From the Ground Up

Interview by Erin Jackson |
Culinary Personalities

San Diego has long known and loved Chef-Celeb Matt Gordon of Urban Solace and Solace & the moonlight lounge. Branching out with a new concept—Sea & Smoke—Gordon's fresh venture is a self-dubbed American brasserie, focused on (you guessed it), smoked meats and über-fresh seafood. DO caught up with him and Designer Jason St. John of Bells & Whistles to talk about how the space, and the concept, has taken shape.

How did you come up with the concept?

Matt: My wife and I were very involved with the process, and had a distinct sense of the feel, color, and mood we wanted for the place. Our designers, Bells & Whistles, set up a secret board on Pinterest that we posted photos to, and commented on things we liked and didn't like. That helped hone our aesthetic and the design team took it from there.

Jason: When we take on a new client, we put them through an interview process. We get to know who they are on a personal level, which really helps us add their personality to the project. Another important step in our process is "meditating" in the space. We spend hours on site bouncing ideas back and forth with each other and we really let the space "speak" to us. We have also started using new tools, like Pinterest and SketchUp, which help us get on the same page. In a nutshell, we take our clients' concept, combine it with our vision, and come up with something that will suit the space and the community it goes into.

Describe the design of Sea & Smoke that came out of that process.

Jason: Matt's concept for Sea & Smoke is an American brasserie that is open from breakfast through dinner. We took inspiration from our travels and experiences in Paris and other European cities to create an upscale yet relaxed restaurant. We kept the floor plan open and used traditional design elements and materials, combining that with a more modern dining experience. You can belly up to the bar for some drinks, sit with your laptop and a coffee on the patio, or come in for a family dinner.

Matt: It's a three-part restaurant. The dining room is airy, a touch feminine, and a little Parisian in style. The bar area is a little more convivial but still evokes a chic Parisian meets mid-century style. The outdoor area is just awesome with a giant hardwood deck and a mix of colorful furniture.

What are some of your favorite elements of the new space?

Matt: I love the coffered walls and being able to open the back wall. It completely transforms the old cave-like bar area into an airy and inviting place.

Jason: As we became more familiar with the space, we noticed some fundamental design problems the former restaurant had. The whole upstairs was totally unappealing. We fixed that by taking out almost all the walls, putting in hardwood floors, and keeping the floor plan open. Downstairs, we removed an exterior wall and extended the interior bar area with new windows and doors. Now the bar is one big area that you can mosey around from all sides. I think the bar is going to be really exciting. It’s just super clean, with a nice, open, airy feeling.

Did anything from the former business survive the demo?

Jason: Barely anything remains, at least not anything in the front of house. The best part about this project is that Matt inherited a really amazing kitchen from the former tenants, which saved him a ton of money and sped up the construction process. We were able to keep the lighting plan the same, and make only minor adjustments. Other than that, it’s completely different than the previous restaurant and totally unrecognizable from what it used to be.

Matt: Almost all of the kitchen equipment is being re-used and about three quarters of the lighting is the same, but in an inconspicuous way. We recycled some materials and kept the bar in the same shape, but removed the back wall of the building that used to split it in two.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during the design process?

Matt: For our last two places (Urban Solace and Solace & the moonlight lounge) we had an architect on board. For this one, we thought a design team would suffice, but we definitely were slowed down by some of the unknowns that came from not having an architect handy. Also, working so quickly made it difficult to find certain products—like flooring—that would ship in time. But we did find some great hand-distressed hardwood at the last minute, so we're good to go.

Jason: One of the biggest challenges revolved around how the restaurant will be serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Those are all different moods, which means you have to design a place that looks open, cheery, and bright for breakfast, but still looks moody and intimate at night.