In a design-oriented, Instagram-everything era where restaurant designers are the new rock stars, has the look of a space become more important than the food?

Craig Stanghetta is just out of a meeting at a big downtown hotel. The beautiful landmark restaurant there has great food and service, but even so, too few people are finding their way in, and the hotel hopes that Stanghetta can perform some kind of alchemic magic—a hope that’s not without foundation. Pretty much every room that Stanghetta’s ever touched debuts to city-wide buzz. By something approaching a consensus—accompanied by a big dose of surprise, given his unconventional resumé—Stanghetta is the reigning master of restaurant design in Vancouver just now. It’s doubly impressive considering his cohort and the moment that restaurant design is enjoying. Partly, people are just a little more design-conscious (aren’t we all on the hunt for Instagram fodder?) and live inside increasingly smaller private spaces that have us spending more time in public ones, like restaurants. Partly, the ascendance is simply due to the frantic pace at which eateries have been opening during these recent, economically unstable times. True, designers of all types have been busy. But those focusing on residential and most kinds of commercial projects are generally tasked with preserving property values, and this promotes a conservative approach. By contrast, says David Scott of Scott and Scott Architects, one of Stanghetta’s competitors (and sometimes collaborator), “Restaurants want to stand out.” A few of these higher-profile recent openings are on the luxe side, including the fetching new Nightingale restaurant, from Toronto-based Studio Munge (also responsible for chef David Hawksworth’s first, eponymously named spot), and Bauhaus Restaurant, from locally based interior designer Andrea Greenway. The new location of Chambar, from Carscadden Stokes McDonald Architects, is a more grown-up version of the original, retaining all of the brick-walled character and rudimentary exoticism while eliminating the faint sense that the place might not look quite as terrific in the harsh light of morn. Another progressive architectural firm, Acton Ostry, designs the massive and surprisingly minimalist locations of the Cactus Club Cafe. Then there is the impending arrival of a local outpost of the Mott 32 chain, to be designed by Hong Kong- and London-based interiors superstar Joyce Wang, which promises to draw people inside the doors of the Trump Hotel Vancouver (despite Trump). Rest1 Joe Fortes A person might expect a certain amount of glamour and cigar connoisseurship at high-profile and relatively expensive spots such as these, but nope: most are fairly casual in nature, with design philosophies rooted in notions of integrity, authenticity and really good lighting. Meanwhile, a little farther down the food chain, spots like Bestie and Torafuku (designed by Scott and Scott Architects), and Savio Volpe and Kissa Tanto (a double whammy of Stanghetta) are so damn indie they make the designs of 10 and 15 years ago look like pop acts groomed by David Foster. This is where Craig Stanghetta and his Ste. Marie Design comes in, along with Scott and Scott, David Nicolay and Robert Edmonds and their Evoke International Design, and Marc Bricault and his Bricault Design, to name just a few of the interlopers (almost none are interior designers) who are dominating the scene and winning seemingly unlikely converts to their work. “I don’t know who they are, but I love what they’re doing,” says veteran designer Juli Hodgson, whose Hodgson Design Associates has worked on dozens of high-profile projects, like the Aritzia chain. Rest4 Kissa Tanto (Photo: Knauf and Brown) The Vancouver restaurant scene has had its design moments before. Beginning in the early 1980s, both David Vance and the late Werner Forster, the latter an architect with fingers in many pies, managed to simultaneously absorb advanced outside influences and develop a uniquely local style while turning out a large proportion of the city’s landmark restaurants. Forster is indelibly associated with Umberto Menghi and the original Il Giardino, but he did just as much, and just as well, designing restaurants for Jack Evrensel’s Toptable Group (now owned by the Aquilini Group), notably Blue Water Cafe and West. Meanwhile, Vance contributed to the success of Bud Kanke, operator of restaurants including Joe Fortes and the Cannery, but he’s best known as the designer that helped set Earls far apart from other chains during its first two decades of operation with a blend of playfulness and polish. The Fuller family, Earls’ owners, credits him with bringing a sophistication to the operation that went well beyond the casual-luxe interiors. Still, when in the late ’90s a young architecture graduate named David Nicolay arrived home to Vancouver from Los Angeles, he didn’t find a lot of restaurants to his liking, so he and a partner opened one that was. Tangerine, on Kitsilano’s little Yew Street strip, helped pioneer two innovations that now seem givens. Like the West End’s Tapastree (replaced now by Tavola) and downtown’s Bin 941, Tangerine served small plates instead of full-on meals. And, perhaps more significantly, Tangerine was the first Vancouver restaurant in at least a decade to be designed in a stripped-down, modernist style. Rest5 Home Street Cafe and Bar (Photo: Carlo Ricci) Today Nicolay co-operates Evoke, responsible for such recent openings as Main Street Brewing and Forage (not to mention lots of Noodle Boxes). In addition, the company owns restaurants and bars, mostly along Main Street, including the Union and the Cascade Room, which gives them a leg up when figuring out how other people’s restaurants are going to work. The firm also takes on other commercial projects and single-family residences. “With houses, we’re pure modernists,” Nicolay says, but not so with restaurants. Evoke’s restaurant designs are generally modernist-influenced but eclectically so, because, of course, restaurants need concepts. By nature such establishments are fashion victims, too, and have to be redesigned and renovated often—which is definitely good for business. Recently, says Nicolay, he’s noticed a lot of chef-owners designing and building their own places, something that’s been facilitated by the existence of specialist contractors who can steer them away from egregious mistakes. “There’s a lot of DIY right now,” he says. “And that’s not a bad thing.” About the time that Nicolay was opening Tangerine, Marc Bricault broadened the scope of his Granville Island furniture shop after connecting with a young restaurant owner named Vikram Vij. Vij, who was operating a hole-in-the-wall on Broadway, had secured bigger premises on 11th Avenue and needed a restaurant inserted. Bricault proved to be something of a double threat, providing not only a characteristically intricate design but personally fabricating and installing big chunks of it. As Vij has expanded his empire, Bricault has expanded with him, designing (and fabricating portions of) Rangoli, My Shanti and the new Vij’s location on Cambie Street while also doing locations for Thomas Haas and others. The new Vij’s, he notes, incorporates “moments of lantern-ness” that hearken back to a lantern motif designed into the original location. Other important additions include a much bigger bar and—crucially, to anyone who’s ever endured the lineup during a Vancouver November—awnings. Rest2 Chambar's patio Bricault’s designs are notable less for upfront aesthetic impact than for their intricate detailing and a plenitude of ingenious touches. Scott and Scott Architects, consisting of husband-and-wife team David and Susan Scott, have a similarly tight focus, but there’s no lack of wow factor in their ultra-minimalist restaurant designs. The couple’s very first job (apart from a barn on Pender Island), after years spent working separately in other architectural firms, was Bestie, a German currywurst café in Chinatown for which the primary design mandate was ease of construction by the owners and a volunteer brigade recruited partially through social media. More recently, they did Torafuku, currently short-listed for London’s international Restaurant and Bar Design Awards. There, a communal concrete table rises seamlessly out of a concrete floor. The room’s extreme spareness, they point out, is a product of preference and philosophy (such as the way their concern for materials mirrors the restaurant owners’ obsession with ingredient quality), but also of more practical considerations, such as the small amount of money the food truck magnates behind it had to spend. “I look at restaurants where there are a lot of elements,” David says. “And I admire the budget.” One of the Scotts’ recent projects is the facade of a storefront on Kingsway, near Fraser Street, that contains a restaurant called Savio Volpe. The design is minimalist, of course, but seems more in keeping with Italian-style futurism than any current Vancouver interpretation. That’s appropriate, given that the hit restaurant inside is owned and designed by Craig Stanghetta, his first foray as a restaurateur rather than purely the designer. Indeed, only a few years ago, Stanghetta was waiting tables and working as an actor, mostly in theatre, but also with film roles including “grey man” in the Jon Hamm/Keanu Reeves stinker The Day the Earth Stood Still and “Pete” in the better (but still less than consequential) Flicka 2. Then in 2010 he was connected to Tannis Ling, an original Chambar bartender intent on opening her own place. Stanghetta grew up in a restaurant family in Toronto and had watched countless places succeed and fail. “What I observed,” he says, “is that they all had their systems and protocols, but if there was a disconnect between atmosphere and the narrative and the creative direction—they just couldn’t overcome that. They didn’t offer a full dining experience.” He calls this missing factor a “binding narrative,” citing the work of Anton Chekhov and Tennessee Williams as examples, and makes it his central design principle. Rest3 Nightingale With Ling’s Bao Bei—in retrospect, a harbinger of much of what’s gone on in the restaurant world here and elsewhere—Stanghetta drew from the stories of the proprietor’s Chinese-Canadian upbringing, rendering the restaurant, he says, “very home-like and personal; people would settle in.” Next he turned his hand to Meat and Bread, another influential hit, but with a very different narrative. “Meat and Bread was a bit of theatre in its own way,” he says. “But very pared back.” Instead, the rapid pace of service contributed to the attraction, and it was people—both the staff and the customers sitting at communal tables—who created the environment. A snapshot of Stanghetta’s subsequent projects includes Homer Street Cafe and Bar, Revolver, Ask for Luigi, Killjoy, the Blackbird Public House and Oyster Bar, Clough Club, Pizzeria Farina and Pidgin. In the past year there’s been Ling’s second restaurant, the Japanese-Italian mash-up Kissa Tanto, and his own place, Savio Volpe, with a menu styled after an Italian osteria, although granted more breadth and scope for creativity than its typical European counterpart. Lately, his designs have become quite theatrical, and often surreal or dreamlike. At Kissa Tanto, a jumble of mostly unfashionable colours, finishes and fixtures compete for attention within a lounge-like setting that is nevertheless cozy and inviting. At Savio Volpe, the faces on two portraits of a hooded figure are obscured by the bases of protruding lighting fixtures, and the hands of a clock tick around on a blank wall. Whisking one into another world has always been part of a restaurant’s appeal, but Stanghetta’s worlds are becoming very different indeed. Stanghetta’s most recent projects seem, at first glance, a surprise. Earls, recognizing that its style and brand was beginning to lag behind some of the premium casual competitors, gave him something approaching carte blanche to be a contemporary David Vance and imagine what an Earls would be like had the chain launched in the present day. The result is the recently opened Earls 67, located in Calgary’s downtown Bankers Hall and explicitly tailored to millennials, with a variety of distinct moods and functions (a lounge, a beer patio, a sunny atrium). He’s currently working on another new Earls, this one in West Vancouver, set to open next year. But it will be very different from the Calgary location, he says. Different, he adds, because the creative process—the quest for a narrative—is exactly the same.