How would you describe the interior of your favorite restaurant? Is it bold and sophisticated like a glass of red wine, or cheerful and casual like pop music? Maybe it’s sensual and romantic like a slow dance. As the bar and restaurant scene continues to boom in DC, its interiors are becoming increasingly customized, intentional and, well, manipulative. But in a good way.
On Tap spoke with the designers of some of our favorite new spots, including Sakerum, Lincoln, Columbia Room, The Dabney and Community, delving into how they create the ultimate environment for a special night out. Maggie O’Neill, cofounder of Swatchroom, starts off every new project by asking the client how they want their space to feel. She’s searching for a launching point, a spark for the creative process.
For example, her client wanted Sakerum on 14th Street to be both soothing and exotic. Her firm realized the concept with clean lines, natural materials and “punctuations of glamour.” As a sushi restaurant, looking to Japanese design was logical, but Swatchroom also brought in Latin cultural influences like bright, mismatched pillows lining benches adjacent to the Asian element of low wood tables.
Designers of the best new restaurant interiors in DC consider every single aspect of your experience in the space. From how you enter the restaurant, to the way diners and servers circulate through the room, the tiniest details have been considered and choices carefully made. Beyond lighting and materials, the most successful designers select everything from the font on the menu to the weight of cutlery in your hand.
When Brian Miller, design director at Streetsense and longtime friend of Columbia Room Owner Derek Brown, agreed to redesign the bar in Blagden Alley, the firm approached the project almost like production design for a play. The bar is small, so designers developed a kind of choreography dictated by the space to have “the best drinks you can possibly make while having the best time you can possibly have,” Miller said.
“We really wanted to pinpoint what was special about the old Columbia Room and what could be improved.”
There are three spaces in the bar: a tasting room, punch garden and spirits library. The latter conjures masculine rooms in sprawling English estates, with rich woodwork and deep leather sofas. The original bar could only be accessed by walking through another restaurant. Miller and Brown felt it was crucial to keep that kind of sequence in the new space: first enter the alley, pass through the garden, into the spirits library and finally arrive at the bar.
“The anticipation that builds is a really important part of the experience,” Miller said.
The most impressive feature of Columbia Room is the large, custom Italian glass mosaic mural behind the bar. No rows of bottles or TV screens stare back at patrons of this exclusive spot. The firm designed the artwork based on medieval illuminated manuscripts. It is highly detailed, allegorical and rich with iconography, exploring the duality between dark and light, man and woman, sun and moon. Alchemists were the first to mix delicious cocktails, and the artwork explores the techniques and ingredients of the craft. It’s the ultimate message to patrons that this place is special, it’s intentional and it will last.
Custom art is something our top picks share – the mosaic wall in Columbia Room, wrought metal mirrors in Sakerum, custom portraits and penny floor in Lincoln, and the cheerful, Hollywood-inspired painted mural in Community. Richard Stokes, founder of Stokes Architecture, designed the latter, a new-concept diner in Bethesda’s Woodmont Triangle.
Open for breakfast, lunch, dinner and cocktails, it even features a window where late-night partiers can pick up fresh doughnuts and coffee. Stokes has created a space that pays tribute to mid-century modern casual dining spots, elevating the look with sleek lines, dark wood and custom barstools in orange with smart, plaid seatbacks. A partial wall of stacked white stone separates the bar from the dining room – but all diners have access to views out of the wall of windows overlooking the street.
Trends to watch for? Clean lines, custom elements – often made by local artisans – metals like rose gold, brass and polished copper. Mid-century modern is in, while reclaimed materials and Edison bulbs are out. Casual gathering places where people can come and go all day are more common than the white-tableclothed steakhouses of the District’s past. Boho chic and warm colors are on trend, as are colors found in Miami Beach, like muted mauve, dirty yellows and minty greens. O’Neill avoids the latter, however, creating classic spaces that aspire to timelessness.
“This is the year of intensions,” she said, her excitement and passion bubbling through the phone.
Restaurantgoers in DC are sophisticated, savvy and looking for “high-impact moments,” she said. These hot spots deliver just that.
On Tap’s Picks
Columbia Room: 124 Blagden Alley, NW, DC; www.columbiaroomdc.com
Community: 7776 Norfolk Ave. Bethesda, MD; www.communitybethesda.com
The Dabney: 122 Blagden Alley, NW, DC; www.thedabney.com
District Distilling: 1414 U St. NW, DC; www.district-distilling.com
Lincoln: 1110 Vermont Ave. NW, DC; www.lincolnrestaurant-dc.com
Provision 14: 2100 14th St. NW, DC; www.provisiondc.com
Sakerum: 2204 14th St. NW, DC; www.sakerum.com