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VOL. 126 | NO. 32 | Wednesday, February 16, 2011

High-Style Dining

Memphis restaurants trend toward sleek, stylish designs

STACEY WIEDOWER | Special to The Daily News

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Southern country club meets Manhattan chic. Not exactly an everyday mix, but when designer Amy Howard set to work on the interior of John Bragg’s newly relocated restaurant, Circa, she wasn’t aiming for ordinary.

The design work of Amy Howard adorns Circa’s new location at 6150 Poplar Ave. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner after its recent move from Downtown. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

“I want people to see this is not your regular restaurant,” Howard said. “I want them to think, ‘It looks different, so hopefully the food will be the same way.’”

The restaurant, which recently opened in East Memphis’ Regalia shopping center after moving from its former perch Downtown, is sleekly styled in a monochromatic palette of grays, whites and metallics. At once classic and contemporary, Circa exemplifies a nationwide trend among urban restaurants to sell not just food, not just service, but a high-style experience delivered through high-style design. And that’s a delicate balance, Howard said.

“I want people to walk in and just kind of stop, take it in and say, ‘Wow,’” she said. “But I also want them to feel comfortable. If something’s too edgy, if somebody doesn’t feel like they can be there a couple of hours with their friends, then the design has failed.”

Mary Katherine Taras worked to strike that same balance in 2006 with the opening of Jim’s Place Grille at 3660 S. Houston Levee Road in Collierville. Taras, a registered interior designer and wife of Jim’s Place part-owner Dimitri Taras, aimed to create a vibe in the space that was a little bit different, a little more streamlined and stylish than the typical suburban eatery.

“I wanted to make it a very clean-lined, elegant place,” Taras said. “But not dressy – still casual, where you can come in in jeans at night. I wanted people to feel like they weren’t on the outskirts of Memphis, but in New York or Chicago or Miami or somewhere different. And those are the words most people would say when they walked in. That was music to my ears.”

When it came to the interior of the new Jim’s Place location at 518 Perkins Road Extended in East Memphis, Taras channeled the 90-year-old restaurant’s storied past.

“From 1921 and as the years progressed, Jim’s was known as a steakhouse,” Taras said.

So inside the new Jim’s Place, she blended 1920s-era elements with the warm woods and neutral palettes characteristic of the country’s great steakhouses.

And context – a sense of place – is an important factor in good restaurant design, said architect Bill Beatty, who led the Askew Nixon Ferguson team that designed Interim, a space formerly occupied by chef Wally Joe’s eponymous eatery.

“We wanted something that was a little more mid-century modern, something that wouldn’t be at the full-resource scale that you might do in New York or Chicago, but something more along the lines of a lot of the newer restaurants that were being built around the country, especially in bigger cities,” Beatty said. “But we are in Memphis, so we still had to have some degree of warmth and friendliness. We didn’t want it to be some ultra-slick piece of architecture.”

The resulting space at 5040 Sanderlin Ave. – which remained intact through the transition in 2007 to Interim – features contemporary concrete flooring, clean-lined styling, an open bar area and an open-show kitchen.

“Personally, I would rather find something classic, something that has an enduring nature to it, as opposed to trying to be trendy,” said Beatty, who now lives in Charlotte, N.C., and worked with Derrick Choo, Liz Engel, Julie Gasaway and Chloe Weeks on the restaurant’s design.

And of course, Taras added, good design can only take a restaurant so far.

“It does help,” she said. “The feel one gets when they walk in, that initial impression, is so important I think. But it could have the best design in the world and that’s not going to make a restaurant. (Design) is on the priority list for a restaurant’s success only after getting through with the best food you can have, the best service, the best location.”

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