the dining area below. It adds a surprising element of drama and romance.
Immediately to the right of the entrance, decadently plush couches create a cozy lounge. It’s a perfect place for girlfriends to share a bottle of wine. The couch is placed in front of a towering cabinet Giroso plucked from a farm, then transformed into charming, softly lit shelving—for bottles of wine, of course. Similar cabinets appear on other parts of the periphery.
To the left, behind a small wine shop near the entrance, is a half-walled, semi-secluded dining area designed like a living room. Sprinkled with smart tables, it’s elevated a step to create a subtle feeling of separateness. The curved half wall softens a pathway that leads visitors deeper. “Straight lines are cold and boring,” Giroso says.
Immediately ahead of the front door, the slate-topped bar complements Giroso’s extensive use of green materials throughout the restaurant, starting with the natural stone floor underfoot.
Page 6: Eminently Tasteful, continues…
“The bar is an open invite to sit and hang out,” Giroso says. “[Owner] Jim [Baeurle] educated me on how important it is to have the bar immediately visible so people looking for someone feel that they can just walk in and sit.”
A Cruvinet tap system that controls the temperature of every bottle poured “is important,” Giroso says. “Not too many restaurants are doing this.” So it is clearly visible to bar patrons. Her use of natural materials like wood, cork, iron, slate and brick contribute to the overall feeling of warmth.
Toward the rear is a space for dedicated foodies who wish to take full advantage of the sophisticated wine and food pairings. Indeed, in the mezzanine, patrons can dine in full view of the wine, which is neatly shelved in a glass-fronted storage area.
Though each area has a separate function and feel, they’re united by rustic earth tones and well-placed touches, such as an elegant stone archway crafted of granite reclaimed from the original Stone Balloon building and a curved staircase that ascends to the lofty mezzanine. Overhead lighting seems non-existent. Most illumination is subtle: a row of tiny lights up the stairway, candlelit tables, the accent lights of the wine cabinets. The atmosphere is at once urbane and traditionally European.
Page 7: Eminently Tasteful, continues…
Baeurle’s wish list was fairly concise. “I wanted to create a dining experience that would make the customer feel like he or she was in New York City or Philadelphia,” he says. He chose Giroso for her ability to listen and zero in on what people want.
“Designing a restaurant is different than other design because I’m providing for so many people,” Giroso says. “I had to get in the heads of everyone: the 20-something UD student who wants to hang out with her friends over wine, the couple in their 30s who got a babysitter and wants a date night out, the 40-something who appreciates fine wine and fine dining, and even a 50-something business professional who can hold a lunch meeting on the mezzanine.”
Hues of chocolate, orange, muted red and yellow bring the space to life. A map of the world painted on the mezzanine’s outer wall clearly sets the tone.
The guest might not realize it, but even Giroso’s floor plan is inviting. “I am able to direct them with my use of stone. It’s a natural traffic pattern,” she says. “The archway—who doesn’t want to go through an archway? It clearly says, ‘Come in.’”
And people are certainly coming in, and coming back. “The restaurant is surprising to people in the way that I was hoping it would be,” Baeurle says. “The most frequent comment that we get is, ‘I can’t believe we’re in Delaware.’”