Dinner is the Show

How a Twin Cities visionary changed the way we think about dining out
 

In the new offices of Shea Design, in the former Shinders bookstore at Eighth Street and Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis, employees can access the roof via a private stop on the otherwise public elevator. When David Shea, the firm’s founder and namesake, gives tours, this feature seems to amuse him. Riding up to the building’s rooftop restaurant, Union, his blue eyes gleam and a smile is revealed below his mustache. Union, which opened last November, is the firm’s highest-profile project to date, defined by its enormous glass dome—an urban diner’s greenhouse. The dome can be retracted, so when the weather is pleasant, diners can enjoy the relatively fresh air three stories up. As far as Shea knows, there isn’t another restaurant like it in the country.

Shea often dines at Union a couple days a week, and as he digs into one of his favorite salads, he might take a moment to check up on a few of the other restaurants his firm has designed: the crowd-pleasing Crave, just across the street, or Solera, the Spanish cocina another block south. Were the Union rooftop a few stories higher, Shea might be able to see all the way down to 12th and Hennepin, where his firm created last year’s culinary hit, Butcher & the Boar. A few blocks farther are the historic digs the Shea team helped prepare for the state’s most lauded restaurant, La Belle Vie, and, beyond that, Rye Deli. Were Shea to turn north, he’d spy two more prominent clients, Fogo de Chão and Rosa Mexicano, and, across the river, a couple of his firm’s most eye-catching designs, those of Masu and Brasa.

In some ways, these restaurants couldn’t be more different: one serves club-sized cuts of meat, another is a sushi joint, and yet another turns blue cheese into foam. But what makes them unique is also what they have in common: a distinct aesthetic that reflects the style of the cuisine. That one firm has produced such a diverse body of work is nothing short of remarkable.

On this windy spring day, a block south of Shea’s offices, the street-side windows of Le Méridien Chambers are covered with paper, concealing the dismal state of the space within. The hotel’s one-time restaurant has been completely gutted and stripped to its steel bones, insulation exposed, wires dangling from the ceiling. The tables and chairs are absent. The familiar rubber sculpture of an old man’s face is also long gone, as is the bull’s head in the formaldehyde tank. There’s nothing left but dry wall, ductwork, and concrete. Aside from a bit of periwinkle plaster—the last trace of former tenant D’Amico Kitchen—there’s little to suggest what the space was or what it might become. It could just as well be a Wal-Mart.

Chambers opened in 2006, and since then two high-profile restaurants have come and gone. The first, run by global chef-lebrity Jean-Georges Vongerichten, opened to much fanfare but closed in less than three years. The second, D’Amico Kitchen, a flagship of one of Minnesota’s best-known restaurant families, shuttered in January. Both concepts launched with enviable name recognition and culinary respect, yet they failed to stick.

When a new entrepreneur leased the space, he hired Shea to help. If anyone could break the space’s curse, it might be Shea—the architect who never finished college, yet managed to fill his portfolio with half the restaurants in the city’s premiere dining district.  
 

 

Although shea moved to the Twin Cities more than four decades ago, words like ahcatecture and ideer still betray his Bostonian beginnings. After a couple years of schooling out East, he came to Minneapolis to study at the University of Minnesota. He quit after just one quarter. Instead, he taught himself from books and worked as an architectural apprentice to earn his license to practice.

Shea began his career working for well-known Minnesota architect Ed Baker, which led to a remarkable opportunity: helping the renowned Philip Johnson design the IDS Center in Minneapolis. “It was fascinating as a young person to be able to work with him, to understand his vision,” Shea recalls. In 1978, after working with Baker for nine years, he struck out on his own.

Some of his early restaurant projects were renovations of historic buildings, including the Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis and Fitger’s in Duluth. Shea’s memories of renovating the Inn—“Transients would come in and tear plywood off the walls.…we had a couple of fires”—are hard to imagine now, given the renovation’s seamless elegance. But in creating retail and restaurant environments, Shea found he most enjoyed designing for people’s everyday routines. Or, as he puts it, “connecting with consumers in a very primal way.”

In the late 1990s, Shea expanded his firm and shifted his business strategy. A few years later, the new approach was put to the test when the company’s first Hennepin Avenue project made its debut: Solera, the most-anticipated restaurant opening of 2003, and one that would mark a shift in the local dining scene’s tenor. Restaurateurs Tim McKee and Josh Thoma, then co-owners of La Belle Vie, took their impeccable food and, with Shea’s assistance, made it more fun.

To create Solera’s physical design, Shea’s team riffed on the work of Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí. The result was bright and spirited, and featured funky shapes—colorful, sculptural whorls that were like nothing else in the Twin Cities, yet seemed to express the concept effortlessly. McKee’s plates of sharable tapas spurred the restaurant’s lively, social atmosphere. Solera’s communal table was the first not to freak out reticent Minnesota diners, and the restaurant was the first of its kind locally to enlist both a sommelier and a deejay. It was as if the Cities’ most-lauded chefs had ripped the white cloths off the tables and taken to wearing them as togas.

Critical buzz dubbed the concept “celestial” and “easily the most fascinating” the city had seen in some time. Solera proved that dinner could be playful yet sophisticated—Disney for adults. Even better: it was packed.

Go to any of the hottest new restaurants these days, and you’ll likely be tucking into a meal of carefully sourced, meticulously prepared, artfully presented fare, and unwinding with a similarly artisan cocktail. But in contrast to a decade or two ago, you’re not wearing a tie or a sport coat; you’re in jeans (albeit nice ones). And instead of sitting at a romantic two-top, you’re perched on a barstool. Also: it’s not your anniversary—it’s a Tuesday.

In the Twin Cities, as across the country, dining out has become an ever more prevalent form of social gathering. With global cuisine thriving and once-haute cuisine going mainstream—foie gras served from food trucks and sous vide cooking in bars—eating out has become an act of discovery. Diners no longer want simply to be fed, they want to be entertained. As movie-ticket sales slump and orchestras lock out musicians, dinner is the show.

Shea-designed restaurants are in synch with this dinner-tainment trend, though it’s hard to say if the firm is creating the wave or riding it. Either way, in 10 years Shea’s firm has grown to 35 employees, and restaurant and hospitality clients now comprise nearly 40 percent of its business.
 

 

The company may never have been so successful had Shea not, in the late 1990s, purchased a marketing/graphic-design firm and merged its employees with his architects and interior designers. At the time, the idea of an integrated, collaborative, brand-focused approach to design was innovative. The idea was that if all the designers—graphic, interior, architectural—began the project with a clearly defined sense of a restaurant’s concept, the final design would be much more cohesive. When diners looked at an eatery’s logo, its menu, or its barstools, they would receive a consistent expression of the restaurant’s essence. “The solution isn’t just a design—we want to create an experience,” Shea says. “I wanted to be the group that had all the touch points so you could create una voce, one voice.”

This holistic approach is evident in the firm’s work on the Midtown Global Market in Minneapolis, a lively Lake Street bazaar that serves as a de-facto incubator for small businesses. When the city requested proposals to transform the former Sears store and catalog facility, Shea suggested first pulling back to consider the broader area. Before anyone touched a brick, he said, the neighborhood needed a brand. “At the time, no one called it Midtown,” he recalls. The new name reflected the building’s central location at the nexus of a culturally diverse neighborhood, and, as a brand, it could refer to the entire hub that has since grown up around the market, including a hospital, a hotel, and housing.

When one of the firm’s newer clients, Sushi Avenue, a local supermarket supplier, wanted to open a restaurant, they came to Shea with little more than their expertise with rice and fish. Shea suggested a name (Masu, or “a small wooden box”) and connected the client to a chef (Tim McKee), who advised differentiating the concept from other sushi restaurants by offering sustainable seafood and robata, Japanese bar snacks. With the direction in place, the design team created the restaurant’s exuberant space, decking out the East Hennepin locale with an open kitchen, neon greens, larger-than-life geisha graphics, and sake-barrel décor. The space feels less Minneapolis than Tokyo, as if you’re stepping into an anime film.

The firm’s best-known designs feel fresh but not faddish and draw energy from their originality. Shea himself tends to find his muse in unique, far-flung destinations, whether he’s fly-fishing in Patagonia or scouring Los Angeles tequila bars. “Travel has been a big thing for me in terms of learning experiences,” Shea says. “I’ve always tried to be an absorber of different cultures.”  

This understanding was part of why chef Sameh Wadi enlisted Shea to refresh the design of his Warehouse District restaurant, Saffron. “He has clients all over the world, he travels around the world, he does restaurants that are globally inspired,” Wadi says. Ticking off several of the firm’s restaurant designs, he says he was impressed by the scope of Shea’s portfolio. (“I once suggested to him that he should have a punch card,” Wadi jokes. “If you eat at all of the Shea restaurants, you get a free meal at his house.”) Wadi also appreciated Shea’s long history of restaurant trendsetting. Having developed the very first Leeann Chin store and some of the hottest restaurants today, Shea understands how local diners’ tastes have evolved from the meat-and-potato days. “He knows how restaurants become successful,” Wadi says. “When you’ve been around something long enough, you start to be it.”
 

 

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.
 

 

Bentdahl came to Shea with three things: a space, a cuisine, and a name for the restaurant: Marin, the northern California locale known for cultivating a healthy, active lifestyle. (Though some diners might not know how to pronounce the name, Spaulding wasn’t concerned, just as it doesn’t matter to her if people call her Ton-ya instead of Tan-ya, as long as they’re not confusing her with someone else.)

Marin’s cuisine, like that of Mill Valley Kitchen, will be mindful of calories but not billed as diet food: fresh, flavorful fare that won’t leave diners reaching for the Alka-Seltzer. Location will drive the restaurant’s biggest point of departure from Bentdahl’s other venture. While Shea designed suburban Mill Valley Kitchen to feel residential, like a friend’s (very nice) home, Marin will take cues from its vibrant, urban corner to appeal to the downtown crowd.

Today, Bentdahl is giving the team’s design a final review. The first step is to refine the restaurant’s brand: its target demographic, uniqueness, and inspirations. Bentdahl is joined by his executive chef, Mike Rakun, whose crisp white coat reflects his responsibilities at Mill Valley Kitchen while his Tintin-like tuft of hair gives him a youthful look. Reviewing the project’s brand overview and goals, the two make tweaks to the language. In describing the cuisine, Rakun wants to steer clear of the word “light.” “It scares people off,” he says. “I’d also like to get away from ‘local’ and ‘sustainable’—they’re overused.” They agree on most of the keywords: the Marin they aspire to will be “social, innovative, refined, and eclectic.” But the nature of its authenticity is hardest to pin down. “I don’t know about this whole ‘Marin is exciting and real,’” Bentdahl says. “Of course it’s real.” Spaulding agrees: “Let me play with it a little bit,” she notes.

Marin County is a bucolic, natural place, situated just across the bridge from San Francisco, and the restaurant’s logo—a stylized red rooster perched atop a line, evocative of a weather vane—strikes the same urban-rural balance. Marin, it suggests, will be a refined, stylish, farm-to-table eatery. Spaulding flips to a rendering of the building’s exterior that shows the deep, rich red of the new awnings popping against the monotone, rusted-steel façade, to distinguish Marin from the hotel. “We have to own this corner,” Spaulding says. “Red is our brand color. Go big or go home.”

Amanda Nelson, the project’s interior designer, walks the group through the floor plans and the material swatches scattered about the table. Nelson notes a couple samples selected to lend a sense of both comfort and sophistication, created by local artisans: dark square tiles for the domed pizza oven and yellow glass that will be backlit to illuminate the structural columns. The restaurant’s bar will be appointed in redwood and polished copper—materials with rich textures and a handmade feel that will patina with age.

Spaulding believes that successful restaurants must constantly pay attention to their customers’ changing needs; in order to stay relevant, most designs should be tweaked and refreshed every five to seven years. The trick is to create a design that feels on-trend but won’t be a flash in the pan. Shea Design’s ability to anticipate, to be just ahead of the zeitgeist, is an essential part of its service. “What’s around the next corner?” Spaulding asks. “If you don’t know, you’re missing something.”

Spaulding believes that the dominant style of the past five to eight years—industrial chic, with exposed ducts, concrete, and hard surfaces—is on the wane. The next iteration will have a warmth and approachability that the slick, modern look lacks, and will include a broader mix of fabrics and surfaces that lend more richness and depth, as well as eclectic accessories that add lushness and personality.
 

 

To get Bentdahl up to speed, Spaulding gave him some enviable homework: to stay at the NoMad, a new boutique hotel and restaurant in Manhattan where industrial light fixtures are juxtaposed with chandeliers, and reclaimed hardwood floors are piled with handmade rugs. It has a softer, more lived-in aesthetic that feels vintage, but not fossilized.

The meeting winds down with a discussion of Marin’s pizza paddles and how to prevent the barstool legs from being scuffed. Nelson shows Bentdahl color printouts of rug options, and he circles his favorites. The design’s overall impact is the sum of hundreds of such small decisions. “We want to dramatically change the paradigm of this space,” Spaulding says.

Mid-construction, the future home of Marin looks like anything but its idyllic northern California muse. Spaulding and Nelson walk over to a gaping void in the floor, quartered by massive I-beams. The space’s original design placed the main dining room on the lower level, visible through this large stairwell. While below-ground restaurants work in places like Manhattan—their intimacy a welcome relief from the streets’ chaotic bustle—they make less sense in Minneapolis, where dining rooms draw energy from sidewalk activity. When diners entered the old space, Spaulding explains, the gaping stairwell sucked their attention down into a black hole. (“I fought against that one forever,” Shea recalls. He warned the out-of-towners, in essence, “Guys, that won’t work here.”)

The new design moves the staircase next to the wall and fills in most of the hole. The decision was expensive, but substantially increasing the main-floor seating capacity offers both economic and aesthetic benefits. The main dining space, moved upstairs, will feature a new focal point: a pizza oven and bar, with the aromas of baking crust and the rattle of cocktail-making adding a bit of culinary theater. In the courtyard, a bar will draw diners outside (“People want to see people,” Shea explains—likely more than the one-armed gorilla sculpture  once installed there). Plus, on roofdeck row, a street-level patio is something special.

The Marin and Shea teams head downstairs, where the restaurant’s kitchen will remain. It will front a wine cask room and a cozy lounge surrounded by private dining spaces, strategically placed so diners feel like they’re in on the action—an ongoing trend in restaurant design, Spaulding says. Chris Zeman, the contractor whose company is implementing the designs, is waiting there to kick off the construction meeting with a bold declaration: “In a perfect world, we’ll be done in seven-and-a-half weeks.”

The Shea team weighs in to help solve a few minor problems: tile they’ve specified is currently residing in Italy and isn’t scheduled to arrive until after opening; the pizza oven has a ventilation duct that may need to be encased in a sleeve; the design for the bar’s canopy could use some trimming, both in cost and bulk (“You could land a 747 on that thing the way it is now,” Zeman jokes). Some decisions involve less-quantifiable variables, such as anticipating diner behavior. Rakun, for example, must estimate how much soda diners will drink in order to determine where to store the syrups.

When the meeting is finished, Nelson leans over to Bentdahl and fans out an array of vinyl swatches—samples for the patio-furniture cushions. She also hands him a small slab of reclaimed redwood, its rough, natural edge encased in a Marin-red band. It’s a prototype of the check presenter.

Bentdahl turns over the slab and hands it to Zeman. “If you went to a nice restaurant and you saw the check on this, what would you think?” he asks. Zeman says he thinks that maybe half the diners would notice and appreciate it—it looks far more distinctive than the usual black vinyl books.

But the object’s potential impact, like so many design decisions, is hard to quantify. Restaurant performance hinges on so many uncontrollable variables: a manager’s bad hair day, a fisherman’s good catch, an impending thunderstorm. For all of Shea’s success in understanding and quantifying restaurant design, in making it a science, it will always be something of an art.

Zeman hands the redwood back to Bentdahl and asks, “Does it mean they’ll come in more for dinner?”  
 

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