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AIA LA Restaurant Design Awards

What's the secret recipe for an unforgettable dining experience? The Restaurant Design Awards will showcase the winning combinations at Dwell on Design, thanks to a partnership with AIA Los Angeles and their architecture conference Mobius LA.

A little Scandinavia in SoCal: AK Restaurant + Bar in Venice, CA
A little Scandinavia in SoCal: AK Restaurant + Bar in Venice, CA

A picture-perfect Scandinavian-modern showroom that happens to serve Swedish fare, a delicate pink "cupcakerie" where the sweets are displayed like engagement rings, and a Latino salsa institution reborn as a saucy urban nightclub are among the finalists singled out for their aesthetic attention in the AIA/LA's Restaurant Design Awards. The 2009 awards—to be presented on-stage at Dwell on Design immediately following Daniel Pink's keynote—are the perfect accompaniment to several more design-and-dining topics to be explored throughout the weekend (and in our new editorial focus on the intersection of design and food, Square Meal).

This year, the award's field broadened as the competition was open to all U.S. architects working in or out of the country, or projects by foreign firms built in the U.S., says Carlo Caccavale, AIA/LA associate director. "Our collaboration with Dwell allowed us to bring the competition to national level and we wanted to capitalize on that." Finalists from three states, Brazil, and China rounded out the list, making it a truly international competition. To learn more about what made these 16 picks click, we'll head back to May 21 when four jurors—Michael Palladino, Cedd Moses, Jonathan Gold and Louise Sandhaus—convened at AIA Los Angeles' headquarters, within the cool blue Art Deco tiles of the 12-story Pellissier Building in Koreatown.

The Lab Gastropub - chemistry class meets updated college bar
The Lab Gastropub - chemistry class meets updated college bar
The Conga Room - colorful, energetic Latin-inspired ambiance for dancing and dining
The Conga Room - colorful, energetic Latin-inspired ambiance for dancing and dining

Only one juror had previously been on the other side of the judging table: Michael Palladino, who, as a design partner in architect Richard Meier's office, was the 2006 winner for Wolfgang Puck's Beverly Hills steakhouse Cut. Palladino says when he's designing restaurants, one element is crucial: "I am ultra-sensitive to restaurant lighting, both daylight and artificial," he says. At Cut, a skylight and laylight punching into the white ceiling are balanced with wallwashers and downlights that create an ethereal quality as the evening's first diners saw into their American Waygu filets.

"I think the lighting at Cut is very successful, and was a collaboration with Wolfgang Puck who is intuitive about lighting in dining spaces," he says. "But I wish Cut was open for lunch as the midday light is even better!" Palladino's votes went to institutions which showed similar devotion to detail, which he believes signifies what diners can expect on the plate. "Regardless of the material selections, as an architect, I am drawn to the restaurant design that has been carefully thought through, as I expect that the commitment extends to a quality of service and cuisine."

When other restauranteurs were still too terrified to cross the 110 freeway, Cedd Moses was already carving out elegant bars out of downtown L.A.'s crumbling brick buildings. These demolition-to-destination gems rewarded their urban pioneers with authentic appointments and details like taxidermied crows draped with diamond necklaces in the women's bathroom. As founder and CEO of 213, Moses' projects—often a collaboration with designer Ricki Kline—include the jewelry store-turned-whiskey bar Seven Grand (home of the ladies' room crows) and the recent polishing up of 1908 French dip originator Cole's and its speakeasian bar serving aristanal cocktails, The Varnish.

As a judge, Moses saw strength in his fellow adaptive reusers. "Some of the best designs reinvented spaces while still integrating historic elements and strong properties of the former space," he says. "Too many restaurants these days play it safe and lack originality," morosely citing the unexciting '90s trends of off-the-shelf lighting fixtures and watered-down beige palettes. "Not the case with this year's candidates. We had a strong group that went beyond safe."

Houston's Restaurant by Frederick Fisher & Partners
Houston's Restaurant by Frederick Fisher & Partners

The Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic who reports on at least two restaurants a week for the LA Weekly, Jonathan Gold may have had an unfair advantage of eating at most, if not all, of the Los Angeles entries. Although the second-time judge may be best known for sniffing out exquisite Peruvian ceviche served in South L.A. warehouses, he says he always keeps one eye trained on design in his reviews, even if 'design' consists of nothing more than acoustic tiles and travel posters ("And I always mention the music," he adds).

While a finely-tuned room appeals to his sense of architectural appreciation—in fact, Gold has written quite a bit about design, including an unfinished novel starring Craftsman architects Charles and Henry Greene—he cautions that a space can never make or break a meal: "It can be in a truck stop bathroom if the food is good." Still, perhaps even the haughtiest of haute-cuisine are taking cues from less-exclusive locales. "Most seem to be more democratic," says Gold of this year's contenders. "Less 'nooky,' and more open." He paused. "I can't believe I just said 'less nooky' was a bad thing."

Graphic designer, CalArts professor and semi-professional epicurean Louise Sandhaus delivered what is perhaps the most eloquent treatise on the finely-intertwined relationship between food and décor: "Dining is a social experience and great design creates the context that hopefully makes for a pleasurable experience on every aesthetic level." With similar flair, she dubbed this year one of the 'design mash-ups,' listing off a menu of colliding cultural influence spotted in the submissions: "Ultra-modern with the baroque; high-style meets brutto gusto; modern craft meets contemporary craft meets modern industrial; pop; Beverly Hills Regency collides with '70s craft culture."

But one trend was less apparent to the jurors' eyes, says Sandhaus: Did the design use sustainable practices? "We did see this translated in some projects to recycled wood and other materials," she says. "But I would have liked to have known—and applauded—much more innovation in green design: Site stewardship, water conservation and energy efficiency, responsible materials and resources and indoor environmental quality."

Bottega Louie: restaurant, bar, patisserie, and gourmet market
Bottega Louie: restaurant, bar, patisserie, and gourmet market

Ah, but the judging is not over yet. Want to make your voice heard for the LEED-certified, less-nooky, former-jewelry store, light-filled establishment of your choice? Us diners can still have a say by selecting our favorite finalist to be given the People's Choice Award, also to be presented at the ceremony. May the most delicious design win.

On Friday, June 26, immediately after Daniel Pink's keynote, the winners of the Restaurant Design Awards will be announced on-stage at Dwell on Design. You can attend the awards by purchasing a Dwell Conference Plus ticket or, if you are in the design trade, a Friday Evening add-on ticket to your Trade Exhibition ticket. Register at dwellondesign.com

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