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Designed to dine: a Chicago restaurant group serves up local and international flavor at three new venues.

With a Michelin-starred restaurant in its lineup, a host of awards on its shelf and a Top Chef in its kitchen, Boka Restaurant Group is cooking up some of the best food in the country. But its talents aren't limited to food. The Chicago-based restaurant group is also known for its imaginative interiors, including Momotaro, which won the award for Best Restaurant Design at last year's Jean Banchet Awards for Culinary Excellence and was praised by Food & Wine magazine for its "breathtaking Japanese design."

BRG owners Kevin Boehm and Rob Katz know the difference good design makes in shaping a diner's experience, and they pay just as much attention to what's in the space as what's on the menu. It's a philosophy that has made BRG's restaurants very popular. The proof is in the proverbial pudding: Momotaro was named one of the Best New Restaurants in America by Esquire magazine; Swift & Sons, which opened in the fall of 2015 won the title of Best New Steakhouse in Chicago by Time Out Chicago magazine; and Duck Duck Goat, BRG's new eatery from Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, was booked months in advance when it opened in March.

Lighting is an essential ingredient in BRG's recipe for success. "It's key in the overall experience for our guests and how the tone enhances the food, decor and mood of a restaurant," explains BRG owner Rob Katz, who has worked with Lightswitch Architectural to illuminate six of its restaurants, including Momotaro, Swift & Sons and Duck Duck Goat. Lightswitch Architectural partnered with interior designer AvroKO to craft design concepts for each restaurant that are as fresh and diverse as their cuisines.



BRG's first Asian restaurant, Momotaro, is an eclectic Japanese restaurant with interiors to match. AvroKO was inspired by postwar Japan, where traditional Japanese forms melded with modern Western architecture. The design team transformed a raw, 11,500-sq ft warehouse in Chicago's hip Fulton Market neighborhood into a sleek, bi-level space with a lounge, 30-ft bar, robata grill and dining room on the first floor; a private dining room and offices on the second floor; and subterranean bar below ground.

The lighting highlights the warm tones and textures of the materials and finishes used throughout the space. "Color is key in a restaurant. You want both the food and the space to look their best and for guests to feel comfortable," says Lightswitch Architectural partner Avraham Mor. The firm used monopoint trackheads (Eaton) with color-tunable white LED lamps from Ketra that were grouped together to showcase wood wall panels, exposed brick, seating banquettes and the freestanding sushi bar. The team adjusted the color and intensity of the lights in each group to complement the object being illuminated; they were set at 2200K to enhance the warm, reddish-toned wood walls in the dining room and at 2700K over the sushi bar to make it stand out.

The lighting also reveals quirky decorative details that reference Japanese culture. The main double-height bar, for example, features a drinks menu that is styled to look like a vintage brokerage board from the postwar boom era. Low-maintenance LED track lighting was installed in the ceiling above to direct light onto the board, while a custom, two-story pendant light resembling a Japanese abacus hangs over the bar for a special decorative touch.

Momotaro features a full lighting control system--a first for a BRG restaurant. "We recommended a lighting control system instead of wall box dimmers, which they had always done previously. It allowed us to do things like fine-tune the color and intensity of the lighting to complement certain details, which made a huge difference in the look of the space. With just the click of a button, we warmed it up. Being able to customize the lighting was vital," says Mor. It also enabled Momotaro's managers to maintain a consistent look every night, a must for high-end hospitality spaces. "I think of a restaurant as like a theatrical production in that you want to give guests the same experience every night," says Mor. "The quality and consistency of environment is incredibly important to restaurant owners. They want their patrons to linger, to order more food, more drinks and to have as great an experience when they return as they did the first time."



Swift & Sons, BRG's 10,000-sq ft steakhouse, opened in the fall of 2015. Located in a revamped cold storage facility in Chicago's historic meatpacking district, Swift & Sons is named after one of the titans of the industry, Gustavus Franklin Swift. AvroKO imagined what Swift's company headquarters might have looked like in the retro-future, infusing the interiors with old-school elements like wood millwork, tufted leather banquettes and mosaic tiles, all done in a contemporary, minimalist style.

Lightswitch Architectural's design is similarly mixed. It blends theatrical and architectural lighting techniques for a design that is both functional and stylish. "We used more integrated LED lighting here, and it allowed us to do things that we couldn't have done if we had used replacement lamps," notes Mor. The team added LED cove lighting from Luminii to reveal original structural details like the exposed, raw concrete columns and mushroom capitals. New architectural elements--like the paneled walls at the entry, curved niches in the dining area and display shelves in the bar--are highlighted with additional LED lighting that also illuminates the art and objects on display. The entire restaurant is controlled by a DALI-based digital control system from Crestron that Mor calls "ideal for low-level dimming applications like restaurants, since it offers a smooth dimming curve, very little flicker and it can be controlled via iPads, making it easier for users."

As with Momotaro, Mor envisioned Swift & Sons as a theater of sorts. "There are multiple stages, starting outside. When you walk by, you want the lighting to entice you in. Then you walk in and you have this feeling that you're about to experience something amazing; it's very theatrical and architectural. It's not just the lighting, but the lighting sets the mood," he explains. "At the same time, you also have to be able to read your menu. So coming up with creative solutions that balance the aesthetic and functional were key.

"We achieved that balance by playing with light and shadow. We added light on the tables so patrons could read, but it's not pinspots so everything around it isn't completely dark. The light slightly tapers off around the tables, but it's a subtle rather than a dramatic contrast so there's still a lot of light around you to give you a sense of brightness. We also added more light to walkways, so that servers can see where they are going. But even that 'functional' light has a glow to it so that guests never lose the ambiance."



Fronted by Top Chef winner Stephanie Izard, Duck Duck Goat is BRG's latest venture. Both the culinary and design concepts for the nearly 6,000-sq ft space were inspired by Chinatowns across America. The space comprises five dining rooms, each of which has a unique personality that borrows from aspects of Chinese-American culture, like tea shops and Chinese films.

The interior design details were the cornerstone of the project. "Each room has its own feel with different colors, finishes and fabrics. We were able to fine-tune the lighting to really bring out those unique details," notes Mor. In "the red room," digital LED lamps from Ketra are tuned to slightly pink to enhance details like the red floral wallpaper, seating banquettes and fringed lamps. "It makes it feel really lush," he notes. In another room, hidden sources highlight Chinese takeout bags and boxes that serve as artwork along the shelves. "It feels like the light is coming from the shelves and the decorative orbs, but it's really from track heads tucked away in the black ceiling above. The goal was that you see the details, not the lights."

Such nuance isn't lost on diners, who can expect a fully immersive experience at BRG spots like Duck Duck Goat. "Stephanie and her culinary team put so much thought into building that menu. Why shouldn't we put just as much passion into lighting her space?" reflects Mor.



Avraham Mor, CLD, IALD, Member IES (2000), is a partner at Lightswitch Architectural in Chicago.

Elizabeth Hall is a freelance writer and former associate editor with LD+A.
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Author:Hall, Elizabeth
Publication:LD+A Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Aug 1, 2016
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