IT'S a warm Monday night and 25 people have gathered at Hamersley's Bistro in Boston for discussion over a three-course meal.
The topic of conversation is not politics and social issues, high society and the arts, or even food and travel; it is restaurant building and design.
Hamersley's is a good place for such talk. The top-rated bistro in Boston, owned and run by Fiona and Gordon Hamersley, relocated last year to a new space that more than doubles its seating capacity.
The gathering, hosted by the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) in conjunction with Design Times magazine and Shawmut Construction, is part of a series called ``Dinner with the Designer.'' Restaurant owners, designers, and builders answer such questions as: What challenges confront restaurant design? How does good design enliven a meal?
In a city known for its architecture and design enthusiasts, tonight's dinner drew a 50-person waiting list. ``Response to the program has been enormous,'' says Alexandra Lee, director of special projects for BSA. The series continues at other eating establishments through the fall. While most attendees have a professional interest in design, some have come simply to socialize and be educated over a good dinner.
``There's a lot more to designing and constructing a restaurant than most people think,'' explains Mark Baranski, project development manager for Shawmut Design & Construction in Boston. The way it works - on the simplest level - is that the needs of all the parties coalesce. The restaurant owner, architect, designer, and contractor all work together to create the best-looking, most-functional restaurant - on schedule and within budget, he says, stressing the latter two. ``Design is important, but it must be cost-effective too,'' he says. The fact that the entire team had worked together on the first bistro was a major plus.
Hamersley's moved from its previous location across the street to the Boston Center for the Arts building. The space housed offices and a practice hall for the Boston Ballet. Bright orange walls. Asbestos. Ten little rooms. But many large windows.
Sandra Fairbank, who runs her own design company in Boston, explains to the group that the vision for the restaurant was to have it be a place where diners could leave their technology-intense world and go, say, to the French countryside for a lovely meal.
Today, the restaurant's interior looks something like this: A 20-seat cafe and bar flank the incoming steps that lead to the front desk and into the dining room, which seats some 85 people. Large windows on the left side of the long dining room cast natural light onto butter-cream yellow walls with dark-green trim. Lovely wrought-iron fixtures - chandeliers, candelabras, curtain rods - draw the eye to the 16-foot-high, wood-beamed ceiling. On the right is an open kitchen. Just as he did in the old restaurant, Gordon Hamersley wanted to be able to look out and see people enjoying the food he cooks. ``It's an easy way to connect with the customers,'' Fiona Hamersley says.
Decoration is simple with dried- and fresh-flower arrangements and artwork ranging from local photographs to Botero prints. It's a clean look, the opposite of ornate.
Hamersley and Fairbank explain that one of the enjoyable challenges was hunting for certain elements: The beams came from a barn in Connecticut, for example. Fixtures for the restrooms also resulted from careful searching in antique shops. ``Often, using existing materials makes you more creative,'' Fairbank says.
The aesthetics in a restaurant are important, but they almost always take a back seat to the fundamentals, Hamersley stresses. The team had to take into consideration such things as the floor plan so that waiters do not constantly cross paths. Electrical systems, plumbing, noise abatement, building codes, wheelchair access, special kitchen floors with drains, and exit signs all had to figure into the plan.
``And things always cost more than you think,'' adds Hamersley, smiling. ``That's the one certainty.
``For the most part it was a happy experience,'' Hamersley sums up. ``Considering the unknowns about the space, it came off extremely well. We opened on time and close to budget, and the restaurant functions really well.''