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Richard Bloch on Chef Collabs, Comfy Seating, and Glass Houses

Welcome to Dining & Designing, a new column in which Curbed National joins with the forces of Eater National to profile and explore the design of restaurants. Your fearless leader through this untamed wilderness will be Julie Earle-Levine, an Australian, NYC-based writer who has contributed to The Financial Times of London, New York Magazine, and the New York Times, among others. She has both a passion for real estate and a passion for eating. This will be fun.

Photos: Richard Bloch Architect

NYC-based architect Richard Bloch has been designing for four decades, earning his chops by working beneath Phil George at Le Bernardin and continuing on with Masa and Bar Masa at the Time Warner Center, The Plaza Hotel revamp, and, most recently, La Silhouette in midtown Manhattan. He just wrapped up Corey Lee’s lustworthy Benu in San Francisco and is working on a 6,000-square-foot gourmet market at a hotel on Fisher Island, a luxury enclave with its own ferry access from Miami, and another hush-hush project involving a major landmark building. We spoke to Bloch about Masa Takayama’s strong sense of design, the best meal he's ever had, and his own NYC loft, which has an incredible glass house on top.

How do you make your spaces comfortable?
The level of comfort is really related to the restaurant. If you are doing a restaurant in an airport (such as Narita Shahoden in Narita International Airport in Japan) every seat should be reasonably comfortable, but you don't need the same kind of comfort [one finds] in a restaurant like Dovetail. There, chairs needed to be very comfortable. And I think they are. At Benu, if you are sitting 3.5 hours in a chair, that has to be comfortable—otherwise your fanny starts hurting.

Tell us about La Silhouette [in NYC]. It’s quite unexpected, and beautiful in spite of the space.
The building was under construction when we were there. It was a basic structure, and it was very complicated. The design hurdles? It was too narrow, the ceiling was too low and there was no single large space—it was difficult coming up with a scheme. My thought was as I fumbled around with it [was] that it is not a restaurant with one or two nice rooms.

You enter the room through a nasty space—14 feet wide—and it was clear the ceilings would be low, at best eight feet. I thought the overarching idea was to take something I had seen a grander version of. At the foot of the Spanish steps in Rome is Caffé Greco. You walk in. There is a room and you go from room to room until you get to the bowels of building. There are rooms, no corridors, and you simply walk through each room. It’s a grand and beautiful café in an ancient building but as an idea I thought I’d steal it. La Silhouette really was a hurdle—a tiny little bar, then you have the first dining room, a utilitarian space, then you come to another space, a pivotal space, where you can take a variety of directions, one into down into dining room, and one upstairs. My scheme ended up tying it all. We had just tiny bar in front—that critical point you arrive at was great spot.

I've heard criticism that it should have just been one big room.
It may be not illuminating to talk about one slightly drunk decorator’s view, but the idea of space and how it is perceived dynamically is a fundamental element of experiencing architecture and it is always part of our work.

Do you often collaborate with chefs on design?
Whenever I’m allowed to, I’ll talk to the chef. If the chef isn’t the owner, there is a strong likelihood—no matter how good he or she is—that the chef will change. The menu might stay, but?

What’s not easy about these projects?
The (projects) are demanding of talents and skills, and very demanding in time. You need to understand, really understand, at a basic level what your client is thinking and these peole are extraordinarily detailed—when you watch a chef put three caviar-fish eggs on a dish, when you watch them work. They are very serious people doing really complicated things. That is the way they think. You need to ask lots of questions and really need to dig to understand them.

You did the massive $12.5M Plaza Hotel renovation that included 7000 square feet of landmarked interiors, the ballroom, lobby, outer foyer, and 20,000 square feet of new construction for meeting rooms, catering kitchen, and function spaces.
It was a very big job! It had the time and budget that made the job doable. We did another job like that in Vegas: Bar Masa and Shaboo at the Aria Hotel, [which is] part of MGM’s City Center in Las Vegas. I’d never worked for MGM Grand [before], [and] negotiating design between them and Masa [caused] a variety of issues. It’s a multi-billion dollar project. In order to manage a projects of this size, there are burdens on every single person. You need a lot of time for things that have nothing to do with design.

Tell me about your own style. What’s your apartment like?
My home is very simple. It’s contemporary. We live in Soho [in NYC] now, on the top floor of an old building built in 1875. We also bought the roof and made a duplex out of it.. It’s quite beautiful. It’s a small loft, with lots of light and magnificent views. We see the sky, and on evenings we look out and see the moon. We punched skylights and built a glass house on the roof. It has a stainless steel kitchen that I had built. It’s a 3.5-bathroom, one-bedroom apartment. My wife and I have our own bathrooms. We’ve been married 35 years. It has lots of glass and painted steel. I don’t like gloomy. I like cheerful.

Head over to Eater National for the rest of the interview. >>