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Four Star Style
Theo Adamstein and Olvia Demetriou Are Washington's Hottest Restaurant Designers. Here's an Inside Look at the Tricks They Use to Make the Atmosphere as Appealing as the Food.
Comments () | Published July 1, 2004

In a part of DC's old downtown that used to be empty and quiet on Saturday night, people are back looking for fun.

At the MCI Center, a crowd roars its approval as the Washington Wizards beat up on the Indiana Pacers. Under the neon logo of Platinum, the nightclub on F Street, young people queue up behind the ropes waiting to get in.

And at Zaytinya, which has become one of the city's hottest restaurants, people are arriving so fast that the valet-parking crew is playing catch-up on a double row of cars stretching down the block.

Just inside the restaurant's two-story, all-glass façade, diners without reservations find there's a long wait for a table, although it's possible to squeeze into the standing-room-only bar. With 300 people talking and laughing, it's a place designed to be a high-energy scene more than a place for conversation. Even the maître d', a young man with shaved head who operates out of a post next to a three-foot-high container of amber-colored olive oil, has to lean close to hear a name to add to his list.

Our table is reserved, so we are soon escorted up a long stairway, with little candles on each step, to a table on a mezzanine about 12 feet above the main floor. We have a choice view of the loud, colorful scene, flames from a fireplace add a cozy touch behind us, and our table is laid with white dishes sized for "mezze," the small portions of Greek, Turkish, and Lebanese cuisine that are the house specialty.

Through the windows the view encompasses a couple of thousand years of architectural history--in one direction the Greek Revival columns of the Smithsonian's American Art Museum, in another the glass-and-steel of the Martin Luther King Jr. library by the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. It's a nice setting for dinner with two architects, Theo Adamstein and Olvia Demetriou--a married couple who created Zaytinya's look and feel.

They remember the owners coming to them with the idea of a restaurant that would do for the cuisine of the eastern Mediterranean what one of their earlier restaurants, Jaleo, had done for Spanish tapas. And they remember when this space, inside a new office building at Ninth and G streets, was a chamber of steel pillars and rough concrete. The name Zaytinya, which means olive oil in Turkish, had been chosen, but the restaurant's ambiance was left to their imaginations.

Adamstein takes charge of ordering--calamari with dill, a little lobster, an eggplant dish--while Demetriou talks about the inspiration for Zaytinya's design. Its direct reference is Santorini, a Greek island in the Aegean with a history of volcanic eruptions. The couple visits Greece every year or so--Demetriou was born in Athens and has family there--and they were spending time on Santorini, admiring its rocky landscape and ancient villages, about the time they were working on Zaytinya. The restaurant is intended to be a distillation of the feeling and luminous quality of Santorini.

Adamstein orders a bottle of wine from Santorini, and the two architects begin pointing out some of the restaurant's features that derive from the island.

The long wall that divides the dining room from the bar is a tall grid of white marble--a large white candle burning in each niche--that is meant to suggest the thousand-foot cliffs on Santorini that go down to the Aegean. The houses are built on the edges of these cliffs, says Adamstein, and residents stick to Greek tradition when it comes to materials. "The poorest little bed-and-breakfast has marble floors and marble showers," says Demetriou.

The colors in the upholstery, pillows, walls, and ceiling are from the Aegean too--shades of blue and white that echo the sea and sky and the whitewashed houses along the island cliffs. Demetriou is certain the colors they chose are just right. "We walked one day to one of the remote towns just as they were painting their buildings for the new season," she says, "so we just picked up some samples--chips of that pale light blue and the periwinkle blue as well as some little pieces of marble."

Zaytinya is one of the places that have made Adamstein and Demetriou the city's reigning masters of restaurant design--specialists in creating that ambiance that makes the food all the more appealing. Over the past 17 years, they have designed more than 40 local restaurants, including Zola, Poste, and chef Yannick Cam's Le Paradou, all new establishments just a couple of blocks away. On the drawing board, also for this neighborhood now known as Penn Quarter, is a high-style Indian restaurant and lounge with French overtones called Inde Bleu.

All this has made them a trendsetting couple--friends with many of Washington's prominent artists, collectors, gallery owners, chefs, and restaurateurs as well as recipients of a wall full of architecture and design awards. It's also enough experience to accumulate a whole bag of trade secrets about how to make a restaurant an experience to remember.

INTERNATIONAL STYLE

Adamstein and Demetriou met in 1979 at Cooper Union, the art-and-architecture school in Manhattan. Both were from families with roots abroad, and both had parents with backgrounds in design. Adamstein was from Cape Town. His mother, a native of South Africa, was a fashion model who turned to fashion design, and his father was an Orthodox Jew, born in Lithuania, who was a salesman for leather-goods companies. Demetriou, though born in Greece, had lived most of her life in Washington, where she went to the Maret School. Her father was an architect and urban planner and her mother a ceramist who taught at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.

Both got jobs with architecture firms in New York after graduation but gave those up a couple of years later to settle in Washington. Demetriou worked for her father's firm, and Adamstein, who'd been drawn to photography as a teenager, turned his entrepreneurial skills to a photo-processing lab called Chrome that became a favorite of professional photographers. Chrome was a financial success, and it gave the young couple--who married in 1985 and have two sons, ages 9 and 11--the freedom to begin an architecture practice that could focus on creative projects.

Their first project--a renovation of their own house in Georgetown--was featured in architecture magazines, which led to a call from a potential client in Westport, Connecticut, who asked them to design a seafood restaurant. They'd never done a restaurant, but their first try ended up drawing lots of praise.

The young architects found themselves in Washington at an opportune moment, just as the city's dining-out business was on the verge of change. New restaurants were popping up everywhere, many of them places that catered to the city's growing population of affluent and well-educated patrons who had traveled enough to appreciate cuisine from around the world. At the high end, these restaurants began to find it worthwhile to invest in better design, all part of the process in which Washington was shedding its image as a sleepy Southern town in favor of something more sophisticated, more international, even occasionally hip.

Adamstein and Demetriou's big break came in 1992, when they heard that Paul Cohn, a restaurant entrepreneur who had started J. Paul's and Georgia Brown's, was planning a downtown nightclub called Zei. They offered Cohn a deal he couldn't refuse: They'd create a design, and if he didn't like it, he wouldn't owe them a cent. Their design was a big hit. Two years later they were hired by Yannick Cam and Savino Recine to design Coco Loco, a Brazilian restaurant on Seventh Street, and followed that with Provence, Cam's French-provincial restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Since then they've done projects that include a private museum to display a collection of Amazonian artifacts for Smithsonian Secretary Larry Small, a couple of hotel lobbies, and several homes. But the restaurant niche accounts for 80 percent of their business, and they've done projects for some of Washington's best-known restaurateurs. Beside Yannick Cam, the high-profile chefs include Bob Kinkead (Colvin Run Tavern), Jeffrey Buben (Bistro Bis and an update of Vidalia), and Fabrizio Aielli (Teatro Goldoni). The owners of Jaleo and Zaytinya--Roberto Alvarez, José Andrés, and Rob Wilder--have hired them to do another Jaleo and a new Mexican restaurant (Oyamel) in Crystal City, both in Crystal City. And they've designed a new Italian restaurant called Sette Osteria in Dupont Circle for Franco Nuschese, the owner of Cafe Milano.

They've attracted the attention of national companies such as the Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group of San Francisco, which hired them to design Poste. And they've done several projects for Bethesda-based Marriott, including two spaces in the JW Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue (1331 and Avenue Grill), a prototype for a reintroduction of the company's Hot Shoppes chain, and a renovation of a three-level revolving restaurant called the View in the Marriott Marquis in Times Square. They're also redoing the cafeterias and dining rooms at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, and they have designed an upscale fitness center in Georgetown called SomaFit. It's their own concept, they're the lead owners, and it opens this month.

WHAT'S THE BIG IDEA?

Adamstein and Demetriou always begin a project with the knowledge that restaurants are at the center of American social life. "They have become gathering places that are the equivalent of a town square or piazza," says Adamstein. "They're one of the few places people go on a regular basis to hang out for two or three hours and have a good time. There's a certain fellowship among dozens of people sitting together for a few hours."

The architects also understand that patrons come to restaurants with a range of expectations. They may be seeking fantasy and escape from the stresses of work and the routine of daily life, much as people do at the movies or the theater. They may want to get dressed up and look forward to being well treated and to enjoying a sensual experience for the eye as well as the taste buds. They may want to be part of a scene that makes them feel sophisticated, elegant, modern, or with it.

Adamstein and Demetriou are conscious too that voyeurism and exhibitionism are on the menu at some restaurants. They are places for people to show off. No one has any illusions that those caricatures of the regulars on the wall of the Palm are there because they are great art.

Restaurateurs, like Hollywood producers, are keen on beginning a project with a well-focused idea. This is known as "the concept," and some national companies even have executives with titles like "director of restaurant concepts." Adamstein and Demetriou's job at the outset--long before choosing fabrics or developing a floor plan--is to make sure they understand a client's concept so that their design will reinforce it in every detail.

The cuisine--or a chef's cooking style--is central to a restaurant concept. Often this is suggested by the name a restaurateur has chosen. Adamstein and Demetriou projects like Raku and Yanyu were destined to have an Asian look, Teatro Goldoni and Primi Piatti promised Italian, and the Mendocino Grille called for a design that suggested California. Other projects they describe with such terms as "East Coast regional" (Colvin Run Tavern), "contemporary sushi concept" (Spices), or "contemporary interpretation of French bistro/brasserie" (Bistro Bis).

Design also is influenced by a restaurant's "price point." That will dictate not only who the patrons will be but will shape their expectations about the look and feel of the restaurant. A big tab suggests an older clientele and more formality--tablecloths, lighting that flatters the middle aged, a higher level of comfort, and less noise. Zola, the restaurant attached to the Spy Museum, presented an interesting challenge--how to make it casual enough to appeal to tourists with children while also drawing local diners with higherexpectations.

With a client's concept in hand, Adamstein and Demetriou seek inspiration by dipping into their storehouse of knowledge and experience. They also dine out a lot to see how other restaurants look and function. "Sometimes we do several restaurants a night," she says. "We'll have a drink in one, peek into another, get an appetizer somewhere else, and then have dinner in yet another."

They also do lots of traveling abroad. As they were thinking about the design for Bistro Bis on Capitol Hill, they were on a trip to Paris. Adamstein consulted a cookbook that had lots of photographs of famous Parisian bistros and brasseries; they made a list and visited 25 establishments to jot down ideas. A few months ago they took a trip to Mexico--a rare instance when the client paid--to gather ideas for Oyamel, their Mexican project in Crystal City.

For the Hot Shoppes prototype--which was to be built at the Key Bridge Marriott, the location of Marriott's first Hot Shoppes, but which September 11th then put on a back burner--they searched through the biography of J.W. Marriott and pictures of old Hot Shoppes. For Zola, at the Spy Museum, they watched film noir productions from the 1940s. Ideas also pop out of magazines, especially from fashion spreads and advertising.

FORGET THE GRECIAN URN

Calvin Trillin, who has spent a lifetime roaming America and eating at restaurants, once said that every little burg with any pretensions had at least one establishment that served European cuisine. The food was always an amalgam of dishes characterized as "continental cuisine," and the place was always called "La Maison de la Casa House."

One can only imagine the decor in such places, but they are a reminder that restaurants have always come in a variety of traditional styles: the deeply masculine saloon with the vast mirror behind the bar, the dark woods, the brass railing, and paintings of hunt scenes. The seafood restaurant with the marlin on the wall, nets hanging from the ceiling, and the lobster traps back near the restrooms.

Who has not eaten in an Italian trattoria with red-and-white tablecloths and Chianti bottles, a French restaurant with Old World chairs and brocade draperies, a German establishment with a collection of beer steins, or a Chinese restaurant with miniature pagodas? Even the most modest of the ethnic restaurants that have opened in Washington usually have a few photos of Mecca, Bangkok, or the Taj Mahal.

When Adamstein and Demetriou were starting their careers in the early 1990s, the restaurant business was turning to "theming" as a way to attract customers. These places often were modestly priced, aimed at families, controlled by national chains obsessed with "branding," and replicated everywhere. Borrowing from Disney theme parks, Hollywood sets, and Las Vegas casinos, their designers took the concept and pounded it into every detail.

"If people were doing a restaurant about music, boy, did they let people know it was about music," says Adamstein. "They'd have guitars everywhere, Elvis Presley pictures, and vinyl records on the wall." He's talking about Hard Rock Cafe, but the same could be said of Planet Hollywood, Silver Diner, Rainforest Cafe, and ESPN Zone.

Occasionally you saw upscale theming in such places as Red Sage, the attempt by Santa Fe chef Mark Miller to bring modern Southwestern cuisine to downtown DC. Lots of branding irons, Indian rugs, buffalo suede, and barbed wire. On upper Connecticut Avenue, a chef has repositioned her place by installing decorative canoes, changing the name to Buck's Fishing & Camping, and including duck and fish on the menu.

A few of Adamstein and Demetriou's projects, especially those done several years ago, have a touch of the in-your-face literalism that dominates theme restaurants, though they often have done it with a witty twist.

At Georgetown Seafood Grill, on 19th Street, they hung three swordfish over a middle-of-the-room bar--leaping rather than tacked to the wall. (The place is now called Fin, and the fish are gone.) At Raku in Bethesda, the ceiling is filled with colorful Chinese parasols and chopsticks, oversize in the manner of Claes Oldenburg. And at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Union Station called Thunder Grill, giant red chili peppers fashioned of animal gut hang from the ceiling.

More recently, Adamstein and Demetriou have tried to avoid being too obviously thematic. "I feel very strongly that Washingtonians don't like theme restaurants," Demetriou says. "There are some pretty sophisticated people here, and theme restaurants seem a little beneath them."

Adamstein and Demetriou try to capture their client's concept with something more subtle and contemporary. Ethnic references are pared down to an "emotional trigger"--a color, a shape, or a feel--that suggests the cultural essence of a country but remains subliminal.

Beyond its links to the island of Santorini, Zaytinya has a few other muted references to its Eastern Mediterranean concept. The restrooms are marked in Greek, Turkish, and Arabic, and there are half a dozen large contemporary glass containers filled with olive oil. But those old standbys--the Ionic columns, Turkish carpets, and Grecian urns--are missing.

Vidalia, the upscale M Street establishment that styles itself as featuring "American Cuisine with a Southern Accent," is another example of thematic restraint. The entrance stairs and the back bar have large panels of diffused acrylic hung about eight inches from the wall, with the leaves and artificial blossoms of a magnolia stuffed in the space between. There are a few black-and-white art photos of onions on the walls of the dining areas. But that's all you see that suggests the South.

EMPTY SPACES

In one of their first projects, Yannick Cam's Provence, Adamstein and Demetriou created an "exhibition kitchen" that opened onto the dining room and was elevated 4H feet above the main floor. It put the chef on a pedestal, accentuating his status as a showman and a master of haute cuisine. It was a nice bit of invention, but it was mothered by necessity: The floor was raised because it sat atop the ramp to the basement parking garage.

When Adamstein and Demetriou get their first look at the empty space a client has bought or leased, they are often confronted with some glitch that has to be accommodated. When Marriott asked them to redo a dark, low-ceiling space next to an escalator at the JW Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, they turned it into a cozy living room similar to an airport VIP lounge for weary business travelers. The bar and eatery, called 1331, is bathed in colored lighting and features seating groups that have their own television and Internet hookups. At Raku, an Asian diner near Dupont Circle owned by the same people as Raku in Bethesda, a third of the restaurant's interior sits on a sidewalk leased from the city and had to be constructed so it could be torn down on 24 hours' notice. At Coco Loco, a now-closed Brazilian restaurant on Seventh Street, Northwest, the building's stairwell stood right in the center of the restaurant--an intrusion that was hidden by wrapping the kitchen around it.

No obstacle is more ubiquitous than steel pillars. Adamstein and Demetriou usually camouflage them or work them into the design. They form an end of a long bar at 1331 and were incorporated into the host station at the original Georgetown Seafood Grill. At Teatro Goldoni, which had two columns in the front dining room, the designers added two fake columns to provide symmetry.

All restaurants have working parts that must be tucked away. Mechanical systems--air-conditioning and heating ducts, stove hoods to carry away smoke, and other ducts to pump fresh air into the kitchen--mustn't be obtrusive. At the Dupont Circle Raku, some of these elements are hidden behind a structure over the bar that looks like the roof of a Chinese house. At Teatro Goldoni, that rounded end of the bar hides a drain, and at the Avenue Grill in the JW Marriott Hotel, that sleek backdrop to the host station is actually an unobtrusive closet for coats.

Restaurants in historic buildings present challenges. Poste, a contemporary French brasserie, is attached to a hotel that occupies a federally owned building at Seventh and F streets that was built before the Civil War and once served as the city's post office. Many of its features could not be altered, including its skylight, doorways, and granite walls. The restaurant is in the original mail-sorting wing that juts out into an internal courtyard and is large enough for a workable restaurant only because the government allowed an addition to be wrapped around it on three sides.

Zola, just across the street, is in a string of office buildings built just after the Civil War, which meant that every bit of the design had to be approved by the city's historic-preservation agency. There was no question that the original front door, the bay windows in the bar, an old stairway, most of the brick walls, and other historic features had to be preserved. And some early ideas, including hallway floors of white terrazzo and a big open dining room, were vetoed.

Because Zola is connected to the International Spy Museum, it has an espionage theme, and Adamstein and Demetriou decided to have a little hide-and-seek fun. The original walls are hidden by acrylic and glass panels that display lines of coded messages in English, Russian, French, and Arabic or feature large, shadowy photos of trench-coated spies.

Even more imaginative is a visual trick involving the red floor-to-ceiling booths. Each booth has a porthole of stainless steel, just above the heads of the diners, that is aligned to create a crowd-pleasing surprise. Near the host station, you can look down this line of holes into a mirror and see what seems like the inside of a gun barrel, an image made famous in the opening credits of James Bond films.

BEST SEAT IN THE HOUSE

To restaurateurs who want to maximize return on investment, the number of seats is crucial, and that's linked to how much they intend to charge. Places with modest checks like Zaytinya need more seats and are eager for patrons to come, eat, and leave quickly, while high-end restaurants can afford to have fewer seats and be more tolerant of lingering. The number of required seats is one of the most important parameters that Adamstein and Demetriou work with, along with a sense of the mix of table sizes. Usually they know roughly how many tables are expected for two, four, or six people--known in the trade as "deuces," "four tops," and "six tops."

Arranging these seats into dining areas is part of a larger set of decisions about the location of all the other "zones" a restaurant requires--the entrance, a bar or lounge, corridors, restrooms, and kitchen, with areas devoted to food storage, food prep, cooking, and dishwashing. "Circulation and flow are among the hardest things to get right in a restaurant," says Demetriou. The traffic patterns have to work for patrons, who need to be escorted to their tables and make their way on their own to restrooms, and for members of the staff, who need convenient and not-too-distant places to pick up drinks and food and get dirty dishes to the back of the house. The goal is to keep congestion to a minimum.

Occasionally Adamstein and Demetriou get a request like one from the owner of a restaurant who wants a big bar and lounge that he hopes will attract a glamorous crowd. He asked for a traffic pattern that will make women part of "the visual scenery" to spice up the action: Men will enter their restroom directly from the bar, but women will have to go around the corner, parading all the way through a VIP lounge, to their restroom.

Adamstein and Demetriou are believers in breaking up the dining space into rooms or clusters, defined by different floor levels, walls, or screens. This allows a restaurateur to put large groups into their own space or to shut off sections so that the place will not look so empty when business is bad. The patron gets less noise, a sense of intimacy, and more visual interest. "If it's one big room, you take it in very quickly, and then you've had it," says Demetriou. "It's more intriguing to have a process of discovery."

At Colvin Run Tavern, in Tysons Corner, Bob Kinkead wanted four dining rooms to highlight cuisine from four American locales--Charleston, the Shenandoah, Nantucket, and Camden, Maine. Each of the intimate rooms has its own regional character, including a mural of downtown Charleston in tile and a stone fireplace suggesting a Shenandoah lodge.

anufacturers offer hundreds of possibilities for the chairs, booths, or banquettes, so the trick is to find something that speaks to the restaurant's concept.

For a high-end restaurant, Adamstein and Demetriou are likely to pick a more expensive chair of fine wood with upholstery that will make patrons feel more comfortable. If it's a casual place, they'll probably choose something that is not expensive and has a modern, youthful look. They've had one client who insisted on intentionally uncomfortable seats--stools of hard wood with no backs--so patrons would sit, eat, and run; but customers rebelled and the stools had to be replaced. They also have done everything from the modular booths at Dupont Grille that can be moved aside and reconfigured to the tables at Carlyle Grand Cafe in Shirlington that are anchored to the floor.

Adamstein and Demetriou try to minimize those locations that every restaurant patron hates. Nobody likes to be seated under an air-conditioning vent or too close to a drafty entrance. At Mendocino Grill, a narrow little restaurant in Georgetown, the front door on M Street opened directly into the bar, bringing a surge of cold air on wintry days. The solution, in addition to heaters at a couple of tables, was an all-glass vestibule with a second door into the bar. That helped, but it created another problem--patrons kept bumping into the glass door, which had to be retrofitted with frosted strips so people could see it.

Another faux pas to be avoided is the remote table with the bad view--making patrons face the door of the kitchen or the restrooms or look out a window at an alley or a gas station across the street. "It's impossible to guarantee a great view at every table," says Demetriou, "so we try to give the Siberia tables something unique"--a nice painting or photograph, a niche filled with a sculpture or vase of flowers, or afireplace. At Levante's, just below Dupont Circle, on a grim exterior wall of concrete visible from a window in the bar hangs a big blue canvas banner with the restaurant's name and logo, doing double duty as a focal point and advertising.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 07/01/2004 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles