BLURRED LINES: It's deliberately hard to discern lounge from restaurant at Buddha Bar.
QUICK TRIP: Guests at Sopra Lounge in Philadelphia can briefly escape to Italy.
JUST FOR FUN: Guests are encouraged to dance on the tables at Vessel, above; at Supperclub, below, the playpen is a conversation starter.
BUSY ALL DAY: Two lounges help Blue Velvet sustain business throughout the day.
SEE AND BE SEEN: The lounge at Boston's Dante gives the whole space an energy boost.
Lounges are the right product at the right time. They appeal to the time-strapped, formality-shunning person who is stuck in front of a computer monitor all day, hungry, thirsty and in search of some human companionship, a place to relax and a little entertainment, but no major commitment. Lounge life offers an increasingly attractive option to staying home and propping one's feet up in front of the television. And, while restaurant operators may think of a lounge simply as a more casual version of a restaurant with more alcohol and less food, finding the right balance of food, drink and vibe is a bit more complicated.
"Lounges are all about the experience—how a certain place makes you feel," observes Stephane Dupoux, founder of New York-based Dupoux Design and one of the design minds behind Vessel in San Francisco and Buddha Bar and Cielo in New York.
At Vessel, a combination of contrasting warm and cool elements with organic materials creates a feel that Dupoux calls "mischievous and luxurious all at the same time." While his designs may be experience-centric, Dupoux is opposed to the concept of themed lounges. "I believe that a design concept should slowly and subtly reveal itself to guests through familiar elements that are introduced in an abstract form. You don't want to walk into a lounge or restaurant and feel like you were hit over the head with a theme."
At Positano Coast in Philadelphia, the owners decided to break up a big, sprawling space and created a different atmosphere in one of the rooms by designating it as the Sopra Lounge. The room, which can accommodate up to 50 guests if they squeeze together, opens to the outside and was equipped with photos of Positano, sheer white drapes, candelight, sofas and tables for two to give the space a more intimate feel. It's created traffic in the early afternoon and late at night.
Getting the Look Right
Lounge design and restaurant design share a lot of elements, but lounges require a different approach. The biggest difference is the traffic flow. In restaurants, it should be open and spaces between tables need to facilitate service. In lounges, it's probably preferable to arrange seating in as intimate a way as possible, only allowing enough space for the occasional incursion by a server. "The whole essence of a lounge is it's not meant to have any heavy traffic walking through it—it's for relaxing," says Karl Hasz, president of San Francisco-based Hasz Construction. "You want to make sure traffic circles around the area and people don't have a chance to go through it."
One way to accomplish that is through the furniture, breaking up the space using pieces such as "pods" or ottomans, which offer the added benefit of providing flexible seating. Transitional seating not only offers solutions for every size group, it also gives freedom of movement for guests. Sometimes that movement goes beyond just crossing the room to get a better look at someone seen from a distance. At Vessel in San Francisco, Dupoux installed low-slung teak tables that are sturdy enough for people to dance on. "In fact, we were planning that they would, so we also included clear resin champagne buckets that are flush with the table and pulse with the music."
Beds are another option, albeit one that is not for everyone.
Hasz has worked on several projects that involve strategically arranged beds, including one called Supperclub in San Francisco. There, eight queen-sized beds are pushed together for seating. "It's like a playpen; you take your shoes off and hop in," he explains. "It's so funny seeing people's reactions when they walk into that—some don't know what to do. Other people just eat it up."
Beds are a natural fit for the sexy image lounges attempt to achieve, but other elements come into play as well, especially lighting. Lights that aren't flattering to guests have no place in a sexy environment. Hasz says he generally avoids downlighting from cans because it only illuminates the top of the head; instead, he aims for ambient light with a nice, soft glow using low-slung pendants, candelight and rope lighting under banquettes. A too-dark space will make many patrons uncomfortable as well.
Another key consideration is the ability to see across a room easily. For Martini Park, a new lounge-only concept that debuted in Dallas last December and will be opening in Houston and Chicago later this year, "the most important thing to us in the layout are the sight lines," says Chris Barish, chairman. "It's very important no matter where they are, people can look out and see where everyone is." That facilitates socialization, one of the key functions of a lounge, he explains.
Sometimes not enclosing the lounge and instead integrating it into the restaurant space makes more sense. When the Demagistris brothers (chef Dante, wine director Filippo and manager Damian) took over a space in Boston's Royal Sonesta Hotel and created a lounge and restaurant called Dante, one of the first things they did was knock down walls so everyone, lounge patrons included, would have a view of the Charles River. "Our whole idea was to open it up so you can sit anywhere and still see the water and feel the energy," Damian explains. That energy makes a huge first impression.
The right sound level is critical. Too loud and people can't hear conversations, too low and the cocktail party atmosphere never gets off the ground. At Martini Park, the music level varies throughout the day. Afternoons it's lower to allow easy conversation, for happy hour live entertainment is offered, and at night, a deejay takes over. The space is broken into three areas, each with its own vibe and sound, to offer guests a choice.
Finally, comfort is key in a space designed for socializing and relaxation. To induce those, Hasz recommends soft, muted colors and comfy fabrics. "I want them to stay there as long as they want to be there—I love when someone sits down and wants to spend an hour and ends up staying for five," he observes.
The Food/Drink Mix
At Blue Velvet, the two lounges approach food completely differently than the restaurant, Hartstein says. The lounge is more about shared plates and downsized portions, and all of it is "wine- and spirits-friendly," he explains. The menu in the restaurant and lounges changes often to encourage repeat business and deliberately to avoid any hint of "chaininess." "We try to be a leader in what we do, and once you start settling on signatures, that really limits what you do and the creativity in your employees," says Hartstein, a chef who has spent time at the likes of Aureole, Spago and Patina. Typical selections include Blue Cheese Beignets with Peppered Honey Gastrique, Warm Crab Dip with Crispy Bread and Popcorn Shrimp with Buttered Popcorn Sauce. Desserts for the after-dinner crowd include a number of sweet/savory combinations, "the sort of things that get people to talk," Hartstein explains. An example is Marsala-poached pears with whole–grain mustard pastry cream and raz el hanout ice cream. Creative drinks include herb-infused tea cocktails and fresh-squeezed juices teamed with premium tequilas, high-end rums and international vodkas. A global wine list offers bottles mainly in the $30-$60 range.
Dante, located in the Royal Sonesta Hotel in the Boston area, adapted the dining room menu by miniaturizing dishes to make them more lounge-friendly. An order of steak frites might be split into four portions. A Spanish kingfish carpaccio appetizer served with spicy ginger, yuzu, cucumber and organic greens can be easily divided and served on soup spoons. "The things that work are easier to eat and share," says Demagistris.
Dante is known for its signature cocktails, many of them concocted with house-made mixers. The Elixir 66, for example, features gin diluted with green chartreuse, a signature blackberry shrub (infused with black tea cultivated by sherpas in Nepal) and bitter lime juice.
At Martini Park, the 35 martinis are the obvious stars of the menu, but they only tell part of the story. They represent only about a third of all alcohol sales—the rest being other mixed drinks, champagnes and cocktails—and are bolstered by an eclectic menu of small plates with a strong fun quotient: crab cake corn dogs, Buffalo chicken lollipops, mac-and-cheese "sticks" and similar fare.
At Roe Restaurant & Lounge, a sprawling 28,000square-foot, three-story complex in San Francisco that can hold up to 800, food isn't part of the lounge scene, for good reason. "It's kind of butt-to-butt on a Saturday night," says Heather Johnson, one of the managers. The main floor is a dining room, and on weekends it converts over to a lounge after 10 as well—the kitchen shuts down and the sound level starts to climb. The challenge on those nights is to keep both the restaurant guests and the lounge guests happy. "A lot of people expect to have a dinner experience, when it's really a dinner/ lounge experience," Johnson says.