In Praise of the Restaurant Restroom
The best bathrooms are for more than business
I have been cursed. Every time I wear light colored pants out to dinner, I spill something. Anything in my immediate vicinity is an enemy in the war to keep my pants unstained. Tuna salad is a threat, ice cubes are unpredictable, and even lifting a glass for a toast can be classified as high-risk. Regardless of any defensive strategy I adopt, I always find myself seeking refuge in a restroom stall performing triage. I've become somewhat obsessed with them.
Once white-tile afterthoughts, restrooms have become essential to the Austin dining experience. Sometimes they are a retreat from boring dinner conversation, and other times they are a safe haven where you can pick an embarrassing piece of lettuce out of your teeth or stalk your ex on Instagram. Regardless of the function, contemporary restaurant designers work to make the WC as experiential as the main space.
But what makes a great restroom design? The first thing is its ability to balance the character and attitude of the restaurant with the functionality all restrooms should have. Great restrooms seamlessly transition from the dining area to the toilet. That can be done with design elements – like the black and white tile that appears throughout Mark Zeff's design for Geraldine's – or it can be a continuation of the vibe of the space – like the recording of David Bowie reading Peter and the Wolf looped at Second Bar + Kitchen.
For Downtown's Irene's, A-list Los Angeles decorator turned commercial designer Veronica Koltuniak from VeroKolt did a little bit of both. "We chose to make our bathroom co-ed to continue the conviviality of the bar experience," she says. "An angled 'fun-house' mirror runs across the tiled sink area and continues with mylar wallpaper by Andy Warhol. There's a rattan peacock chair for repose, and the stalls are made out of redwood and green glass."
Her focus on the mirror isn't unusual. In many restrooms, it's the first thing you see, setting the tone for the whole environment. Sometimes the space dictates what is used. Will Fox, the designer behind June's All Day explains, "A narrow, white marble drink rail creates a place for drinks and candles as well as a visual transition between the green wainscoting and pink tiles above. Code requires a maximum mirror height above the floor, which produced an interesting moment when the circular mirror 'dips' down into the green wainscoting."
Where code isn't a concern, designers can go hog wild. Mark Cravotta* of Cravotta Interiors used a variety of mirrors to create unique environments in each of the nongendered restrooms at Juniper. A grand mirror, like the one at Irene's, lends the space a sense of glamour. You will look so good in that one, you might think for a moment you are Justin Trudeau.
But the mirror isn't the only thing contributing to your instant facelift. Dim and soft lighting has a tremendous impact on making you look like your favorite celebrity doppelgänger, while bright and harsh light can make you feel like you just walked into an operating theatre. There are some things you just don't want to be that illuminated.
Michael Hsu has become synonymous with Austin restaurant design through his firm's work with P. Terry's, Hai Hospitality, and Snap Kitchen, among others. He describes designing the lighting element at Sway: "A deliberate lighting concept can make a big difference in making a small space feel special. We love both dim spaces with dramatic lighting on a few select spots like on tile work, a fixture or art piece, and bright restrooms playing with small tone and color changes. It's a space that can be treated like a stand-alone project within a project to surprise or change expectations, be playful, shocking, or show off a small amount of a special material like a custom glazed tile or art installation."
While most people want to get out of a restroom as quickly as possible without touching anything or leaving any evidence that they were there, a good restroom doesn't make you feel like you are in a heist movie. And great restrooms invite you to stay awhile and not only reset yourself physically but mentally as well.
Fox says, "Bathrooms are a fun opportunity to add a lot of character to a small space. We designed [June's] thinking about it if you were having a small hang-out with friends in a confined space, creating that feel [that is] sort of residential and comfortable, but with a little edge. We were looking at Nan Goldin photography of bathrooms as reference, which have a powerful aesthetic. We interpreted this by using a similar tile pattern from the kitchen (white square tiles with random pink) but reversed it so it's all pink tiles with a few white tiles scattered about. The smaller bathroom has an unexpected element which we love: The subwoofer for the restaurant is exposed and mounted on the upper wall above the toilet. We liked the idea of exposing the backside and the sound equipment. Also sounds pretty good in there, too."
There is a fine balance at play. To use a sports analogy, you are either in the game or on the bench. Going to the restroom should feel like you are sitting on the bench – only slightly removed from the action, recharging for a moment before you get back into the real action of flavor and conversing. You don't want to feel like you have been sent back to the locker room.
I assure you the new generation of Austin restaurant bathrooms will have much nicer towels.
See a gallery of our favorite local restaurant restroom designs at austinchronicle.com/photos.
*The original version of this article erroneously attributed the selection of Juniper’s restroom mirrors to Jill Fanette. Mark Cravotta, the owner and principal at Cravotta Interiors, made the design selections. We regret our error.