Contract: Interiors Awards Winner Bavel, Los Angeles

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Published in Contract magazine, January/February 2019

Anyone who dines out on occasion will assert that food, while important, isn’t the sole defining factory of a great experience: Ambience and service play roles, too. This is where good design matters, a sentiment that chefs Ori Menashe and Genevieve Gergis understand. So, when they looked to open Bavel—their second Middle Eastern cuisine restaurant—in the downtown Los Angeles arts district, they tapped Studio UNLTD to carry out their vision: A light and inviting environment that breaks from the conventions of dark and cliché Middle Eastern restaurants while still evoking the Mediterranean.

The chosen site, an industrial warehouse typical of the neighborhood, posed a challenge at the start. While the structure had some existing windows and clerestories, it still proved dark with two windowless walls and a light-obscuring mezzanine. The latter was the first to go. Working closely with architect Osvaldo Maiozzi, Studio UNLTD conceived a new sawtooth roof with skylights that bathe the dining space in natural light. A third intervention was replacing the original loading docks with large storefront windows and a raised patio just outside for alfresco dining.

In the evenings, the material and color palettes work in concert with the restaurant’s fixtures­—ranging from wall washers to spotlights­—to maintain the light aesthetic as well as preserve some of the building’s industrial past. The designers hired a scenic painter to whitewash the existing exposed brick and add layers of plaster and colors to recreate an aged look. “We were inspired by how old Mediterranean buildings show the strata of their history,” explains Greg Bleier, founding partner and design director of Studio UNLTD. And the clients desired “a space inherently feminine but subtly rough and raw.”

The designers found other clever ways to evoke the Middle East without resorting to kitsch: subtle arches behind the bar, pendants with lantern silhouettes, and scattered references to Mediterranean tilework. “In a space that feels devoid of pattern at first glance, there are several different textures, colors, and surfaces of tilework that give the space a lot of depth,” Bleier says. “Asymmetrical strips of fish-scale tile in the floor, aqua-colored arabesque tile on the face of the kitchen counters, and glossy black tile in the charcuterie area.”

To avoid a sea of uniform tables, the design team broke up the main dining spaces into enclaves through custom furnishings. In one section, half-round booths sport slatted-wood backs and yellow leatherette. Elsewhere, long walnut-stained white-oak banquettes feature complementing yellow leather panels. And an innovative double-sided banquette provides elevated seating on the bar-facing side and regular dining height seating on the other. The double-side banquette features brass rails that protrude from the bar-height side to form a foot rail and bases for integrated marble-topped tables. Clad in wood slats, the banquette stands 5-feet, 5-inches high to ensure clear sightlines for the staff to efficiently tend to patrons, another stipulation from the clients. Also for this reason, the kitchen was opened as much as possible and the bar was set perpendicular to the cook line. “A general manager can sit on one side of the room and keep an eye on the entire floor, as well as the patio,” says Bleier.

The most noticeable design innovation is a hanging garden of sorts. Co-owner and pastry chef Gergis explains, “I wanted to bring the outside indoors as you would find in places all over the Middle East. But we wanted to do it in a more modern, clean way.” With no precedence to work with, the designers eventually developed a rectangular system of steel planters to hold cascading pothos vines as well as soil and irrigation. Wood beams added to the open ceiling space above help carry the extra load.

“We wanted to make an urban oasis in a heavily industrial area,” adds Bleier. By creating this living chandelier that beautifully filters light—whether natural or artificial—Studio UNLTD has succeeded in transporting diners from the city to paradise.