Best Restaurants 2017: The Art of The Restaurant Build-Out

”This is what we wanted our guests to feel: warmth, wonder, and discovery.”

Chef Jono Fries knows his way around a kitchen—as well as computer design programs, eBay, flea markets, salvage yards, and if necessary, his own workbench. As a vice president with the Boca Restaurant Group, Fries is tasked with creating spaces that are as sumptuous as the food. We talked to him about creating the experience of dining at Boca.

How did you approach the design for Boca? We wanted to integrate the raw bones and the physical nature of the space. We looked at it from every angle. It’s really “experiential design.” This is what we wanted our guests to feel: warmth, wonder, and discovery. We were inspired by the Café Momus scene in La Bohème. It’s a grand scene of celebration and joy.

You managed to completely transform a space formerly occupied by the storied Maisonette. What were the challenges? Maisonette was a statement: the glory of fine dining. There was a weightiness to respect the past but forge forward and reinvent as well. We wanted people on the second floor to connect to the energy center on the first floor. We came to the conclusion that we needed to cut a hole in the floor. So then it was a question of what are we putting in the hole? David said, “Let’s put in a chandelier.” I must have looked at a thousand chandeliers [before] I found this one on eBay.

Downstairs at Sotto there’s a completely different atmosphere. We fell in love with basement spaces in New York City. Sotto felt like it needed to be a trattoria and recall a time when things were handmade. It seemed the perfect analogy to soulful Italian cuisine. We wanted the chairs to be rowdy and casual. The bar is made of old Globe Wernicke law bookshelves I got when Rendigs, Fry, Kiely, and Dennis moved offices. All the lights in the bar were old copper heaters that I drilled out.

Nada also has its own look. How do you replicate that across locations in Columbus, Indianapolis and soon, Nashville? When you walk in, we want you to feel like its Nada, but we want to design it to the location and the city. It’s subtle, just a tweaking of the dials.

Where do you look for ideas? We travel a lot. We just got back from New York last week. We were probably in 30 different restaurants, always on the hunt for little details.

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