Dining By Design: The Well-Dressed Restaurant
by Victoria C. Rowan
Like many New Yorkers, I suffer from a common complaint: perpetual frazzledom. Some cope by imbibing Chinese herbal elixirs, watching Seinfeld reruns, or studying kickboxing. I have my own, faster-acting solution: dining out.
When you live and work in the same ten-foot by fifteen-foot room, like I do, you start to identify with puppies in pet shop windows dervishly chasing their tails and tearing at their fur. All creatures great and small need OUT of their little kennels at least once a day. A trip to a restaurant can make me feel refreshed as if I've taken a mini-vacation.
A food-writer friend remarks that when we go out to eat, while she's raving about a subtle sauce or a wine's exquisite bouquet, I'm likely to be transfixed by the ceiling or relishing the booth's plush upholstery. I'm there to feast my eyes as well as my stomach; I may not always remember what I ate, but I can draw from memory a clever wall sconce or a beautifully appointed bar.
For me, the ideal restaurant is all about ambiance. The minimum requirements? Cloth napkins, flattering lighting, conversation-enabling music, nonjudgmental waiters, and a dining room that provides a haven from in-your-face urban reality.
The armchair psychiatrist in my head has this theory that I'm hoping to chase down in a restaurant an elusive idea of home that I haven't yet managed to create in my life. If so, then I'm gleefully schizophrenic; for I find Le Pain Quotidien (a casual Belgian patisserie) as appealing for lunch as The Tea Box at Takashimaya (minimalist Amer-Asian elegance). Restaurants also serve as my personal screening devices: if a new man doesn't appreciate the cluttered antique charm of Danal or Il Buco, I know the romance is doomed.
Unlikely as it may seem, there is a theme underlying all these disparate options. In each, the room has been master-minded from all angles to please the customer, from top to bottom.
I find that ceilings affect mood more than most people acknowledge. For instance, in Le Madri's main dining room, which feels like the grand hall of an elegant Italian villa, large, flat leaves are suspended on thin wires high above, providing a touch of Mediterranean whimsy without being heavy-handed. At Savoy, a bower of cherry-wood arcs supports shimmering metallic scrim (and ingeniously disguises sound-absorbing panels). Or, on the glitzy end, there's the Supper Club, with its Art Deco heaven, complete with royal blue plaster clouds accented with gold, setting the tone even before the swing band warms up.
When I draw my eye downward, I find that comfort is created by curves and cushions. The ultimate emblematic example is the Round bar at the Royalton. Nicknamed "the I-Dream-of-Jeannie bar" because of its resemblance to her bottle-encapsulated pad, this little den of iniquity is ringed by a banquette, allowing one to lean comfortably against the padded leather walls. Another cushy spot is the upstairs cocktail lounge at Le Colonial. Early in the week, one can easily monopolize a couch by a copse of potted palms and pass the pleasantest night away, reclining through a succession of appetizers. Then there are the ample half-moon booths at First, where a half-dozen people can have equal dipping access to its infamous chocolate fondue. Just as King Arthur preferred to discuss matters at his Round Table, so sotto voce conversations seem to flow best between couples huddled over round pedestal tables.
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