Revive that tired decor

Are your drapes dreary? When was the last time you ditched the dinnerware or tore up the old carpet? If the place is starting to look a little frayed around the edges, maybe it’s time for a facelift. Here’s how five different restaurants achieved maximum impact with minimal cash. Creative ideas and practical tips to help perk up your interior—in all different price ranges. Plus, quick tips on doing some minor (and very budget-conscious) facelifts from a design firm that knows the ropes.

Are your drapes dreary? When was the last time you ditched the dinnerware or tore up the old carpet? If the place is starting to look a little frayed around the edges, maybe it’s time for a facelift. Here’s how five different restaurants achieved maximum impact with minimal cash.

UNDER $10,000
Softening a sports bar
New Suffolk, New York

The sports paraphernalia that had decorated Legends since its 1993 opening was starting to feel a tad gimmicky—even though regulars think of the beach community restaurant as a sports bar. “After 13 years in business, I was tired of it,” says co-owner Diane Harkoff of the boxing, baseball and fishing gear on the walls. “The look was cold and I wanted something warmer that reflected my eclectic taste and travel experiences.”

Although she hired Mary Casey Interiors to oversee the redecoration, Harkoff did a lot of the work herself. She surfed the Internet, browsed catalogs and patronized mid-priced chains like Pier One for accessories and tea lights. “Most commercial decorators shop the high-end Manhattan showrooms for these items,” she explains.
A tropical motif was chosen to go with Legends’ seaside location. Ceiling fans with palm frond-shaped blades now hang above and large, green plants (purchased from Home Depot) are scattered throughout; the giant rowing shell suspended from the ceiling remains from the sports decor days but fits right in. African textiles and Native American artifacts add warmth and a personal touch. Harkoff found ceremonial cloths and pillows online and a 7-foot-tall giraffe was discovered at a local gallery. Cabinet doors were removed so the open shelves could display ceramics and crafts. Instead of covering tables with double white cloths, a sturdy burlap fabric—which doesn’t have to be laundered as often—is layered beneath single tablecloths. “We were a little afraid that our male customers would be turned off,” Harkoff says, “but everyone seems to love this more soothing look.”

UNDER $35,000
Made in Hong Kong
Greek Brothers Steakhouse & Oyster Bar
Victoria, Texas

To convert an old Bennigan’s into a swankier steakhouse, designer Kathy Heard focused on changes she deemed essential, such as opening the bar directly into the entrance, giving the back bar a re-do and ramping up the walls with striking visuals. “Many operators have back bar design issues,” says Heard.
“It’s an area that’s always in view and that must be functional [and] attractive.”

To make sure the bar was visible from the front door and was able to accommodate liquor bottles, Heard covered the entire wall with fluted mirrored glass purchased from Hong Kong at a savings of $7,500 over a local source. The original access to the bar was from the sides only; steps were added to bring customers in from the hostess station. Owners Blanche and George Charkalis also wanted an oyster bar that could be serviced by the bartender, so Heard extended the existing bar surface.

The walls of the dining area offered an opportunity for visual impact. To save money, Heard framed copies of 1960s menu covers—signed by Bob Dylan and others—procured from a restaurant where George’s father used to be a bartender. Black and white photomurals of New York scenes are framed to appear as views through windows; these were produced in Hong Kong on a strict budget.

Instead of replacing worn carpet (for $10,000) Heard finished the concrete floors. Floral vinyl booths were recovered with canvas slipcovers; reupholstering them would have cost $7,500 more.

UNDER $50,000
Minimizing cost, maximizing authenticity
New York City

Restaurateur Richard Sandoval is known for his “modern Mexican” cuisine—a lively mix of authentic ingredients and flavors with contemporary cooking techniques. Yet the décor of Maya, the flagship in his restaurant group, didn’t reflect the vibrancy of his menu. The design team’s goal in remodeling was to infuse the space with spirit and a more casual vibe. They shopped the open markets of Mexico for traditional goods—a strategy that minimized costs and maximized authenticity—and engineered the project so it didn’t involve any structural changes or replacement of lighting, tables or chairs.

The Mexican purchases included huipiles, woven shawls which were used as accents, and straw placemats for tables (to eliminate the need for linen service). For the walls, Sandoval mined his personal collection of “Exvotos” paintings—Mexican artwork to thank a patron saint for a miracle. Instead of sending chairs out to a refinisher, they were stained in-house.

An existing half-wall was extended with woven raffia curtains to cordon off a private dining area; building a wall extension would have cost a lot more. To complete the re-do, the walls were washed with amber and terracotta paint and candles were placed around the restaurant to augment the lighting.

UNDER $60,000
The recycled renovation
The Kitchen
Boulder, Colorado

A bistro (downstairs) and wine lounge (upstairs) occupy a 100-plus-year-old Victorian building that The Kitchen calls home. Owners Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson are dedicated to eco-practices, going as far as using wind-powered electricity. So when it came to updating the interior, architect and designer Jen Lewin Musk preserved what she could and recycled the rest.

Lewin Musk exposed the old brick and stone walls and left them bare. To fashion the unique chandeliers that hang from the ceiling, she found crystals and chandelier parts on eBay and through second-hand shops, then pieced them together and fitted them to the restaurant’s existing electrical components. For the lights over the bar, she used glass test tubes cut into abstract shapes that she purchased from a scientific supply house: “The modern bar lights contrast nicely with the old-fashioned chandeliers.” All the wood cabinetry, shelving and the bar were built out of pine ceiling joists salvaged from the building next door. For the wine lounge, all the tables are built from ceiling joists and the legs are made from pipe fittings. And to bring the original tile floor up to code, Lewin Musk hired a local glass blower to fill in the cracks and gaps with molten colored glass.

UNDER $150,000
Spruce it up, don’t shut it down
Deli Lane Café and Tavern
Miami, Florida

After 18 years in business, Deli Lane was badly in need of an update, but Jan Kirchoff and Mike Maler couldn’t bear closing the place to do the work. Not only would they disappoint and possibly lose customers, they would miss the cash flow. So they rounded up a collection of contractors willing to work after the last dinner check was paid and before the breakfast crowd arrived. Eighteen months later, the renovation was complete.

Although the whole space needed freshening up, the partners decided to focus on areas that suffered the most wear and tear and would pack the most punch. The first thing to go was the very slippery ceramic tile floor. For $15,000, they installed a natural slate floor that “made a big difference,” giving the space a more open feeling and reducing slips and falls. Next order of business was the tabletops: the old formica ones were traded in for reclaimed timber. “We worked with two companies, Reclaimed Timber in St. Louis and Primitive Folks in North Carolina,” Kirchoff says. “Both were able to make wooden tabletops for $300 to $400 each that fastened to our original bases.” In addition to being environmentally friendly, the wood surfaces help absorb sound.

Wainscoting on the walls further reduced noise and expenses—the tiles it replaced caused a deafening roar in the restaurant and cost more. The stained wood wainscoting also warms up the space and blends with the chocolate brown paint on the ceiling and soffits. “We enclosed the exposed air conditioning duct work in attractive soffits that are painted the same deep brown and disappear into the ceiling,” Kirchoff explains. Total cost: $10,000—much cheaper than putting in a new air conditioning system.            

Quick Tips

The Puccini Group, a restaurant design firm based in San Francisco, calls these minor fixes “lipstick remodels.” “The challenge is to update the look without reconcepting,” says creative director Robert Polacek. It’s especially tricky when you have to work within a tight budget, but he feels that small changes can make a big difference when you target these areas:

Flooring Consider laying down patterned carpeting—it’s more forgiving to dirt and wear. Stock carpeting is the most affordable way to go. Another option is reclaimed or recycled wood; it’s contemporary, fairly easy to get and not too costly.

Reupholstery Go with an embossed or quilted vinyl that mimics leather—it’s durable, comfortable and good-looking. But before you send in your dining chairs to be refinished or reupholstered, calculate the cost of new furniture—it’s sometimes cheaper to start from scratch.

Paint A fresh coat of paint on the walls and ceiling can upgrade your space with little effort and money. Eggshell
finishes or faux plaster glazes are easiest to clean. Plus, faux plaster offers the authentic look of plaster for half the price.

Lighting The simple act of replacing light fixtures can instantly update a space. The thriftiest solution is pendant lighting or chandeliers—you don’t have to tear out the ceiling and rack up construction costs. On the other hand, indirect recessed lighting can be worth the investment. It upscales and modernizes a room and doesn’t get outdated as quickly.

Tabletops Bare tables are in—even at fine-dining venues. Think about refinishing wood tabletops and purchasing table runners and/or placemats in stylish materials and colors that can be wiped clean or easily laundered. The initial cost might be higher, but it will soon pay off in lower linen bills.

Artwork Photos make a striking design statement yet are a fairly inexpensive way to go. Blowing up one or two photos into mural size can create dramatic focal points in a room and effectively cover the walls.


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