In 1971, the now vibrant entertainment hub known as Old Pasadena was slated for demolition. Thanks to support from the local community, it has since been restored to its former glory. Brimming with historic buildings, the district’s tree-lined streets make for a space infused with unparalleled character. Its latest addition, Agnes, is no exception. The new restaurant is already a neighbourhood staple, serving updated Midwestern comfort food with a warm and inviting interior to match. Designed by L.A. firm ORA, the adaptive re-use project celebrates both the building and the owners’ heritage to create a vintage-inspired, yet contemporary space.
Co-owners Vanessa and Thomas Tilaka Kalb describe the restaurant as “an eclectic juxtaposition of old and new.” The menu deftly combines Thomas’ Iowan roots with Vanessa’s Californian background, for a distinct culinary point of view that is translated into the space’s interior. Drawing from their extensive travels and European-style training, the couple have elevated humble Midwestern fare. Family is the restaurant’s guiding principal — the name is a nod to Thomas’ maternal grandmother Mary Agnes, who was known for her love of entertaining, warm hospitality, and above all else, her value of family.
Mirroring the restaurant’s namesake, the building itself carries a rich history — it was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. From the exterior, however, passersby may be unaware that the structure dates back to 1922 (coincidentally, the year Mary Agnes was born).
The once brick-clad coach house previously served as the Pasadena Fire Department’s horse stables, and later, as an auto body shop in the 1980s before its most recent incarnation as Agnes. Though the facade has been restored for a modernized street frontage, the original brick openings and leaded glass transoms remain as a tribute to Pasadena’s signature architectural style.
Inside, ORA has embraced the building’s roots with unabashed enthusiasm. In the main dining room, original brick walls foster a homely ambiance while wooden trusses overhead evoke a rustic farmhouse. Banquettes upholstered in kitsch and colourful plaid face an open kitchen and central hearth, adding to the familial atmosphere.
ORA turned to British brand Another Country to accent the interior with an eclectic mix of furnishings. Drawing from Shaker, Scandinavian, and Japanese design languages, the pieces fit seamlessly into the space, enhancing the contrast between classic and modern elements.
In the fromagerie, the designers have taken a decidedly more modern — and subdued — approach. Opposite a luxurious terrazzo bar, the space is clad with serene grey-blue tiles, and framed by a floating wooden lattice. Designed to adapt to various dining experiences, the cheesery doubles as a food market and a venue for cooking workshops.
The calming tones continue as guests are ushered down the hallway towards the private dining room. Traditional wainscoting is updated with a coat of paint in trendy sage, and accented with mid-century inspired console tables. The intimate private dining room — which also serves as an event space — has a distinctly residential feel.
Even in the courtyard terrace, there’s a sense of residential comfort reminiscent of dining in a friend’s backyard. Outfitted with cozy lounge chairs and communal tables, the space was essential to the design, offering ample outdoor dining during the height of the pandemic.
Though its individual spaces are imbued with a distinct personal style, Agnes is united through the common thread of comfort and hospitality. It’s a restaurant — as well as community hub, a place of gathering, and a nostalgic ode to family.
L.A. firm ORA transforms a heritage building in the city’s lively commercial district into an eclectic eatery.