Dinner is the Show
How a Twin Cities visionary changed the way we think about dining out
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Wadi says he was drawn to Shea’s direct approach—of Saffron’s original soundtrack, Shea told him, “It sucks”—and his ability to probe design decisions from multiple angles. When Wadi developed his new Lyn-Lake eatery, World Street Kitchen, he again sought Shea’s council in determining the dining room’s layout and functionality, which includes elements like a chef-watching bar and communal table to encourage a social energy. “I walked into his office with a strong idea of what I wanted it to look like, how it should feel, the vibe,” Wadi recalls. “He wanted me to look at it from a wider perspective.”
Chef Tim McKee has worked with Shea on several restaurants and is similarly enthusiastic about the designer’s ability to collaborate and generate ideas. Shea, he says, brings knowledge of how design is evolving around the country as well as a broader sense of which new dining ideas have promise. “We don’t see a lot of what’s going on in other areas of the country,” McKee explains. “Usually that comes here, rather than us being leaders.” Shea, in some ways, acts as a cool-hunter for the culinary community. “A lot of restaurateurs don’t have the ability to travel,” McKee notes. “We’re always working.”
When Shea travels—he logged about 200,000 miles last year—his curiosity tends to invite the sort of happenings not bestowed on the average vacationer. Food, he finds, can be a strong catalyst for cross-cultural connections. When bicycling through Europe, he found himself in the cellar of an Irish pub, touring its cask-ale pumping system, as well as suppering with a Welsh farmer and learning his recipe for blood sausage. “I’ve been in Morocco with my head in an oven, watching old ladies as they stick bread to the walls,” he says. Shea designs often incorporate at least one element that has never before been seen in a local restaurant: Masu’s pachinko games—Japan’s answer to pinball—or the ice-filled decorative Turkish collars used to cool drinks at Loring Kitchen & Bar.
Every design detail is assessed in terms of how potential diners will perceive it, because restaurant design is, in many ways, like service: when it’s good, its nuances become imperceptible. But when it’s wrong, it’s glaring. No matter how delicious the food, if the ambiance is off—if the lighting is so dim you can’t read the menu, if you have to shout at your dining companions, if an icy draft compels you to don your jacket—you won’t come back.
On a chilly march afternoon, Craig Bentdahl is in Shea’s conference room, meeting with Tanya Spaulding, a Shea principal who handles client services. An assured, articulate blonde, Spaulding got her start at local PR and ad agencies before joining the firm. So while David Shea focuses on creative direction of the design process—from setting the vision to making sure the details reflect it—it’s Spaulding who oversees the branding and marketing strategy that serves as each project’s foundation.
Bentdahl, with his slicked-back silver hair and preppy style (sock-less loafers, cranberry-colored chinos), looks less conservative than you’d expect for a one-time bank CEO. But he has taken on a second career as a restaurateur, having launched St. Louis Park’s most notable eatery, Mill Valley Kitchen, in 2011. Shea designed that restaurant, and now Bentdahl has tasked the firm with an unusual challenge: redoing one of its own designs.
Shea collaborated on the original restaurant in the Chambers hotel with the firm of New York architect David Rockwell, who had previously done work for the eatery’s executive chef, Jean-Georges Vongerichten. The space has several attractive features, including huge glass walls that let in lots of natural light. But it also had several negative attributes, such as sleek lines and stark-white walls that give the space a cold, austere, formal feel. To help people forget the space’s poor track record, the transformation would have to be dramatic. “If we just went in and put another name on the door, people would yawn and say, ‘So what?’” Spaulding says.