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Restaurants focusing on feasts for the eyes to sell dining experiences

| Saturday, April 4, 2015, 9:20 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Grit and Grace restaurant, seen here Tuesday, March 24, 2015 is in Downtown uses recycled cardboard for its lights.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The bar area at Altius in Mt. Washington on Monday, March 23, 2015.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Grit and Grace restaurant, seen here Tuesday, March 24, 2015 is in Downtown.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Interior of Paris 66 in East Liberty March 26, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Family pictures on the tables in Paris 66 in East Liberty March 20, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Interior of Paris 66 in East Liberty March 20, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Authentic coffee grinder and a poster from France in the Paris 66 restaurant in East Liberty March 20, 2015.
Heidi Murrin | Trib Total Media
Interior of Paris 66 in Easr Liberty March 20, 2015.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Grit and Grace owner Rick Stern holds open the door to his restaurant Tuesday, March 24, 2015 in Downtown.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Copper sheeting is used for the tables and bar at Grit and Grace restaurant, seen here Tuesday, March 24, 2015 in Downtown.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Grit and Grace restaurant, seen here Tuesday, March 24, 2015 is in Downtown.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Grit and Grace restaurant, seen here Tuesday, March 24, 2015 is in Downtown.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The dining rooms at Altius in Mt. Washington offer views of the city's skyline.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
A unique chandelier at Altius in Mt. Washington on Monday, March 23, 2015.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
The wine rack at Altius in Mt. Washington on Monday, March 23, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Christina Ishida, Owner of Cici Crib Interiors, shows off the work she did for the interior design of Senti, an Italian themed restaurant in Lawrenceville, Saturday, March 21, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Christina Ishida, Owner of Cici Crib Interiors, shows off the work she did for the interior design of Senti, an Italian themed restaurant in Lawrenceville, Saturday, March 21, 2015.
Andrew Russell | Trib Total Media
Christina Ishida, Owner of Cici Crib Interiors, shows off the work she did for the interior design of Senti, an Italian themed restaurant in Lawrenceville, Saturday, March 21, 2015.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Willow Restaurant owner Rick Stern is pictured in the eatery on Wednesday, March 25, 2015.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Willow Restaurant, seen here Wednesday, March 25, 2015 is in Ohio Twp..
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Willow Restaurant, seen here Wednesday, March 25, 2015 is in Ohio Twp..
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Willow Restaurant, seen here Wednesday, March 25, 2015 is in Ohio Twp..
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Willow Restaurant, seen here Wednesday, March 25, 2015 is in Ohio Twp.
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Willow Restaurant, seen here Wednesday, March 25, 2015 is in Ohio Twp..
Philip G. Pavely | Trib Total Media
Willow Restaurant, seen here Wednesday, March 25, 2015, has a garage door to be opened on nice days.

Designers of several upscale Pittsburgh restaurants are giving patrons plenty to feast their eyes on.

As discriminating diners continue to seek full-sensory experiences, design and decor has become nearly as important as what's on the menu, industry insiders say.

“It is vitally important to restaurants,” says Aaron Allen, Florida-based global restaurant consultant. “It always has been, but now it's becoming something that can make or break you because the competition level has risen so much.”

From seating options to salt shakers, each element tells diners what they can expect as far as service, menu selection and overall experience, Allen says. The design is responsible for communicating the space's story while highlighting its uniqueness.

“Our philosophy is that everything is communicated, whether by design or by default,” Allen says. “It influences everything from lighting to doorknobs to the choice of the color of the grout between the tiles. It may seem insignificant, but it's all a choice.

“If you define its personality, it really helps make the choices easier. Think, if your brand was a person, how would it dress?”

If Senti in Lawrenceville could pull on an outfit, it would be a perfectly tailored suit with a surprising pop of color in the tie. For her first commercial project, designer Christina Ishida of Cici Crib Interiors used clean lines, black-and-white furnishings and vibrant artwork to set a tone of cozy elegance at Butler Street's newest restaurant and wine bar.

“Our biggest inspiration came from a photograph from Rome of a restaurant that was all in black and white, and it had banquettes,” says Ishida, whose sister Annette owns Senti with husband Franco Braccia. “But the whole idea was finding a modern space. So it was a combination of this Old World Rome and a modern interior.”

Ishida struck a balance between the two with more classic pieces, such as the custom-made, low-back, white-vinyl banquette, which contrasted with contemporary accents in the form of large abstract paintings featuring vibrant hues and bold brushstrokes.

Ishida had the artwork in mind when considering the space, as her mother, Traute Ishida, is the artist. The pieces helped the designer select the deep eggplant wall color, which seems to change from a dark brown to a playful purple, depending on the light.

“Those subtleties are so important in design,” Ishida says.

For Grit & Grace in the heart of Downtown's Cultural District, owners Richard Stern and Brian Pekarcik wanted a “very social, communal, lively type atmosphere with global cuisine, small bites, lots of sharing,” Stern says.

“The challenge with this space is it didn't really lend itself to that concept because it's so long and narrow,” says Stern, whose S+P Restaurant Group also owns Willow, Spoon and BRGR.

A solution came in the form of wood latticework flowing overhead from the front bar to the back of the restaurant that simultaneously elongates and unites the space.

Other decor choices were made specifically to reflect the restaurant's name, Stern says. Elements such as the birch plywood panels above the booths, copper sheeting tabletops and glass panels embedded with chicken wire along the bar provide the “grit.” The latticework, high-back banquettes and soft lighting offer the “grace.”

At Willow in Ohio Township, renovations completed last year were aimed at making the formerly segmented space feel more social, while introducing an updated, modern feel. To connect three separate dining areas, the design team created a pass-through behind the bar, which was extended to wrap around a corner into the adjoining room. Glass garage doors replaced more-traditional windows to let light in and provide access to an outdoor seating area. The relaxed atmosphere remains upscale without being isolating.

“A lot of the elements, like the stone fireplace, the ceiling, were beautiful to begin with, so we just wanted to improve what was here without totally changing it,” Stern says. “Overall, we were looking for a more contemporary, clean look. The back bar used to be this big wood structure that was very traditional and had been there for a long time. We ripped it all out and went for the much-cleaner line.”

Even with the shift toward a more modern aesthetic, Willow remains welcoming and cozy. Curved banquettes allow for more intimate seating, and wood panels on the walls bring a comfortable feel to the cavernous space. Natural elements play into the restaurant's name, inspired by its location tucked into the woods along Camp Horne Road. Wheat grass behind glass runs the length of the lower half of the bar. A live-edge custom cut piece of wood serves as the back bar.

“We're all about speaking to the natural beauty and organic materials,” Stern says.

At Altius on Mt. Washington, location also dictated the design. Teresa Bucco made each selection about the restaurant's most eye-catching feature: the sweeping view of the city skyline.

“All views lead to the glass,” the designer says.

To achieve that effect, Bucco stuck to sleek lines and minimalistic furnishings. The main dining area features low seating and tables with chairs that swivel, allowing for maximum exposure to the floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Rounded booths afford every diner a view of the city.

Other elements work together to create a simple yet inviting tone in the two-story space. Glowing glass globes dangle over high-top tables near the bar, where even the open-back chairs continue the theme of drawing the eye outside. Walnut tables introduce a natural element and complement the neutral gray color palette highlighted throughout the rest of the space.

“My thought was to do very contemporary, clean lines in a sophisticated space, but it has to be warm,” Bucco says. “I wanted you to be able to feel the warmth of the wood tables.”

Sometimes, design is used less to remind diners where they are and more to transport them to another place entirely. At Paris 66 in East Liberty, owners Fred and Lori Rongier use treasures found during their travels to France to give patrons the illusion of dining alongside the Seine.

“We want you to feel like you're in Paris — you're not in Pittsburgh anymore,” says Fred Rongier.

Creamy yellow walls melt into the tall burgundy backs of the banquettes. An antique clock hanging overhead is always set to Paris time. A series of posters depicting Parisian life and advertisements lines the walls. Tiny Eiffel Towers line the partition between the dining room and the exposed kitchen. Out back on an enclosed patio, strings of lights dangle overhead.

Hidden under white linens on each tabletop are copies of postcards printed in the shop Fred's great-grandfather, Gabriel, owned in France. One, depicting a woman making crepes, appears on every table as a nod to the restaurant's early beginnings as a creperie. Coffee grinders that once were employed in Fred's grandmother's kitchen now serve as art.

“I truly feel that Fred's family members who have passed are with us and guiding us throughout journey,” Lori Rongier says.

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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