Restaurant makeovers are, I realize, served up on a fairly regular basis; still, they are always exciting endeavours, each one unique in its own way and offering its own rewards and challenges. Here is a behind-the-scenes look at a restaurant makeover recently completed by Punch Inside, the design firm for which I am Founder and Creative Director.
Saint John, New Brunswick’s Opera Bistro, whose cuisine is widely regarded as one of the finest in the Maritimes, opened its doors in 2005. Its owners are Chef Axel Begner and his wife, Marget. The bistro’s initial design featured bright orange and lime décor — which was just fine at that time. Emphasis on “at the time,” though: Similar to fashion, design tastes can change quickly and what once looked fresh, cutting-edge or novel can look dated or tired within five to ten years. In 2012, seven years after opening, Opera Bistro still enjoyed a deserved reputation for its cuisine, but its look needed a refresher.
Marget and Axel approached my design firm with some specific instructions: keep the name (Opera Bistro); keep the chairs and tables; and create a look that reflects their menu’s celebration of local producers. As well, there were two tricky conditions. First, a tight budget: Excluding design fees, everything — from materials to décor, sub-contractors (electricians, painters, sheet metal fabricators), etc. — had to come in for less than $10,000, i.e. the cost of an average bathroom reno! Second, a challenging timeline: The restaurant could only be closed for one working day, and the total redesign had to be completed in less than one week.
Aside from that, we were given complete creative license.
Here is a quick overview of how Opera Bistro used to look; all photos by Judith Mackin.
The entrance: Passing through the unprepossessing entrance [left], guests were greeted by a cluttered counter-top and a mélange colour arrangement of orange and lime. A trio of massive gooseneck lamps, though a source of some drama, was nonetheless dated. The restaurant logo [upper right] also needed a complete revamp. Most important: Aside from the room’s ambient music, the bistro was an essentially ‘opera-free’ themed environment.
The layout: The restaurant’s original layout lacked warmth and cohesion. A mishmash of décor, lights and paintings failed to capitalize on what this bistro could be.
The back of the room: Though perhaps commissioned to complement the lime-and-orange colour scheme, the large painting at the end of the restaurant made too strong a statement.
The kitchen: With a green front wall and an orange back wall, the kitchen area was too bright; as well, the lines of the rectangular window area were too severe.
The lighting: The restaurant’s entire right-hand side was dominated by paper lanterns and unfocused design. As well, the top of the piano had become a haven for clutter.
The new Opera Bistro logo
Our goal with the restaurant’s logo was to create an eye-catching symbol that could also serve as a foundation on which to base the restaurant’s interiors. Created by punch inside’s sister company, Punch Productions, the new logo uses a minimalist modern font and can be interpreted visually as two plates, a pattern of musical notes or, naturally, the bistro’s initials, “O.B.” We added a whimsical but appropriate tagline — "Where taste buds sing" — to further underscore the connection to opera.
At the very top of this post is a sneak peek at the redesign of the restaurant proper. Next up: an in-depth look at the makeover (including plenty more pictures!).
Special thanks to: Amy Ash, Sarah Tapley, Tom Walker, Bob Downey, Robyn Mackin, Robert Moore, Gillian Goldie, Mark Hemmings and Reynolds Electric — and, of course, Marget and Axel Begner for the design opportunity.