How to Court Restaurant Customers with Outside-the-Box Design | Food Newsfeed
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Located just north of downtown detroit, Testa Barra brings the city cool quotient to a suburban strip mall.

How to Court Customers with Outside-the-Box Design

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Designs hearkening to the past and trendy retreats are luring experience-minded diners.
By Maggie Hennessy January 2018 Restaurant Design

Dining out is a holistic experience—a delicate interplay of aroma, taste, sights, sounds, and environment. Interior design choices can transport guests from a suburban strip mall to a bustling downtown hotspot or 200 years back in time to a London opium den. Or they can simply coax diners to put down their phones, look up at their surroundings, and live in the moment.

Old Glory co-owners and sisters Alexis and Britt Soler have always gravitated toward old buildings with a life and character of their own. The enterprising pair behind beloved East Nashville bar No. 308 spent a year scouting locations for their second cocktail bar when they got a call about a 1920s boiler room inside the former White Way Cleaners in Nashville’s Edgehill Village.

“As soon as we walked in, it was just an ‘aha’ moment,” Alexis Soler says. “It’s a special space. I’ve never seen anything like it in the world.”

Captivated by Old Glory’s 60-foot ceilings and industrial original elements like a towering smokestack, exposed brick, and large cement blocks, the Solers accentuated them with custom details. As Soler puts it, “I just always want people to look up, because it’s so incredible. A lot of people exist in a world where they’re looking down all the time.”

Upon entry, a sweeping staircase descends into the ground-floor bar, where, opposite a cement bar, the smokestack’s base is adorned with custom octagonal tile. Cozy alcoved booths and a 20-foot living wall warm the sprawling space and draw guests’ eyes upward. The constantly changing menu echoes the creative energy of the space, via booze-forward cocktails that delve into everything from tiki to rare spirits and small plates like seasonal tartines and crispy fava beans. 

The Solers also built out two more levels of seating and an upstairs bar, which doubled Old Glory’s capacity to 80. At first, it wasn’t easy coaxing people off the first floor. “The space needs the flow, so getting people to move and feel comfortable in there was very challenging. We definitely had to give it some time,” Soler says. But once patrons venture upstairs, they want to stay, Soler adds. Having a bar up there helps.

Beyond providing physical inspiration, the past sometimes acts as a conceptual muse, as was the case for cocktail bar Ah Sing Den in Austin, Texas. 

Months before mother-daughter duo Trudy and Mickie Spencer closed their longtime steampunk cocktail haunt East Side Show Room in East Austin last summer, Mickie (who is also a designer) was already envisioning its new identity. The idea was an Asian-inspired cocktail bar the likes of which might be found in 19th century New York or Hong Kong. Through her research, Mickie stumbled across writings on Ah Sing Den, 1860s-era London’s most infamous opium den. 

“There are no surviving pictures of the inside as far as we know, so we thought that would be a really fun concept to sort of go wild imagining what the place looked like,” Mickie Spencer says. 

They ripped the bar down to the studs to make way for a sultry, Art Nouveau–meets–Victorian–era aesthetic, with a white marble bar and custom fabric-shaded light fixtures suspended over deep crescent booths and plush vintage armchairs. A custom archway held up by 100-year-old pillars complements the century-old building’s exposed brick walls, while potted palms and a peacock mural complete the lush, chinoiserie vibe. Ah Sing Den opened in August, mere weeks after East Side’s final service.

Cocktails lean bright and balanced, like the gin-based Burmese Mission, imbued with citrus, Thai basil, and Japanese togarashi. The food menu gives the team plenty of creative leeway by drawing on influences from all over Asia, via dishes like Japanese soba with Thai curry and fried shrimp rolls wrapped in spring roll strips. Overall, Spencer says, it’s an escape that begins before guests even walk in.

“When you come here, it’s like you step back in time to a faraway place,” she says. “We burn copal, which is a heavy incense, right outside the door so it’s in the air outside and blowing in. You get that smoke, and it takes you to a weird place right away.”

In the age-old migration of 20- and 30-somethings, even the globetrotting, city-loving millennials are forgoing urban living for the more family-friendly suburbs. The northern Detroit suburb of Macomb Township—among the fastest growing in the Motor City’s metro area—is full of such young parents who haven’t abandoned their penchant for edgier, downtown-style dining. So when the team behind Italian stalwart J. Baldwin’s started scouting locations for modern Italian Testa Barra, they saw potential to bring a taste of the city to a suburban strip mall.

“We leapt at the thought of creating something that felt like you were dining in an urban area without having to leave the neighborhood,” says co-owner Rosemarie Baldwin. Executive chef and co-owner Jeff Baldwin adds that the area was laden with chains and devoid of independents, save for sports bars. 

The group worked with local design firm JGA to transform the 5,600-square-foot former Mediterranean restaurant into the modern, multipurpose Testa Barra. A lounge with curved granite-topped bar and high-top tables calls for conversation over cocktails and modern shared plates like harissa-roasted rainbow carrots. In a small mezzanine area, a cozy corner booth is denoted the “naughty corner” under a neon sign, reflecting Testa Barra’s cheeky vibe. The spacious dining room comprises lacquered wood tables and cozy banquettes overlooking an open kitchen, enclosed in a long chef’s bar. 

“The design—which is a little IKEA meets custom and one-off artist work—mimics the idea of being downtown, which is a little scrappier and less formulaic,” says Ken Nisch, chairman of JGA. “The juxtaposition between found and made and really artist-driven brings that energy that’s reflected in the modern food and craft cocktails.”

Chef Jeffrey Baldwin, Jeff and Rosemarie’s son, oversees the veg-forward menu with Chef Gabriella Rodriguez. Their approach mirrors the design, mixing the familiar (Jeff Sr.’s signature fried calamari in lemon butter sauce) with the unexpected (beet pappardelle with roasted beet pesto, Brussels leaves, and vodka sauce). 

“Initially, we didn’t bring Jeff’s calamari to Testa Barra because we wanted to differentiate the concept,” Rosemarie Baldwin says. “The day we added it, we sold 65 of them; customers were just so happy. It’s an iconic piece of the brand that lended a bridge between the concepts. And it reflects that balance of comfortability with bringing in a different edge.”