Punjab Grill // Photo: Greg Powers

DC’s Vibrant Restaurant Designs: An Ode To Culture + Instaworthy Photo Ops

As we reach the halfway point of 2019, we’re finding that chefs and restaurateurs are prioritizing interior décor as highly as their culinary offerings. To some, like chef Adam Greenberg of the island-fantasy restaurant Coconut Club, “the décor was as equally important as the brand of stoves I wanted in the kitchen.” For others, like James Beard Award nominee Erik Bruner-Yang of Spoken English, Brothers and Sisters, and Maketto, it’s all about looking at space from a nontraditional standpoint. Here are our top picks for one-of-a-kind, stunning restaurant décor.

Coconut Club

Since opening in late January, Coconut Club has been on every single hit list in the city. Known for whimsical, island-style cuisine, a pup-friendly patio and summertime cocktails, the NoMa spot that’s just a stone’s throw from Union Market also happens to be an Instagrammer’s paradise. In keeping with its tagline “Vacation starts now,” you can walk into Coconut Club in the dead of winter and feel like you’re on vacation in Hawaii.

“My architects [at Edit Lab at Streetsense] did an amazing job of getting to know me, the concept and what we were going for,” owner Adam Greenberg explains. “Design Army did our branding as well as the exterior signage.”

The floating bar, the shamelessly grammable bathroom décor, the lush greenery and the adorable swing chair vibes all lend themselves to a relaxed, tropical paradise feel. The piece that ties all the little details together is a massive mural that covers an entire wall of the restaurant. Greenberg and his wife searched for ages to find the right artist for this mural.

“I needed something I could look at every day and not feel like I’d be sick of it in a year.”

Enter artist Meg Biram, who they reached out to over Instagram. A baby pink background lays a beautiful canvas to teal, blue and aqua palm trees and fronds, drawing palette inspiration from Coconut Club’s signature branding colors. The entire mural was brush painted by hand solely by Biram and took three weeks to execute perfectly.540 Penn St. NE, DC; www.hellococonutclub.com

Photo: courtesy of Kaliwa

Kaliwa

From Bad Saint to Thip Kao, Filipino restaurants are becoming all the rage in Washington. But Kaliwa, located on the Wharf, is a true immersive experience into Filipino culture.

At its heart, Kaliwa is a love letter in restaurant form. It embodies the love of a culture, the love of a grandmother’s family recipes, and the love between a husband and wife who choose to work together every day. It’s the concept of Meshelle (Meshe) Armstrong, wife to award-winning chef Cathal Armstrong, and was inspired as a call to remember the indigenous beauty of where she’s from: the Philippines.

“All the graphics and furniture, including our coco-shell chandeliers, came from artists and designers from various islands of the Archipelago,” Meshe says.

All across the restaurant and even in the logo, diners will see tattoo designs.

“These are represented as the ancient people of the Philippines, who believed that tattoos were a token of passage into the afterlife.”

A tattoo mark allows a spirit to be easily recognized and embraced by ancestors after passing to the other side of the veil. 

A large painting hangs above the chef’s counter, depicting a tattooed woman in repose. It’s called “Binukot sa banig.” The traditional symbols and the style with which they’re arranged on her body are from the central and western Visayan regions of the Philippines. Each of the individual motifs convey her relationship to her ancestors, as people of the Philippines believe that their ancestors’ spirits appear specifically in recognized animal forms. The fact that these symbols are tattooed on the woman signifies that their memories have been internalized within her skin.

Two other prominent paintings along the walls are of ancient Baybayin characters. These individually translate into Lakas (strong) and Mahal (love).

“The goal of Baybayin art is to strengthen unity within our community by telling the rich history of the motherland,” Meshe continues.

These displayed paintings are the works of artist Kristian Kabuay. On one side of the restaurant, white blossoms are painted across a teal backdrop. These depict the Salingbobog tree, which is similar to Japanese cherry blossoms but a native species to the Philippines.

Go for the incredible food. Stay for an illuminating lesson on a culture’s vibrant history. 751 Wharf St. SW, DC; www.kaliwadc.com

Photo: courtesy of Jennifer Hughes

Punjab Grill

Before its doors even opened, Food & Wine dedicated an entire article to Punjab Grill, calling it a “game-changing Indian restaurant.” The Penn Quarter restaurant’s approach to elevating Indian cuisine to a fine dining format isn’t the only aspect that makes it so unique.

“I wanted to redefine what the U.S. market thinks of when they think of Indian food and Indian fine dining,” says owner Karan Singh.
“I wanted to do traditional Indian food in a tasteful, classy and relevant-to-2019-Washington, DC way.”

Singh chose to collaborate with Amit Gulani of Incubis, Ayush Kasliwal of AKFD and Jose Toha of Grupo-7 to bring this concept to life. After realizing that the elements needed to set the scene were very specific, the decision was made to build the entire restaurant in Rajasthan, India.

“The whole thing was built there and then taken apart – the entire ceiling, the entire private dining room, the overbar, the stone structure – every element.”

The “Sundowner” bar with high-top food service is a low-lit, stunning structure of tiger marble. The main dining room is designed to reflect the royal saloon train car from E.M. Forster’s classic A Passage to India. Each table is pure marble structure, adorned with bespoke crockery and cutlery. Inlaid along the walls are gemstones reminiscent of the Taj Mahal’s stunning ancient craft of inlay work and marble carving.

Still, all that beauty pales in comparison to Punjab Grill’s pièce de résistance: the Palace of Mirrors. Guests are led through thick, ornately carved doors into a “palace of mirrors,” referred to in Hindi as Sheesh Mahal, where 150,000 glass and mirror pieces have been meticulously hand-laid across the entire room to create the same striking effect as the prominent Amer Palace of Jaipur.

In the center is a long, black table made from one singular piece of marble that seats up to 10 people. The table is set with Hermès dishes – the patterns on which mimic the pattern of mirrors on the ceilings – and surrounded by chairs that were each individually custom-upholstered by Peter D’Ascoli. Yes, each chair was designed specifically. So are the drapes. 

“It’s over the top but in a tasteful way,” Singh proudly explains. “It’s a lot to take in but it’s not sensory overload. It all comes together nicely.”

If your experience should take you to the bar or the dining room, you can always request a tour of the opulent Palace of Mirrors. Prepare to be wowed. 427 11th St. NW, DC; www.punjabgrilldc.com

Photo: courtesy of Service Bar

Service Bar

In keeping with its quirky vibe, Service Bar just added a wall-long mural to add brightness to the normally darker atmosphere. Co-owner Chad Spangler reached out to Henley Bounkhong, a 31-year-old, self-taught painter, on Instagram in search of something “different.” He was in luck as Bounkhong had just begun experimenting with a new style of painting.

“When I first went in to check out the space, I loved all the cool cups they have, the colors and the vibe of the space,” Bounkhong describes. “I suggested an octopus serving drinks because, having worked as a server, I feel like the octopus is the best representation [of] someone who has to do a million things at once. So, we ran with that.”

Bounkhong’s new paint style consists of multiple panels laid out, almost like the pages of a comic book. The Service Bar mural contains several separate paintings that are all ultimately connected through the tentacles of the octopus. Throughout are other little elements inspired by those cute cups Bounkhong loved so much.

“I felt it would be right to have cherry blossoms and the monument there to represent DC and then the rest of the panels were of flowers and nature. Everything flowed together naturally, and the end result was a little more than I imagined.” 926-928 U St. NW, DC; www.servicebardc.com

Photo: Rey Lopez

Spoken English

This standing room-only restaurant within AdMo’s LINE Hotel stole the hearts of the DC dining community when it opened early in 2018.

According to founder and chef Erik Bruner-Yang, “we always had the intention of doing Spoken English. It was originally going to be more sit-down, fine dining. When we got closer to opening, we realized it didn’t fit with who we are as chefs overall. So, we made a massive pivot to do the tachinomiya service style.”

Spoken English shares a kitchen with Bruner-Yang’s Brothers and Sisters. His company Foreign National worked with Design Army to create custom branding for the intimate space, like a bright floral wall that’s the perfect Instagram backdrop for the spot’s chicken skin dumplings. The mural is actually custom wallpaper that was designed specifically for the Spoken English space.

“When we were looking at the floor plan, we saw that there was enough space to do what we needed with Brothers and Sisters that we didn’t need an overly large kitchen. So we took that box of space to do something interesting and different.”

Diners can enjoy a variety of memorable, Hong Kong-style street foods while gazing out at Adams Morgan or watching the chefs run both restaurants through one small kitchen. While many tachinomiyas are more bar-style, this space highlights the best of the cooking that Foreign National is known for.

“Spoken English has its own unique energy that comes from the space, the style of restaurant that it is and the people that work there,” Bruner-Yang says. “It somehow all came together as a unique restaurant experience.”
1770 Euclid St. NW, DC; www.spokenenglishdc.com


Foodie Design Inspo

DBGB Kitchen + Bar

Chef Daniel Boulud’s “great bistro” concept in CityCenterDC holds a fun surprise for first-time visitors and an exploration activity for regulars.

“Daniel arranged to send all his chef friends a set of permanent markers together with an unadorned, plain white plate, along with a personal note asking them to customize the plate for DBGB [when it first opened],” says Michael Lawrence, executive director of operations for The Dinex Group. “Some chefs simply signed the plates, others drew pictures of their favorite ingredients and a few of them sent back designs that were quite abstract and hard to decipher.”

931 H St. NW, DC; www.dbgb.com

Espita Mezcaleria

Another Oaxacan-inspired spot with attention-grabbing artwork at every turn, each mural in Shaw’s Espita Mezcaleria was hand-painted by renowned Oaxacan artists Yescka and César Chávez as commentary on political issues facing the world. 1250 9th St. NW, DC; www.espitadc.com

Hanumanh

The highly anticipated new installment from mother-and-son duo and chefs Seng Luangrath and Bobby Pradachith holds more than a stellar Laotian menu. Cheeky murals in reference to the monkey deity that inspired the Shaw restaurant’s name surround the restaurant. These are also done by Henley Bounkhong.

“It was a super interesting project to paint because being a Laotian myself painting for Laotians, I actually had to do research and learn about my own country since I was born and raised as an American,” he says.

1604 7th St. NW, DC; www.hanumanh.com

Mi Vida

This 9,500-square-foot waterfront restaurant has a panoramic view of the Potomac River with its floor-to-ceiling windows. The Wharf spot’s design mixes industrial aesthetics with historic Mexican décor for a modern, elevated feel. The star of the show is the “Arbol de la Vida,” a 19-foot clay sculpture of the tree of life adorned with Oaxacan-inspired flowers and designs.

98 District Sq. SW, DC; www.mividamexico.com