Designing Intimate, Occasionally Skull-Filled Restaurant Interiors Is Half the Battle

If there’s one knock on contemporary restaurant interiors (to be sure, there are more), it’s that they’re mostly safe and boring. Clean, minimal lines; walls covered in white tiles (can we stop it with the white tiles already?); rigid spaces that invite eaters to do anything but relax and enjoy their meals. And while there are many adjectives that might suit COJE Management Group — the folks behind Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar, Yvonne’s, and Ruka — safe and boring aren’t among them.

The group took home the 2017 Eater award for Design of the Year for its second Lolita location, a dark, sprawling space nestled along the water in Boston’s Fort Point neighborhood, heavily featuring murals by Julia Purinton of Burlington, Vermont, and Danny Fila of Miami, Florida, both of whom also worked on Ruka. COJE’s own Project Services Group designed Lolita, with Boston-based firm Bergmeyer acting as the architect of record for the project.

COJE managing partner Chris Jamison understands that impacting a diner’s feelings is as important as what’s on the plate, but also that both things must work in concert.

“At the end of the day, we’re not just trying to feed you; we want to make you feel a certain way,” Jamison told Eater via email. “Our culinary team is one of the best in the city at telling a story. It takes so much pressure off of the rest of us to do what it is we do best.”

“Space design and culinary development happen in parallel, but on separate tracks,” he continued. “I wouldn’t say the look is defined by the cuisine; I’d say that we’re very in sync with the guys in charge of the cuisine when it comes to what we’re trying to accomplish, how we want people to feel. Dinner is the new night out, not something you do before a night out. In order for us to harmonize everything in the restaurant, the star of the show needs to be on point, and we’ve got some ridiculous horsepower across our various kitchens that allow us to do almost anything we want from a culinary perspective.”

Yvonne’s is dark and brooding and looks like the sort of space one might have found in some Gilded Age mansion had the industrialist on the deed had a taste for cow prints. The coffered ceiling — its ochre complementing and augmenting the lounge area’s soft lighting — suggests a secret society’s private club (the space used to house Locke-Ober, where Boston’s elite once dined, so this follows), while the ornate woodwork backdropping the white marble bar asks drinkers to keep it classy.

Yvonne’s
Yvonne’s
Yvonne’s dining room (top), dining room bar (bottom left), and library bar (bottom right)
Eric Levin/Elevin Studios
Yvonne’s

Yvonne’s also happens to be Jamison’s favorite project.

“The history of that space, the fact that it was the first project with our current team of Tom Berry, Juan Pedrosa, and Michael Adkins, the end result of how we were well-received by both the older generations of Boston as well as our contemporaries — that will be a hard one to top,” Jamison told Eater. “There was something really special about what we have created, how different it is in Boston, how much people resonated with a vision that everyone told us would fail — there’s a lot of satisfaction and pride in that project. People thought we were insane for putting a restaurant in that part of the city in 2014 when we signed the lease…I’m proud of our team for what we’ve accomplished there.”

Ruka isn’t only rooted in modernism, though — swaddling one of its booths is a painting that looks like it could have been made by Hiroshige if Hiroshige had lived to see the expansive building upwards of urban life. It’s a deft and voguish nod to the masters of the Edo period.

Then there’s each location of Lolita Cocina & Tequila Bar. The original (and recently remodeled) Back Bay location is all reds and blacks and wood and wrought iron; the Fort Point location is part Catholic church (see the stained glass angel behind the bar, this time not asking drinkers to keep it classy, but rather mocking their decision to imbibe at all) and part catacomb (so many skulls!). Like their cousins in Downtown Crossing, each space is sexy and cool and intimate. Jamison is delighted that people think his team’s restaurants are sexy and cool, but intimacy is the real key.

“Intimate is critical,” said Jamison. “Each city is different, has its own quirks and idiosyncrasies. What works in Miami won’t necessarily work in Boston. Chicago success doesn’t guarantee Boston success. Two of the traits that Bostonians value are intimacy of space and warmth in design.”

“Warmth is hard to achieve with soaring ceilings or 150-foot sight lines,” he continued. “If we’re presented with a large space, we cut it up as much as possible. Smaller areas, intimate rooms, nooks, dark corners: Those are the things that we’ve found success with. Soaring, modern, and austere are words that rarely define anything successful in Boston. We respond to intimate, authentic, and warm. We use materials, furniture, and design elements to make spaces feel smaller — weird, right? — and warmer.”

Lolita Fort Point
Lolita Fort Point
Lolita Fort Point
Adam DeTour
Lolita Fort Point

So, what’s next for the COJE team? At the moment, they’re beginning construction on a patio at Lolita Fort Point that will have a full bar and accommodate 100 guests. It should be open by early May. COJE also just began construction on a Cuban restaurant in Post Office Square.

“I’m fired up about this one; I think we’re going to really surprise some people,” said Jamison. “Our whole team recently spent a week in Havana and Miami pulling inspiration for this project, and we’re going to do something I haven’t seen done in Boston before. It’s an extremely complicated and technical construction job, but we’re hoping to have this open by the end of the year.”

And though nothing is in the works yet, Jamison said he’d love to open a rooftop restaurant — or a boutique hotel.

“I want to extend our brand to a whole hotel project,” said Jamison. “I think there’s a tremendous opportunity in this town for a 100-room hotel with a couple of killer food and beverage outlets, and a nightlife component. We’ve started looking at a few opportunities to imprint our style of hospitality on a full hotel. Near term, that’s my dream project in Boston.”

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