Your favorite restaurants have amazing chefs, delicious food and outstanding wait service, but they’ve got something else too — a good vibe and comforting ambiance from the moment you walk through the door. The creative minds behind these settings understand the importance design plays in setting the stage for a memorable dining experience. From lighting and artwork on the walls to a functional layout, there’s usually an interesting psychology and story behind the details of a restaurant’s interior design.
Housed in a building built in the early 1900s, The Essex, located in Centerbrook just minutes from the historical village of Essex, is anything but dated inside. Its modern layout features an open kitchen whereby diners have a front row seat to chefs creating their art. “We literally broke down the walls and eliminated the barriers between our chefs and our guests. The energy from the kitchen feeds into the dining room and the energy from the dining room feeds into the kitchen,” said Chef Colt Taylor, who not only cooks and owns the restaurant, but also served as architect for The Essex.
Drawing from his experience as a professional chef in top restaurants in New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and Seattle, Chef Taylor collaborated with interior designer and friend Paul Sterczek, to achieve a warm, comfortable atmosphere that is both upscale and approachable. Mixing different tones of brown, orange, grey, and black for walls, flooring, furniture and fabric; adding depth and texture with stone, hardwood and leather; and strategically using a variety of lighting fixtures, the duo got the mood just right.
Eliminating the walls also enables a multi-faceted and dimensional space where customers can enjoy a different experience each time they dine. “We don’t want to be that restaurant you go to for a special occasion,” Chef Taylor said. “We want to cater to a five nights a week mentality, where you can choose to sit near the kitchen, at the bar, or a quieter table near the fireplace.”
Chef Taylor enlisted his mother and artist, Melissa Barbieri, to create a backdrop mural and focal point behind the bar. It portrays a dark and mysterious sea with octopus and fish alongside a quote from the poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Beautiful and dramatic, the mural seamlessly gives a nod to historical literature just as The Essex does with its name. Not only does it respect the town’s history, the restaurant’s name also gives homage to the sinking of the whale ship, Essex, which inspired Herman Melville’s classic novel, “Moby-Dick”.
Another wall mural packing a punch is located at the newly designed bar at Good News Restaurant and Bar in Woodbury. “It looks like barn siding. It’s amazing,” said owner and Chef Carole Peck, who designed the interior along with her husband. “The wall mural is actually similar to wallcovering, but it’s vinyl and thick. You have to touch it to believe it because it looks so real.”
Its beautiful, electric blue color livens up the new, 22-seat bar, which also hosts a mix of love seats, booths, and tables around its perimeter. Even the copper bar top gives a hint of blue. “It was flashed with heat so it has some color spots that turn bluish,” noted Chef Peck. “The bottom is a galvanized metal that we had brushed to give it texture. We used LED lighting under the outside of the bar and in the interior of the bar as well to light up the glasses and bottles and even the top of the refrigeration. It really gives a nice feeling.”
The tree sculpture atop the bar embodies just what they hoped to achieve with the space. “We wanted a modern, organic feel,” said Chef Peck, who having established her popular eatery in 1992, looked to attract some new faces and appeal to a younger crowd as well. “We found the tree in a store in Westport and I knew we had to have it.”
Nature also figures beautifully at an iconic downtown Mystic eatery. With its big, orange doors, the small carriage house that houses Oyster Club sits tucked into a huge granite ledge amidst trees. Owner Dan Meiser’s idea to work with this beautiful landscape behind the restaurant and build decking and a winding staircase leading to the treetops proved magical. Inspired by one of the world’s best-loved classics, “The Swiss Family Robinson”, “the Treehouse at Oyster Club is our take on the classic New England summer shack,” said Meiser. “The big, beautiful trees provide shade, create an atmosphere and even sounds when the wind rustles the leaves. It’s really peaceful and simple with bistro string lighting interwoven above the branches that comes down over the deck. The soft lighting makes the space especially enchanting toward the twilight hour.”
With oyster shells strewed along the pathways and granite popping up around the deck, The Treehouse offers a unique, seasonal dining venue, while Oyster Club offers two entirely different rooms indoors — a dining room with a barn-like feel to the left of the hostess area with dark walls and walnut tables, grey-colored carpeting with a design mimicking the granite and trees outdoors, and simple photography; and a dining area/bar on the right with a bright, fresh, coastal vibe thanks to a zinc bartop; white-washed, rough-cut pine walls; and the use of an exterior design element in dark blue for a striking pop of color and beach shack look.
“Our restaurant design and our philosophy is one of simplicity. We believe in using the finest products that we can get our hands on and preparing them simply and letting the ingredients and the talent of the folks in the kitchen shine through. The same is true with the design,” Meiser said, who enlisted Kierstan Field of Mystic-based Field & Co., to collaborate on the interior design. “There’s nothing fancy or extravagant about it, but we do believe in quality.”
The quality and design philosophy at Oyster Club and The Treehouse carries through to Meiser’s other restaurants in Mystic — Engine Room and Grass & Bone, also thoughtfully designed by Field. At Grass & Bone, the design marries how Meiser envisioned a modern neighborhood butcher shop and counter service restaurant to be. Just like the quality of his cuts of locally sourced meats, the interior’s details are top notch. From the “grass and bone” designed wallcovering in the restaurant and “wishbone” and “knife and cleaver” wallcovering in the bathrooms to the classic signage, schoolhouse lighting, and wood floor trimmed with penny floor tile, it’s the details that make this space feel stylish and contemporary, yet like you’re stepping back in time.
Housed in the old Lathrop Marine Engine building where one of the first gasoline boat motors in the world was made, Engine Room’s design is a nod to its historic past. The exposed brick, wood ceiling, and concrete floor are all original. And, while the exposed wood on the walls looks like it’s been there for years, it was actually sourced from an old bicycle factory in New England.
“It’s a really cool space, so we wanted to keep the history of it,” said Field. “For a design element in the bar, we white-washed a wall and wrote some of the history of the building in purple stencil.”
The focal point, however, is the drill press at the bar with the impressive draft system around it. “We found it at a local welding shop. It’s not original to the building, but one just like it would have been here,” Field noted. Industrial windows, leather booth seating and metal chairs add to the restaurant’s industrial character. By creating three sections — exposed kitchen, dining room and bar — she said that she wanted to make people feel warm and cozy and not lost in the large space. The use of windows for interior walls divides the sections, yet still allows the energy to pervade from room to room.
At Moxie in Madison there’s always energy, but when the glass garage door opens, the energy and cool factor intensifies.
“The bar area instantly connects to the outside patio and allows the space to feel like one,” said architect and interior designer Elise Hergan, who was tapped by owner and local developer William Plunkett to design the floor plan and interior aesthetics for the refurbished mid-1800s building. “It’s a design element that’s unique to the area and really captures Bill’s vision to create a hip and lively restaurant with a focus on an upscale bar scene.”
Inside, lighting was really important to set the mood, she said. And, a dark palette with leather booths and the use of reclaimed wood for its beauty and history creates a casual and comfortable, yet sophisticated atmosphere. The use of craft paper on the tables offers a welcoming, family friendly and playful style that’s also functional.
“It was a collaborative effort,” said Hergan, who has worked with Plunkett on other residential projects. “At the start, I knew that an old, black and white gym scoreboard with red accents was the one decorative piece that was definitely going to be hanging in the bar area, so the red for the furniture and wallcovering really developed from here.”
“It’s the place to be,” said Hergan. “It’s where the fun and action in town is happening for both the younger and older sets.” And, ironically, while the scoreboard reads “Us” and “Them” to keep track of the action, anyone who steps foot in this place wins by design.