By Meghan Hall
A 700 square foot bar near the heart of Ballard is making a statement with its design. Rupee Bar, a Sri Lankan and Indian fusion restaurant which opened in the fall of last year, may appear innocuous to some, but has thus far received a big thumbs up from the AEC community. The project, co-owned by Joe Sundberg, Rachel Johnson and Patrick Thalasinos, and designed in conjunction with Seattle-based Heliotrope Architects, was recently announced as a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award in small restaurant design. The bar’s resulting design was a culmination of free-flowing ideas, loose collaboration and often impromptu decisions, a far cry from the typical corporate design process.
“You walk into this space and it is like you are sitting inside a little jewel box, something you’d pick up in an outdoor market,” explained Heliotrope Principal Mike Mora. “A carved wood box with brass hinges, very relaxed.”
Heliotrope also helped the owners with the design of Manolin, a Wallingford seafood restaurant which opened several years ago. When Manolin’s co-owners decided to open a second restaurant, they asked Heliotrope for their input once again. A lot of how the project developed depended not just on the extent of the design relationship, but also budgetary constraints and the owners’ building expertise.
“Like a lot of these young, firing restauranteurs, they didn’t have a big budget, but had skill and energy,” said Mora. “In the case of these guys, they could also build things; they had construction experience. They built Manolin themselves, so when they decided to open Rupee Bar, they proceeded along the same strategy.”
Because Sundberg, Johnson and Thalasinos were building out the project themselves, that strategy was one which revolved largely around discussion and in-the-moment decisions. Heliotrope did not even come up drawings or schematics, said Mora.
“Our collaboration is pretty loose in the sense that they were making a lot of decisions on the fly,” emphasized Mora. “We would just bounce ideas off of each other, so there was a nice, collaborative aspect and there was also a bit of an improvisational nature to the whole thing.”
Originally, the owners’ vision was Scandinavian-inspired, and would build upon Ballard’s history, which during the Industrial Revolution was comprised primarily of Nordic settlers. To date, that heritage is apparent throughout the neighborhood at local landmarks and destinations such as the National Nordic Museum. Ultimately however, Sundberg, Johnson and Thalasinos decided to pursue a more Sri Lankan feel, inspired by travels abroad.
“I think they quickly realized that the Scandinavian concept was not really inspiring them,” stated Mora. “…We knew from the beginning, because it is a tiny little space, that it would be a 21-and-over operation, and that everything would be a little tight. From the get-go, it was always going to be a bar serving food as opposed to a restaurant with a bar.”
The final product is warm and inviting and makes use of every inch of available space. To the right is the bar which runs the length of the space, made of Oregon black walnut and complimented by metal-toned barstools. Against the opposite wall is a banquet with six tables, and the furniture is fixed in place in order to keep adequate distance in what is a smaller space. A window to the kitchen makes all of the cook and prep space visible, and a skylight in the back of the room adds additional light. Tall double-hung windows make up the restaurant’s façade and can be opened during the warmer summer months for more flow and space. The ceiling is exposed for additional texture, and the walls are painted a vibrant teal blue, packing a colorful punch.
“We didn’t want the space to be a copy of [Sri Lankan architecture,” said Mora. “The quality is in the layering of things: the color, the title, the brass accents, the wood. You come in and everyone feels like you are all very much eating together. There’s an intimacy that is very appealing.”
However, that intimacy could pose challenges not just for Rupee Bar, but for other restaurants operating in a post-COVID-19 world. While Mora said he was unsure of how exactly how the industry will move forward, he did acknowledge some may be hesitant to dine in.
“Just psychologically, I think there could be a real apprehension to being in a smaller space, like a bar or restaurant,” said Mora. “COVID-19 is generating a lot of conversation about restaurant design and there are a lot of knowledgeable people throwing out possible directions of where this might go.”
Regardless, the future still seems bright for Rupee Bar, whose design received a nomination from the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to highlighting the importance of food culture. According to Mora, being names as a finalist was a bit unexpected.
“We submitted for the hell of it,” said Mora. “But Joe and Rachel and Patrick are all about a certain level of imperfection as a positive quality; if everything is too laid out, symmetrical, it tends to feel less appealing. I think the Seattle restaurant market likes stuff that isn’t corporate or too polished or too formal.”
Mora also stressed that the success of the design was also hugely in part due to the ingenuity of the owners. “They were as much of the driving force behind the design, as much as, or even more than we were,” he said. “Our job was to help them bring their vision to life.”