Designing a restaurant that stands out in a food capital like Montreal is no easy feat. Yet when it comes to hospitality projects, breakout design firm Ménard Dworkind Architecture & Design is proving itself, again and again, to have the magic touch. Take, for instance, the glam-industrial interior they envisioned for sushi joint Ryú, or the wild tile compositions they introduced at natural-wine bar Vinvinvin, or their fresh take on Italy’s signature red, white and green palette at the pizzeria Vesta. All three of these restaurants, incidentally, were opened in just the last six months.
In fact, architect David Dworkind and designer Guillaume Ménard only officially joined forces two years ago. After following one another on social media and developing a growing admiration for one another’s work, Ménard reached out to Dworkind to suggest collaborating on Miss Wong, a sprawling Chinatown-inspired brasserie he had just been hired to design in Laval.
“Ours was an Internet romance,” Dworkind jokes. As the kids would say, Ménard slid into his DMs. It’s an appropriately modern origin story for a firm that has proven to be particularly savvy when it comes to appealing to a youthful, connected crowd. But at a moment when so many restaurants can feel as if they’re designed more for social media than for actual nights out, Ménard Dworkind’s projects are refreshing in that they impress as much in person as they do on the Internet. Credit their strong concepts and finely crafted custom elements – two trademarks of Ménard Dworkind projects that have more than earned the firm its own moment in front of the camera.
David, you come from an architecture background. Guillaume, you previously ran a furniture workshop. Are there different roles that both of you fall into throughout the design process?
- David Dworkind
The way we work is not the most economical (laughs). We both design independently of each other and then intermittently stop and see where the other is at. We agree on both designs before we present them, but we’ll initially offer our client two options – a concept that I’ve designed and one that Guillaume has designed.
- Guillaume Ménard
Usually, clients will mix elements from both. It’s a good way to resolve quarrels between us, because we leave it to them to choose.
One of your latest projects, Vinvinvin, combines vibrant colours and geometric patterns not typically associated with wine bars. What made this the right project to go in such a bold direction?
The clients quickly realized that the more classic wine-bar look they originally wanted – natural materials, a restrained colour palette – would be out of sync with the wines that they were going to be serving, which are really fun and funky. They’re a bunch of well-known Montreal restaurateurs, so I think that their past success gave them more confidence to take a risk.
For us, it became an opportunity to show that a wine bar doesn’t have to be so serious. Wine is changing – both in terms of the producers and the people who drink it. People have been stuck with the idea that wine is elite and expensive, or is only a drink that you enjoy with a good meal. But people can actually go out and drink it as they would beer at a brasserie.
A riot of bright tiles and contrasting surfaces reflects the “fun and funky” wine list at Vinvinvin in Montreal. The designers worked with local studio Lambert & Fils to create bar lights out of sandblasted wine bottles. Check it out in the image gallery.
David, you did the photo shoots for these projects. Do you pay particular consideration when designing to how a restaurant might perform on social media?
We’re not necessarily thinking about the photos, but we are definitely thinking about wow moments, because clients want something interesting. And those will inevitably be photogenic. In Vesta, for instance, we cut this round view hole, and when you position a camera in front of that, it’s amazing. But it’s also just an amazing view to look through – it’s one and the same. We sometimes look at how people share our spaces on social media, and we’re never really surprised by which pictures are taken.
Your projects also shine when it comes to their finer details, such as their lights, which are often fabricated specifically for each venue. How important is it to develop custom elements for a restaurant?
Especially in an era where everybody’s going to be taking pictures for social media, it’s so important that the lights and furniture not feel familiar. That’s why there are no catalogues in our office – our starting point is always asking if we can make it custom. You don’t want people to walk into a place and say, “Oh, that’s that IKEA light.”
Instead, we worked with Lambert & Fils to develop custom bar lamps built with sandblasted wine bottles for Vinvinvin. That way, they are one of a kind and don’t belong to any particular period or trendy style – they belong to the DNA of the restaurant.
When it comes to budgets, how do you decide where to splurge and where to save?
We typically design over our budget and then cut. We make everything extra elaborate and exuberant and then ask ourselves, “If we simplify this, will it impact the overall feel?” And if it’s a no, we simplify it. If it’s the wow factor, it stays.
Clients definitely hire us with the expectation that we will find cheap solutions that still give a space a lot of character, so we have a list of favourite searches on Kijiji. For Vinvinvin, we bought a set of vanity lights for $4 each, then installed different coloured steel plates behind them to make them feel like a bigger composition that, again, looks unique and unidentifiable.
The restaurant industry tends to really embrace certain colours and materials each year. What’s your attitude towards “trending” design?
Often, a client comes to us with their own mood board of pictures pulled from Pinterest and says, “We want that.” It’s our job to convince them not to go all the way on that route. But we have to give them some of it. It’s hard to get away with entirely timeless when they want trendy. We try to keep the in-fashion portions of a project confined to areas that can be easily refreshed – like the ceiling, which can be repainted.
If you walk into a project that’s three years old and it feels so three years ago, something’s wrong.
You have home and office projects on the go as well, but restaurant design has really become your firm’s bread and butter. What appeals to you about the hospitality sector?
The theatricality of it. Restaurants give us a liberty that would be hard to take on a residential project, where people are typically more reserved.
In the past 20 years, going out for dinner has become a bigger cultural outing than going out to the theatre, which means that restaurant owners are investing in design more to deliver that “night out” experience.
For the pizzeria Vesta, Ménard and Dworkind riffed on Italy’s signature tricolour palette in a fresh, understated way. A defining feature much shared on social media is the “view hole” offering a whimsical perspective on the space. See the Vesta gallery.
As designers, what do you notice first when you walk into a restaurant?
The flow – how staff are moving around diners, and how that builds energy. If I see seats facing against a back wall, for instance, that’s an opportunity to put a mirror there so that those diners can still feel like part of the scene.
Layout goes a long way toward creating mood. When things are really spaced out, it can look great in photographs, but in person it just doesn’t have the same vibe as when people are a bit more comfortably crowded.
At Ryú, you stripped back the walls to reflect the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, which deals with the cycle of growth and decay. Did something that rough feel like a risk for an upscale dining environment?
Yes (laughs). Nobody was quite convinced until the very last minute. The people working on the site never believed that those weren’t going to get covered by drywall – there are even a few spots where they wrote dimensions in Sharpie on the walls. But in the end we just gave them a clear coat, and they really tell the story of that original concrete structure and the patchwork of walls and wallpaper added to it over the years.
Our strategy was to keep all of the other details super slick and neat and use a limited colour palette – a lot of black and grey – to contrast with the walls. Then we put the wood on the ceiling to make the place feel warmer.
At sushi bar Ryú on Montreal’s Peel Street, a wabi-sabi patchwork of previous finishes and wallpapers lines the main dining room, serving as a rough counterpoint to the intricate ceiling fixture above. View the Ryú gallery.
Why is it worth investing in small moments, such as the custom wood door handles at Ryú, when so much attention ends up getting paid to the ceiling?
It definitely takes a certain client who is willing to invest in details like that, but when we find that type of client we like to push them as far as we can. Design aficionados definitely notice those details, but even people who don’t notice them directly still likely appreciate them subconsciously as part of the setting.
It builds a crescendo effect. When you first walk into the restaurant, you’re using all of your senses: Your eyes see the ceiling, but your hands grab the handle and engage your sense of touch. Then with the music and the smell and taste of food, it becomes a full experience.
What were the biggest challenges you faced with having so many restaurants under construction this year?
The rush. After clients sign a lease and are paying commercial rent without being open, there’s a lot of pressure to move quickly and get everything done, like, tomorrow. Now, if anything has an eight- to 10-week lead time – as the tile at Vinvinvin did – we make sure to tell our clients to order it right away, even if it’s before they’ve signed their general contractor.
When it comes to the construction bidding, there is a lot of back and forth with the clients and new reflection on their side about design costs. At this point, even though the design has already been set for months, we often have to go back to the drawing board and change details and get rid of things that we would love to keep to reach the budget.
The design scheme for Miss Wong, a brasserie in Laval, offers a glamorous take on Chinatown motifs, including multiple iterations of lantern and plenty of red lacquer.
Ultimately, design is just one of the ingredients of a successful restaurant. Is it tough when the other elements don’t necessarily come together?
A lot of it does fall to the restaurateur. We have had the experience where we might be proud of a place in terms of the way it looks, but it’s just not a place that we would ever go eat or drink. We can do our job to make it look pretty, but if they go and put on a shitty playlist, or market it to a certain crowd, it doesn’t necessarily achieve what we had hoped.
We’ve learned that we’d rather take a project where we are attracted by the concept and the way it’s operated, and we know that it’s going to last a long time – even if another project might pay slightly more.
Adept at creating dramatic spaces, rising restaurant-design stars Guillaume Ménard and David Dworkind may be the perfect designers for the Instagram Age. Just one (important) thing: Their spaces are as great in person as they appear on social media.