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How great interior design enhances Calgary’s restaurant scene

Designer Sarah Ward at Vine Arts in Calgary on Friday, March 10, 2017.

Jeff McIntosh

When it comes to food scenes across the country, one major element that differentiates a city with a truly established restaurant scene such as Calgary's from one that's still evolving is the level of design you will find in its casual fine-dining establishments.

Looks are certainly not the only thing that matter when you're sitting down for dinner in a restaurant – far from it – but if you think that what's on your plate or in your glass are the only things that make dining indelible, you'd be awfully mistaken.

Take, for instance, the floor-to-ceiling accent wall lined with vintage skateboards at the lively sports bar Home and Away – or, at Anju restaurant, the vibrant wallpaper that looks like it could have been ripped from the pages of a Magic Eye 3-D book at Pigeonhole or the royal blue pillar with ornate Asian character carvings. All of these major design elements help set the stage for what is to come – you know: food, drink and general merriment. They certainly were not haphazard decisions.

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"The interior dictates how patrons will think, feel and act within a space," explains Sarah Ward, whose namesake interior-design firm is one of the most sought after in Calgary's food scene. "From atmosphere and tone, to the innumerable physical touch points that a patron will interact with, each one is key in ensuring that the brand experience of each [person who comes into the space] is consistent."

Major firms such as Sarah Ward Interiors, Frank Architecture and Interiors (Anju, Pigeonhole, Bridgette Bar) and Connie Young Design (Avec Bistro, Workshop) are an integral part of bringing serious restaurateurs' dreams to life. The do-it-yourself approach does not apply these days, especially when local chefs and owners aspire for national recognition.

Speaking of national fame, let's take Toronto's Spanish eatery, Bar Raval, as a prime design example. Sure, it has delectable Spanish offerings of pintxo along the bar, conserva and amazingly well-constructed cocktails, among other things, but what takes this restaurant and evolves it into a marvellous culinary affair is the room. Polished mahogany wood in a myriad of tones wraps itself seemingly magically, but warmly, around the entirety of the room only giving way to show off decorative ceiling tiles, windows, bar and the kitchen. You likely won't remember everything you imbibe or devour here, but its whimsical, Shire-esque interior will linger in your mind.

Now, not every restaurant has a never-ending budget when it comes to buying top-of-the-line flooring, tables, chairs, lighting and everything else that goes along with them. "We identify the key design interventions that will have the greatest transformative effect on the overall space," says Kate Allen of Frank. "We get creative, often designing or repurposing furniture, lighting and [other finishings] that can be assembled/installed at a lower cost than purchasing retail."

Ms. Ward's ideology falls perfectly in sync with Ms. Allen's. "I'm especially fond of what we were able to accomplish here on a tight budget," Ms. Ward says of Proof, a chic cocktail bar that her firm designed in 2015. "We transformed a fairly standard commercial unit into a space that is tactile, warm, comfortable and curious. I think it really showcases what Proof is all about."

On paper, the acclaimed bar is tight quarters; a long, narrow space no more than 15 feet wide, and yet it appears elaborate with its huge, focal-piece shelving unit behind the bar boasting six levels and a rolling ladder that barkeeps step up and down, grabbing bottles for their concoctions. It commands attention. There are studded brown leather couches against the window draped with Hudson Bay blankets, high-top tables and a small bar wrapped around the tiny open kitchen down the hall.

Ms. Ward loves the feeling she gets when she walks into one of her spaces and sees a full room that's alive with the clinking of glasses, tapping of cutlery on plates and electric conversation. "That's the most rewarding part of being a designer. Design is full of risks, but a busy room signifies success not only aesthetically, but also that we've provided the client with an environment that's desirable, functional and, ultimately, profitable as well."

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Calgary restaurant interiors to take note of:

Home and Away: Its floor is made out of repurposed elementary-school gymnasium flooring and the hallway to the bathroom transports you right back to grade school with a trophy case and functional water fountain to boot. (Sarah Ward Interiors)

Pigeonhole: Aside from the charmingly psychedelic wallpaper, the emerald green tiled bar and marble tabletops help complete the room and quirky illustrations framed on the back wall help bring the eclectic menu to life. (Frank)

Rosso Coffee Roasters (9th Ave. SE location): This chain's swankiest location offers up a striking white, gold and silver panelled wall behind the barista counter and a fabric-accented wall behind the communal table in the corner of the room. (Holland Design)

Native Tongues: Finding a balance between a contemporary look and rundown taqueria on the side of the road in Mexico was no easy design task, but that's exactly what happens here where new and old worlds collide. (Amanda Hamilton Interior Design)

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