Natural monument to cool restraint

Comfort and atmosphere are the watchwords for the designer of a South Yarra restaurant, writes Stephen Crafti.

Comfort and atmosphere are the watchwords for the designer of a South Yarra restaurant, writes Stephen Crafti.

Bray Street, South Yarra, nestled behind Chapel Street, is quickly developing its own character.

Teppankai, a Japanese restaurant dedicated to Teppanyaki-style cooking, is on the ground level of the Society apartments, which were designed by Plus Architecture.

The new restaurant, designed by Finschi PHD, is attracting passers-by, as well as those hearing about it by word of mouth.

"This space was previously used as a wine bar and restaurant serving international cuisine. We literally inherited a shell and the amenities at the end of the passage," says interior architect Wayne Finschi, co-director of the practice.

The space, about 250 square metres, was well endowed with a 60-square-metre outdoor terrace. It also benefits from a 40-metre-wide frontage. "This allowed us to have a presence to the street and create a new identity," Finschi says.

To provide privacy for patrons inside Teppankai, Finschi PHD used chunky cypress mullions across the facade, placed 15 centimetres apart. "With all our projects, we research the culture from the outset. One of the things you notice about Japanese temples is the use of natural materials, whether it's the structure of a building or the exceptional detailing," Finschi says.

The mullions, combined with Noren (fabric used like signage to identify a building's function), has provided a sense of identity for Teppankai. And to create a contemporary twist, some of the timber has been painted matt black, while other sections are painted with Japanese calligraphy, with quotations such as "Sake will cure everything".

Timber mullions were also used to loosely define the dining areas. There's a private dining room that seats 10 to 12 people. There's also a larger seating area with tables and chairs. Pivotal to the design is the 15-metre-long Teppanyaki bar, containing four grills servicing 25 people. "People come here for the theatre, seeing their food prepared directly in front of them. The food does the talking," says Teppankai's owner, Richard Tan.

Those preferring less theatre can opt for the banquette-style seating, framed by a work on rice paper by Japanese artist Junko Azukawa.

Rather than try to compete with the chefs' theatrics, Finschi created a restrained interior. Polished-concrete floors complement grey or black-rendered walls. And rather than glitzy chandeliers that previously adorned the ceilings, the lighting is restrained. In the private dining area, for example, there are paper lanterns. Open glass shelves against a window allow extra light.

Other small details include chequerboard-style flooring in the adjacent dining area, evocative of Tamari mats used in Japan.

"The place has a completely different ambience at night. People tend to gather around the bar until they're seated," Finschi says. "When you're designing a new restaurant, you need to understand your client's business model as well as all facets relating to the food served, from presentation to pricing. It's also important to understand their philosophy and what they want to achieve." Comfort and atmosphere are pivotal to the success of a restaurant, bar or cafe, Finschi says.

"Sometimes, it's about capturing some of the intangible qualities that make one place thrive and another waiting for customers," he says.

But it's also the rationale behind a design that adds to its success. "There should always be a thread that ties a place together, be it the materials or the ideas running through a place."

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