Alexis Readinger on the Return of "Mature" Restaurant Design
Splitting the difference between formal and chill by making dining social again.
Alexis Readinger is the founder of Preen Inc., a restaurant and hospitality design firm based in Los Angeles.
Have you noticed any long-term effects or changes from the pandemic in terms of how restaurateurs want their spaces designed?
Yes and no. There are some operators who have a little PTSD and only want spaces that have outdoor areas, should something happen in the future. But as far as intentionality behind a restaurateur setting up a space ... We work with one restaurateur, Bill Chait, who will spend a lot of time with layout, dynamics, and the association disruption that can happen in a space. But he’s not the norm. That’s generally something we handle on our side.
Anything different on a higher or more abstract level, then?
I think we’re definitely seeing a heightened social environment right now in restaurant spaces. My go-to example of a project that we did not do ourselves would be Horses. What’s interesting is it’s not even something that the owners did—I think the physical setup existed already. There’s dining at the bar counter, and then next to it, there’s a sort of elevated two-person booth seating. They’re so close to each other it creates an arena environment, where if you’re at the booth, you’re looking to see what the people at the bar are eating, and you’re talking back and forth. It’s highly social, and I think that’s one of the reasons Horses is so successful. I’m sure the food is amazing too. If I could get a reservation, I could comment.
Getting more social and close would seem to directly contradict what the hospitality was dealing with during the pandemic.
Yeah, exactly. There’s also the nature of the typology. For example, we’re working on two projects right now. One is called Negroni, and the other is Lucia. They’re both operating as sort of bar-supper clubs. We saw this a lot in the 1990s, where you’re like, is it a restaurant, or is it a bar? So that very social model is turning up again. Actually, what my client said they wanted for Lucia was “grown and sexy.”
Like ... grown as in grown-up? Not moan and groan?
Yeah, it’s a little weird!
Versus ... not grown and sexy? That is a little strange.
Something funny there, but yeah, I see that model showing up more in restaurant spaces. Directly post-pandemic, we saw a lot of emphasis on the experiential. What’s we’re seeing now are really more social bar-type spaces. And also we’re also getting a lot of requests for a more grown-up restaurant. I almost think we might see a return to Continental menus, but with a chef-forward push.
Generally, luxury is all of a sudden back in F&B. If you know Otium in LA, with super duper amazing chef Tim Hollingsworth—we’re doing his outpost in the Waldorf Astoria in Vegas. They were funny. They were like, “We don’t know if your book is luxury enough.” And I’m like, well, there hasn’t been any fine dining to do. We did one of the last new fine dining projects in LA—that was Hatfield’s, in 2006. Since then, it just wasn’t the culture. But now we’re starting to see that come back.
That’s interesting and somewhat surprising. I talked to Curtis Stone back at Zagat right before the pandemic lockdowns started, and he went off unprompted about how traditional fine dining as a full experience didn’t really exist in LA anymore, even if all the culinary components were easy enough to find.
Fine dining in LA remains a casual experience in a very low-key, unpretentious way. I think of these as mature restaurants. More luxurious in the way they’re appointed. There’s been a lot of lifestyle appointment going on in hospitality.
Do mean just in LA? Or all over?
All over. I was just in London, and there are so many beautifully designed and much more formal restaurants there.
Why do you think fine dining might come back now, in whatever form?
The thing about LA is that for the last 20 years, it was Jonathan Gold’s LA. It was this emergence of incredible chefs at all levels of finance, and from all backgrounds, and all of these conversations about authenticity and origin versus fusion. We’re still in that conversation. Everything we’re doing is an expression of someone’s origin story.
LA really championed that whole world, and now it’s really broadening. It’s not your mom-and-pop who put up their shingle out on Pico Boulevard. It’s more about immigrant stories, the beautiful artistry of people learning from their ancestry or heritage.
More recently, we’ve gone from celebrating chefs and their origin stories to something I consider less interesting—the return of the country-club-style venue. Kind of like Soho House. These are concepts designed to really hit the notes of what people want and provide a menu that matches. But it’s set up without a voice. Instead, it’s just very specifically catering to a certain business model.
What does that look like from a design perspective?
Oh, my God. Everything looks like Tulum. Or Elephante in Santa Monica—that rosé-all-day vibe. There’s often an escapist quality to the design. I think of a mature restaurant as a powerful player with a powerful chef looking to do an evolved Continental menu. And the question is, would there be white tablecloths, or not? And I don’t think anybody knows the answer right now. I personally am hard pressed to find anywhere for business lunch on Monday or Tuesday.
You mean there’s no room, or no place to go?
There’s not many places to go. Maybe more on the Westside, but I’m in Chinatown close to Downtown.
Do you think that’s a result of the particular neighborhoods not supporting business lunchers? Or is that citywide?
Post-COVID, a lot of restaurants aren’t even operating Mondays or Tuesdays, and a lot fewer are doing lunch. But on the other hand, one of the things we saw coming out of COVID was the importance for developers of having F&B in their properties. Using that as a differentiating narrative has just grown and grown. And we’ve seen owners taking on a lot more risk. For example, we have a developer in Pasadena who is willing to take someone on as a restaurateur, and help them financially, even if that person might not be quite as experienced—as long as they’re interesting and fantastic.
Helping with the buildout or lease, is that what you mean?
Helping them raise capital, and potentially partnering a bit as long as they don’t have to have anything to do with running the restaurant.
We’re also seeing these hybrid public-private partnerships. We’re doing one in Long Beach—Gaucho Beach, on the sand there. The city actually built the building and owns it, and they’ve contracted with an independent restaurateur to come in and do the concept. What’s weird about it is they’re like, “You can’t have a host and seat people. It needs to occur as a public entity.” So we’re trying to negotiate between the city and our client, saying, well, we need to run this as a restaurant, otherwise we’re not going to be successful. That sort of back and forth, trying to figure out what the model is.
Did the experiences of the past few years change your outlook or affect the kinds of projects you want to be involved in?
When the pandemic started, I was really nervous that we were going to struggle. So when we went remote, the first thing we did was take on a pro-bono project supporting some local women on the island of Bonaire to create a refuge for the yellow-shouldered Amazon parrot. I have two parrots, so it was actually the first time it was appropriate to have them on Zoom with me.
But it was great, especially for the energy. Everyone was wondering and worrying about what was going on. But we knew exactly what we were doing that month.
How bad was the dip in your project pipeline as a result of pandemic slowdowns?
We didn’t ever have a dip. In fact, we grew. And we also did a lot of additional support work for various clients. We were on call as a consultant for the City of Los Angeles for mom-and-pop restaurants if they needed to expand outdoors. They never actually called, though.
What it opened up for me is that for a long time, we had been in the conversation of connecting to nature, about creating really meaningful projects. All of a sudden, we saw the world around us get with the program. All the maniacal social media hypermediation ground to a halt, for a minute. And everyone looked around and said, “Okay, what matters?” It’s wonderful in a way, because it got everybody into a more collective conversation.
What about your clients? Have they been coming in with changed perspectives, new energy, or renewed focus?
Because we’ve always supported very specific kinds of chefs, it doesn’t seem like they’re any different. It’s their lifeblood that’s on the line. That’s always been our kind of client. So that didn’t change. But I do think the corporate world understands things a little differently now.
Can you give an example of what you mean by that?
It’s at all levels. Take DEI and diversity. I was laughing about this in Dallas at the Urban Land Institute fall meeting. We were doing a roundtable talking about DEI, because if you go to any sort of developer, property, real estate, or finance company, and you pull in a team for meetings, it’s always been the older white guys that come up in the C-suite sitting together. So in order to make it look more diverse in the meetings, they had to start alphabetizing people.
Well, at least they’re aware! Actually, in the last week, I’ve been asked twice by potential clients if we have people of color on our staff. That’s another sign of the times.
How do you respond to that question?
We do have a diverse staff. But I don’t think that’s the full point. The point is to look at our client list. Our clients range over every race, every country, every background. It’s crazy diverse. Everything that people do in hospitality is about creating a nuanced, specific experience for someone else. We’re the extension of that embrace. We’re creating the visceral and tactile extension of that experience for their people. But it’s not about us—it’s about them.
You’ve said similar things in other interviews—that you attempt to avoid the concept of having a signature style, because your purpose is to enable the expression of the client. That seems almost counter-intuitive versus what we expect from a designer, in the sense of putting your own distinctive stamp on your work.
Exactly. If we were doing high-end residential, I would have the firm’s name be my name. There’s a residential design firm I know whose contracts specify that their clients are not allowed to put anything personal in the home—everything is specified by the designer—until it’s photographed, and then the client can move in. It’s kind of baller and terrifying, in a weird sci-fi way. But we’re the opposite of all that.