It’s undeniable that good food is good food no matter the location. You can be ordering takeout from that Vietnamese restaurant down the block or enjoying a meal at the top of the Calgary tower, but it’s the connection between a room’s atmosphere and what’s on your plate that provides you with an elevated — and memorable — dining experience.
In Calgary, a new restaurant concept is launched about once every six weeks, which is pretty crazy. As you become increasingly bombarded with new places to dine out, what are the factors that will make you want to choose one place over another? Just like “successful” American Idol contestants (do people still watch that show?), new restaurants are going to have to exude that “it” factor to keep their seats full and the diner (you) engaged.
One aspect of dining out that is becoming increasingly essential to the experience is a restaurant’s interior design. So, what kind of work goes into a quality establishment’s design? Initially, one may assume it’s all paint colours and pretty artwork, but really, there’s much more to it. Sarah Ward, director of interior design at McKinley Burkart, who just finished working on Candela in Mission, describes her design process: “The entire aesthetic vision is considered. We talk a lot about things that we have no real input on, things like food presentation, menu design, music, service styles, etc... to ensure that everything that the guest experiences is consistent. Everything a customer experiences should hold the same message. When something is off, people can feel it. You may not be able to pick it out, but you can sense it.”
Amanda Hamilton, creative director and owner of Amanda Hamilton Interior Designs, furthers Ward’s point: “Our skill set extends well beyond colour consultations. We are involved with the health and safety of restaurant design, the functional layout for production and dining and how the atmosphere is then communicated to the customers. We pull together the little details that are often forgotten, but are most often what finish the room.”
Hamilton’s latest projects included 80th and Ivy, and Anejo. Her team’s work on Anejo involved travelling to Mexico to select items in order to create the interior’s character.
“Calgary is entering a stage now where design is becoming a more important part of being successful,” says Ward, “It’s about understanding the psychology of the experience you are trying to create.... It’s why you are seeing big chains like Earls, McDonald’s and Starbucks reinventing their interior design.”
Ward couldn’t be more right. Out with the Moxie’s and in with the new! This city’s dining scene is visibly gaining momentum month after month; new restaurants coming onto the scene here must make sure their concept, interior design and menu are all top-notch and work hand in hand.
“We spent a lot of time researching, and we collaborated with some incredible people to bring [Candela’s] environment to life,” says Ward. “The owners and contractors deserve so much praise and credit for everything that Candela is.”
While we’re probably not quite ready for an avant garde Noma or El Bulli-style (Google them) establishment serving up 20-course tasting menus, the future of Calgary’s dining scene is still bright, not to mention modern.
“Calgary is still quite conservative,” says Hamilton. “I think as the city evolves, so will the expectation for the dining experience.”
— 80th and Ivy
“Smaller and emerging cities like Calgary have so much to benefit from looking at what major centres are doing and bringing those ideas and inspirations home. They set a precedent for the implementation of new ideas,” explains Ward. “One very simple example is the introduction of communal dining to Calgary. Restaurants were very reluctant to bring such an idea to our ‘conservative’ city, but seeing those ideas work elsewhere can validate a designer’s intent.”
So, does interior design really have to coincide with a menu? Well, it wouldn’t make much sense walking into Una, only to find out that all they serve is shawarma, would it? No. You, as a diner, would feel a bit out of place. The room always has to complement the food and vice versa.
Notable local chef Geoff Rogers is currently in the process of developing the menu for his new restaurant, Market, which is going into the old Yardhouse space on 17th Avenue S.W.
“My menu will be influenced by our seasons, our farmers, producers and, of course, the rest of my culinary team,” Rogers says. “We will be influenced by the design of our restaurant, by how we plate our food — how minimal or extravagant we get. We want the dishes we’re serving and the room to support each other. To tell our story.”
Next time you’re out for dinner at one of your favourite restaurants, take a look around — from the floors, to the walls, to the ceilings, to your fork — and ask yourself: “What do I love about this place?”
— Above: Candela
— Above: 80th and Ivy
Photos by Tye Carson