Aesthetic choices can make, break bars, eateries

Walking into any of Matt Baumgartner’s restaurants or bars is a transporting experience. Step into a German brauhaus when visiting any of his Wolff’s Biergartens, with locations in Albany, Troy, Schenectady and Syracuse. Teleport to a convivial evening in London’s Balham neighborhood when stopping by Olde English Pub and Pantry, on Broadway in Albany. Escape to the most idyllic countryside retreat — replete with farm-to-glass cocktails — at June Farms, his barn-turned-bar oasis in West Sand Lake.

Baumgartner, who has opened more than a dozen establishments in the Capital Region over two decades, has become as known for the aesthetics he creates in his spaces as much as for his business savvy or keen menu sensibilities. For him, the look and feel of his bars and restaurants are nearly as vital to success as what is on the menu. In his newest space, The Berlin, a sit-and-linger bar that opened in November on King Street in Troy, Baumgartner worked to create a tony hotel lobby vibe that was inspired by the idea of a 1930s cocktail lounge. His designs start with developing a color scheme, he said, and The Berlin was focused on deep red with gold and black accents. “Some people say it’s too dark — like my mom — but I think it is sexy and ambient,” Baumgartner said. Unlike designing a home where the decor can reflect the owner’s personal nuances, “in a restaurant you have to think wider to appeal to more people,” he said.

For Brianne Baggetta, a partner-owner with Jessica Arnold and Tim Dillon at Dove + Deer in the former Center Square Pub location on Dove Street in Albany, designing a space that appealed to the community was foremost in the development process.

“I didn’t really want to get into the restaurant business. I just wanted to create a place that people could enjoy,” she said. Baggetta is president of MailWorks and Pretty Polite, two design and printing services in Albany, and grew up in a design-savvy family, she said. She has completed extensive historic renovations in the past and allowed the historic nature of the building, which dates to 1854, and neighborhood to guide the aesthetic. As the two-month renovation and build-out process progressed, hidden architectural elements began to reveal themselves, like the encaustic tiles that mimicked patterns in the nearby state Capitol building and windows looking onto the neighborhood.

Much of the design relied on existing elements in the space, with the incorporation of locally sourced historic materials — like a set of arched doors from the Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer found at the Historic Albany Foundation warehouse — to create a space that was welcoming and paid homage to the people and community surrounding Dove + Deer.

Unlike designing a home, rigid standards for material quality and a timeline have to be met. “Certain substrates I would use in a house would not work for commercial use,” said Baggetta. Baumgartner agrees, having said “cheap is expensive. When you buy inexpensive things in high-use areas you end up having to replace them all the time.” He sourced more expensive, higher quality seating from Restoration Hardware and accommodated the budget elsewhere by being frugal in finding artwork from salvage and secondhand shops and opting for midrange paint. Lighting is the most important element in designing a space for Baumgartner; he relies on incandescent light to set the mood of his spaces. “Architects are too quick to use LED lighting and it ends up feeling cold, like a hospital,” he said, adding he prefers the warmth and ambiance yellow-hued light creates.

Sound management was critical in design for Baggetta, who realized after Dove + Deer opened that the reflective properties of her chosen hard surfaces made the restaurant an echo chamber. Softening the space with upholstery and fabrics muffled the sound and created a more inviting atmosphere. “You have to think about how people experience the space you create. People might not think that the details matter but they benefit from how the details create the space.”

Wife and husband architecture and development team Graciela Monroy and Kyle Engstrom at Me Studio in Troy have designed many Capital Region hot spots, like the Albany Distilling Company bar and bottle shop on Livingston Avenue in Albany and Franklin Alley Social Club in Troy. Customer experience is the forefront of design conceptualization for them and, as Monroy said, “Restaurant design is a lot of fun when we start thinking about the concept of a restaurant, we think about the customer experience. It is not something you live in every day so it can be more fun than a residence The design should speak to what the food is.”

At Little Rice Ball, a space they designed on Franklin Street in Troy, Engstrom said they took traditional elements of Japanese architecture, like minimalistic natural items and overlapping wood tones, to allude to the Japanese-skewed menu. In most cases, the design should not “hit you over the head,” said Monroy. Franklin Alley Social Club is an exception, she said: As soon as you walk down the stairs of this basement bar, the “cruise ship through the tropics” theme wallops visitors, immediately invoking the feeling of tiki bars and The Love Boat.

The choices in both design instances parlay into the psychology of restaurant design. Using hard seating surfaces will urge people to dine briefly or take their orders to-go (good for food hall-style eateries) while club chairs and extra padding in lounges (like in The Berlin) will contribute to longer stays and higher pre-dinner bar tabs. The flow of the space is equal parts operator need and customer experience, said Engstrom. At Dove + Deer, the initial concept of having counter service for food orders was scrapped when Baggetta and her team realized the space did not accommodate that traffic flow, so halfway through the construction process they switched to traditional table service.

Whatever the concept of the restaurant and its design, Engstrom and Monroy said that restaurants are a vital part of community fabric. “We think of restaurants as the last pillar holding up the social urban infrastructure. Whenever we have the space in a building project, we try to incorporate a restaurant,” Engstrom said. How the designs of those restaurants materialize is limited only by the scope of imagination.

Deanna Fox is a food and agriculture journalist. @DeannaNFox,


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