Riviera, designed by Linebox Studio, was recently named one of Canada’s best restaurants. Here, we explore the architecture firm’s other culinary spaces.
Over the past decade, Linebox Studio has built its reputation in Ottawa for commissions that range from multi-unit modernist lofts to redevelopment projects. It also happens to be the interior design studio of choice for Shopify, the e-commerce platform that is about to grow expediently now that the Ontario Government has announced it will be the sole distributor of legal recreational marijuana when new laws kick in this summer.
Founded by Andrew Reeves, Linebox has been enjoying a number of accolades of late, including national praise for Riviera – a high-end eatery inside an Art Deco bank on the Capital’s Sparks Street. Its elegant and sprawling interior (and star chef Matt Carmichael) has made it an instant hit with the political elite, and it was recently named one of the 10 best restaurants in Canada.
“I was quite happy doing residential and office projects in Ottawa and Toronto,” says Reeves about how his firm found itself a local star in the hospitality sector. “While designing people’s houses, you eventually meet chefs or owners of restaurants, and all of our restaurant work comes from that — it’s all about relationships and direct connections.”
Reeves’ foray into restaurant interiors came after Linebox worked on a house for Carmichael. Now one of Ottawa’s best-known restauranteurs, Carmichael – and others – have kept Reeves busy with a handful of hospitality ventures. Here’s a snapshot of some of the projects that are redefining Ottawa as a city of creative dining.
The Mexican-inspired El Camino is Carmichael’s first, and arguably most beloved, restaurant in the city. When Linebox completed the Elgin Street eatery in 2013, it wasn’t thinking about turning Carmichael into a star chef. “I remember Matt saying that if the restaurant fails, instead of closing shop, he’d want to live there,” says Reeves.
After stripping it to its concrete core and covering the walls with graffiti and neon signs, Linebox brought in vintage pinball machines and added a street-side takeout window. It also made as El Camino’s centrepiece an open cocktail bar and plating area. “Traditionally, bar seats are the seats no one wants,” says Reeves, “so we decided to reinvent that.”
Linebox developed a winding bar with two-sided seating so patrons are shoulder-to-shoulder with mixologists, and each other. “Matt wanted everything at bar level, so if you’re walking or sitting, you’re all at the same height,” says Reeves. The concept worked so well that Linebox was tasked with developing the neighbouring space – the airy, Japanese inspired Datsun – and El Camino’s second location in busy Byward Market.
After its work at El Camino, Linebox was contracted to design Jon Svasas’ Fauna. Merging two former storefronts in the capital’s Centretown neighbourhood, it created a dining room and below-grade private area within a heritage building, bringing the structure’s bones to the fore. A wrap-around bar puts the chefs in the spotlight, but its brick, wood and zinc palette is deliberately understated, and notably different from the neon signage of El Camino. From the street, custom-made petal pendants invite diners in.
Developing Fauna’s design made Reeves think seriously about creative expression within a public place. “You can do a bunch of cool things in houses, but no one sees them. Restaurants are different. They are the opposite of private. It was a weird switch for me psychologically.”
Fauna serves up a locavore menu, and the restaurant says its concept took two methodical years to develop. Like its dishes, the space’s standout features are custom-made by nearby suppliers: Montreal’s Interversion made all the tables and banquettes; Gusto Metalworks made the zinc bar; and Le Collectif Design created Fauna’s branding. Pendant lighting is by Bocci of Vancouver.
According to Reeves, Ottawa’s Beechwood neighbourhood needed an injection of retail energy, and Sundae School has provided that. The ice-cream shop, owned and run by psychotherapist Lindsay Taub, harkens back to the classic schoolhouse.
Unlike other restaurant transformations, Sundae School was meant to be temporary, says Reeves. “Rather than spend money on the space, we focused on objects so that when the client leaves it, their investment goes with them.”
Playful was the operative word, here, as the space was meant to attract children (and grown-up children). “We tried to act like kids to get that kind of energy across,” he says. “So we painted and assembled the tables ourselves.”
Built on the ground floor of a new mixed-use development, Sundae School was completed with vintage school chairs paired with rows of painted desks. The focus is a custom-made teacher’s table that doubles as a service area. “It went really well,” says Reeves. “We’re currently designing the next location.”
Riviera has become one of Linebox’s best-known and beloved interiors. When Carmichael initially contacted Linebox to design the interior, Reeves admits to being slightly scared. “It’s one of the first times we were given a fun, really interesting building to work with, so we were like, ‘Wow, this place is already cool; we could ruin this.’ ”
The 1862 building on Sparks Street was originally a jewelry store but it had been converted into a bank decades ago. Linebox was challenged with keeping the dining experience grounded within a double-height space that already had overwhelming grandeur. “There is so much character in its marble walls and ceilings,” says Reeves. “Matt and I both realized converting the space was going to be an insane responsibility.”
Since its opening in 2016, Riviera has become wildly popular with politicians and Ottawa’s business elite. Doric columns and the soaring ceilings still have elements of a former bank, though the teller counter has been replaced with a sprawling brass countertop bar. Oak dining tables, chairs and banquet seating fill the other side of the space. Linebox’s familiar touches, like an open kitchen and neon signage on Riviera’s exterior, are ever-present.
Riviera has had enduring success since its launch two years ago, not only because of the award-winning food and extensive bar menu, but due to Linebox’s eye for lighting and acoustics. “When you tie great food and atmosphere all together, these kind of restaurants can stay open for years,” says Reeves. “We really aim to bring character to our restaurant designs, because that never fades away.”