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Archive for the ‘interior design’ Category

After months of selecting sauté pans, coordinating colors and worrying about wiring, we are finally beginning pre-season.

 

 

The next baby step is inviting friends and family to try out the restaurant. These are people who have been with us throughout our journey and are willing to work with us as we break in our new staff, equipment and processes. People who have been really, really supportive over the years and feel comfortable giving us feedback and understand what we’re trying to accomplish.  

 

 

On our second night of serving friends and family, a guest asked me why I was so nervous. She said, “this ought to be a lay up for you.” I didn’t know exactly what to say. 12 hours later, I realized that she meant a “slam dunk.” I guess it was a compliment – but I’m in new surroundings, with a new menu, new staff and new equipment – I’m not even going to attempt a lay up, let alone a slam dunk. And even though I’ve been in the restaurant business for a very long time – or maybe because I’ve been in the business a very long time – I know that there is no such thing as a slam dunk. We work hard at it every day, nothing is a given.

 

During this pre-season period, I’ve spotted some things that need to change. Everything from how we set the tables to where blinds are needed to block headlights from cars. And then there’s the lighting system. We can’t program the system until all the lights are in. We can’t put all the lights in until we put in the banquettes. We can’t put in the banquettes because they were measured wrong and are too big. This is exactly why we need “friends and family.” They may be coming into a new situation but are not experiencing us for the first time. They know and understand where we came from and are supportive and encouraging of our journey. They are excited to be part of the process. And that’s the point  — it’s still a process, a vision – and not yet a total experience. There are lots of gaps that are slowly being filled in and adjusted. 

     

 

 

We’re thrilled that everyone loves Amelia’s homemade sorbets and ice creams but the pastry area is not meant to function like an ice cream parlor. We would need a special ice cream holding cabinet to scoop 4 different flavors for one order. We’d also have to hire one person just to scoop ice cream all night. So, Amelia and I are using a solution we came up with years ago- individual “dixie cups” of ice cream. (The kind you used to get with the cardboard pull up lids.) Now when Amelia runs a batch of ice cream, she will portion some into the dixie cups and pop them into the freezer for easy turnout later. Guess what? Now we need to source and order the dixie cups.

 

At Alison at Blue Bell, if I needed someone, I could find him or her at a glance. At Alison two, we have lots of different spaces. I might go through the kitchen to find Tom at the same time he’s going through the dining room to find me. Or, he might be downstairs stocking the wine cellar or in the walk-in making ginger beer. Our intercom system should solve the problem  – but we learned that the intercom doesn’t work if all the phone lines are busy. We set up our phone lines the way most restaurants do – but since we don’t want a machine answering calls, we found we’ll need more lines. In the meantime, we’re using our cell phones to find each other. These are some of the wrinkles we’re trying to iron out.

 

 

The bartenders are working on timing too. We don’t use mixes – we muddle fresh herbs and spices – which takes longer to make the drinks. Of course they taste better too. But they still have to arrive promptly.

Then there’s lots of silly behind-the-scenes nuances. One guest asked for a side order of Brussels sprouts and another ordered half a drink. It took some time to figure out how to enter those in the new POS (point of sale) system so that we could communicate the requests to the bar and kitchen staff. How do you write “happy birthday” on the dessert plate if there is no rim? And, if the plate isn’t flat, how do you balance the candle? And then there’s the new tandoor oven. How do we make sure the tandoor bread is ready at the same time as the monkfish?   

Nothing is easy but making it look easy is another story. We work hard at making it look easy. Our bar is now open. It’s really exciting. We’re serving classic cocktails with a twist, beer and wine, and snacks from our bar menu. We’ll open for dinner starting October 16 and lunch on October 27.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Lighting is so important. It affects the whole vibe of a restaurant. I am lucky to have Courtney, a perfectionist by nature and photographer by profession, design the lighting at Alison two. He’s been shooting restaurants for a long time and lighting is key to photography. But, this is his first venture into lighting design.

 

At one point, we had lights in the ceiling soffits that bounced off recessed areas to provide an indirect glow throughout the restaurant. The current lights were chosen to be accent lights. But, due to a couple unexpected curve balls, the ceiling lights were nixed and the accent lights became the main source of light. So, that created some extra challenges.

 

Courtney’s new plan for creating the restaurant’s warm glow, included a lighting system with more than 30 different zones. This set the mood and helped focus attention in the right spots – whether illuminating the soft folds in the lush velvet curtains or highlighting the detail work in the meticulously refinished mirrors from the Plaza Hotel. Plus, it had the added benefit of keeping our electrician, Augie, busy.

 

 

Courtney really gave a lot of thought to every detail. He chose tiny iridescent blue tiles for the fireplace in the living room, the bathrooms and in front of the bar. In the bar, he lit them with tiny rope lights, making them glow. Then he turned his attention to the window between the bar and the pastry kitchen. The cutout allows all the great baking smells to drift through into the bar. But, he wanted to make sure the fluorescent kitchen lighting didn’t bleed into the bar area too. So, he ordered special incandescent lighting for the pastry kitchen and saved the traditional fluorescent lights for deeper areas of the kitchen. The light peeking out the kitchen entrance presented a similar challenge – even with the incandescent lighting. Courtney skirted this issue by using dark blue paint on as much of the inner pastry kitchen walls as the health department would allow, as well as darker gray flooring.

 

 

The next challenge was finding sconces and light fixtures that coordinated with the metalwork of our metal garden gates. We love the gates. We sourced them from an architectural salvage yard and will use them to separate the bar from the restaurant. Their distinct look really established the design motif for the fixtures.

Courtney envisioned metal light fixtures and sconces that mirrored the shapes in the metalwork in the gates. When he couldn’t find anything quite right, he designed them himself. You’d think custom-made fixtures would be pricey – but he even figured out how to save money. He worked with Welder Michael Sedlacek. They made some sketches and even made a sample or two before settling on the right design. And in a cost-saving measure, Courtney even cut some of the metal himself.

Next, Courtney worked with an Indiana-based company to make the intense blue stained glass – choosing a particular hue and texture. Then, he worked hand-in-hand with the Abington-based Glass Artist John Gartner  to create the sconces. John helped solve a lot of the technical and logistical issues so that the sconces and pendants could work as intended.

 

It took some experimentation to get everything just right. The first time we hung the sconces, the light bulbs were too high a wattage and the heat cracked the glass.

 

We noticed that the sconces looked great from the front but not as good from the side – where the new, weaker, light bulb glowed annoyingly. So, we added additional stained glass on the sides. Interestingly in some spots, where the sconces were very close to corners and won’t catch anyone’s eye, the light from the exposed bulb actually throws an intriguing shadow that mirrors the shape from the metal gates.

We’re making minor adjustments as we install each fixture. The lighting fixtures over the bar were just mounted, although we still don’t have the right bar stools, and we’re waiting for the banquettes to arrive so we can install the rest of the lighting. I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

 

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One of the focal points of the private dining rooms will be a pair of mirrors that used to hang above a mantel in the Plaza Hotel. They’re each 5-1/2 feet tall by 5 feet wide. The style of the mirrors and the number of coats of paint and leafing leads us to believe they were probably part of the original décor of the grand dame hotel, which was built in 1907.

We stumbled across the mirrors in an architectural salvage shop on 24th Street in New York City. They were just leaning against a wall in between other mirrors and frames. Though the detail was clogged with nearly 100 years of paint and gold leaf. They were beautiful pieces that had been allowed to become junky – but they had such potential under the dozens of coats of paint.

 

We were lucky to find William Heller, a Horsham-based furniture restorer and refinisher. He had the special kind of architectural stripper needed and the skill to use it to strip away the layers of paint to reveal the original detail. 

 

 

The next stop on the journey was to Chuck O’Neill in Lafayette Hill for refinishing. First, he addressed the holes. At the Plaza, the mirrors were simply bolted to the wall above a mantel – leaving 6 or 7 holes in each frame. Chuck created molds of the frames and used them to create patches that replicated the detail. Then he painted the mirrors with homemade shellac, masked off the wood area, put primer on the detailed parts and applied sizing.

 

Next, the detailed parts are being covered in a thin gold leaf and the other parts are being painted with metallic gold paint. We found the ideal gold paint – called Aztec Gold. It has the right kind of glow. It has a real richness of color that works well against the bold blue of the walls and the lighting in the private dining rooms. Once the mirrors are finished we’ll post a photo. But you’ll really need to see them in person.

 

 

The meticulous restoration of these architectural gems is reflective of the care that has gone into every step of the process – from choosing plates to designing our own light fixtures. Guess that’s why it’s taking so long.

 

 

 

 

 

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Are you sick of soffits? I am. But, it is all part of the process. If opening a restaurant were all about food, it would be easy. But, this is hard stuff. It gets harder everyday – just when I think I have it figured out, I get a curveball. Like the ventilation system for the oven or the acoustic material for the ceiling. It’s non-stop.

                                                                                                                                                               

Speaking of ventilation systems, I am busy trying to choose an oven hood. I am concerned about the people who have offices above the restaurant site and I’m working to make sure that they don’t smell food all day. The people who work at the bank next to Alison at Blue Bell  sometimes complain that they can smell food coming through the wall. I reply that I can smell their money. But, I’m just joking. It’s nice to smell food cooking when you walk into a restaurant. But, any smell – even a good smell – isn’t so great all day long if you’re sitting at your desk. At the restaurant, I thought we were immune to it. But about halfway into our “30 days of cookies” holiday promotion at Alison at Blue Bell , even we got sick of the smell of baking cookies. Sorry,Amelia.                                                                                                                                                               

                                                                                                                                                             

 

One option is to have a regular ventilation system with ductwork running up to the top of the building releasing smells high into the air. But that means we’ll have ductwork running up the side of the historic building. Another option is running the ductwork through the building. But, that eats up potential office space. A third option is getting an ultraviolet hood. It uses ultraviolet light to pulverize the air particles that carry food smells. Since it minimizes smells even before they’re vented, there’s no need to run ductwork inside or up the building. Sounds good, but UV hoods run 30 to 40 thousand dollars more than a regular hood. None the less, it looks like that’s the way we’ll be going…unless something else comes up – which I’m sure it will.

 Checking out acoustic material Meeting with Steven Schultheis 

That leaves us with the acoustic situation. As the Los Angeles Times  so eloquently put it, I’m striving for “a comfortable sound level (somewhere between bedlam and the grave).” I spent two hours meeting with Steven Schultheis at S&S Resources. It was a great meeting and I learned a lot. Their acoustic material will absorb 80% of the noise in the main dining room. Now, here’s the tricky part…we want to put the acoustic panels in the recessed areas in-between the soffits. But, we can’t penetrate the ceiling in the main dining room because it is fire rated. So, we’ll have to clip the material to the soffits. And of course, all this impacts the lighting design that we’d already settled on. The panels are 1 to 2 inches thick so they’ll limit the bounce we get from the lights. You need something for the light to bounce off to get a nice glow. It’s always something!  

Enough of ventilation and acoustic material. I have some cooking to do. I just picked up some kosher gelatin. I’m using ideas from Eileen Talanian’s new cookbook Marshmallows: Homemade Gourmet Treats  to create a kosher marshmallow dessert for my upcoming class in NYC . Then, in a few weeks, I’m helping Eileen launch her new cookbook with a reception featuring sweet and savory marshmallow dishes . When things get bad there’s always my marshmallow blaster. It shoots mini-marshmallows at high power. A great, non-violent way of dealing with aggression. I’ve been using it non-stop for the past 2 weeks. Go ahead…make my day!

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I’ve opened more restaurants than I care to admit. Some on my own and others as the debut chef. And now, Alison two.

 

It’s always two steps forward and a step backwards. We decided to carpet the bar instead of using hardwood floors. It’s a little unusual but we thought it would absorb some of the noise. We want the restaurant to have a buzz – but the noise level shouldn’t be uncomfortable. We want a place that’s comfortable to hang out.

 Meeting with Pro-Tech Floors

It turns out that a new employee’s sister is the foremost acoustic expert in the area. What luck! She wrote me an email explaining that carpet helps with low and high frequencies but it can also make a room boomy. Okay, so if that’s not the answer, what is? She sent me links to information about acoustical materials.

 

So here’s my idea for the acoustic materials. What if we can put them on the ceiling instead of the floor? We have to build soffits in the ceiling to house electrical wiring (it’s a fire code issue – don’t ask). So now I’m wondering if we can use some of those acoustic materials (instead of drywall) to make the soffits. I just spoke to my general contractor about it and he’s checking it out. Those soffits, by the way, are like lemons that we’re making into lemonade. Since we have to have them, we’re making them design elements and figuring out how to use them to actually enhance the lighting. Instead of shining straight down from can lights, the lights will bounce off the soffits — creating a glow.

 

So, if the acoustic material can go on the ceiling — instead of the floor — then we don’t need carpet and can consider going back to hardwood floors. I asked Bob Himmelreich, our flooring specialist from Pro-Tech Floors for quotes both ways. As I said, two steps forward and a step back.

 

It’s enough to drive you to drink. Fortunately, a beer dinner is on tap at Alison at Blue Bell on Monday. Tom Kehoe, Brewmaster from Yards Brewing Company, will be joining us for a special 4-course beer dinner. Should be fun. More fun than doing the two-step over carpeting or hardwood or carpeting or hardwood or carpeting…

  

 

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