Grass Fed (Chicago): Designer Susan Sissman says bye-bye to conventional steak house décor

Grass Fed’s owners asked designer Susan Sissman to create a look for their new restaurant that eschewed all classic steak house conventions.  Photo by Alex Janowski

“No dark wood.”  “No brass.”  “No red accents.”

Those were some of the definite “nos” Grass Fed’s owners gave designer Susan Sissman as she helped plan this new Bucktown steak restaurant.

The design goal “was to have something completely different from the traditional steak house,” Sissman says.

So rather that creating a classic dark, clubby, masculine room that screamed New York strip and ribeye, Sissman went in a completely different direction.  Instead, she designed “a nice, friendly, homey atmosphere.”

Sissman transformed  the dark, rustic former home of Caffe de Luca into a bright and airy bistro.  Photo by Peter Heil

Sissman completely overhauled the space long occupied by the Italian trattoria Caffe de Luca.

Grass Fed “is completely night-and-day from Caffe de Luca, which was a dark, rustic, Old World Italian interior,” she says.

Co-owner Scott Kay describes the new look as “Cape Cod meets Venice Beach.”

Working on a conservative budget, Sissman followed the partners’ directive to incorporate beadboard.  So the cheerful, whitewashed wallcovering bedecks the 72-seat eatery.  The beadboard not only brightens the restaurant, but  also gives it an informal look — once again diverging from steak house conventions.

Sissman’s biggest challenge, she says, was dealing with the vastness of this storefront space and its soaring 20-foot ceilings.

“It was always about addressing the large space,” says Sissman, who needed to figure out how to keep the room open while simultaneously creating warmth and intimacy.

She succeeded in several ways.  Sissman dropped the ceiling without closing it off entirely by using a series of floating planes.  She also followed a “five-foot/10-foot model,” that helps keeps guests’ eyes from looking beyond those heights and creates uniformity in the space.  For example, banquette backs stop at the five-foot mark, while other elements (wallpaper, lattice work, sections of beadboard) reach 10 feet.

The three distinct dining areas are unified by design elements such as whitewashed beadboarding and complementary lighting.  Photo by Alex Janowski

And Sissman broke the space into three individual but complementary sections, cleanly divided by tall panels of geometrically patterned lattice work.

“There is a rhythm to each eating area,” she says.

The front room, the busiest of the three, has a curved J-shaped bar on one side and saturated grass-green upholstered banquette seating on the other.  The middle section is home to an open kitchen and a grid of high tops and bar stools.  And the more intimate, beadboard-covered back room simply holds a group of dining tables, mix-and-match dining chairs, a specials chalkboard, and a sequence of flared drum pendant lights.  Stained concrete flooring runs through the entire restaurant, connecting the three areas.

The group refurbished many left-behinds from the Caffe de Luca, including chairs, tables, tabletops and bar stools (which became seating for the center group of highboys).  Chairs and stools were covered over in white paint, while tabletops were given a coating of soft green.

“There was an effort to reuse and recycle whatever they could,” Sissman says.

The front room is the most embellished of the trio.  Here, the beadboard-fronted bar is backed by two large white cottage-style shelf units with a specials chalkboard nestled between them.

The curved bar and bell-shaped pendant fixtures play against the eatery’s mostly rectilinear forms.  Photo by Alex Janowski

The shelving displays large glass beverage dispensers that hold the restaurant’s colorful craft cocktail infusions as well as jars of pickled fruits and vegetables that the seasonally focused restaurant will use in the coming months.  More jars, along with green topiary displays, also decorate the ledge Sissman created along the banquette’s top.

Sophisticated pewter-and-glass bell pendant lights hang above the bar.  Their undulating shapes play off the curvilinear forms on the subtle green-and-white, feather-patterned wallpaper that adorns both the entry and center section walls.

The pendants “are an offset from all the rectilinearness of the space,” Sissman says.  And the distinctive pewter finish again sets the restaurant apart from stereotypical, brass-laden steak houses.

“All the lighting was meant to work in a distinct but coordinated way in each dining area,” Sissman says.

For the center dining area section, Sissman specified pewter-and-glass drum lighting fixtures that add drama to the less-ornamented space.  The busy open kitchen, which is backed with oversized glossy white subway tiles, also creates some visual excitement.  Says Sissman:  “It really breaks up that whole elevation into something more interesting.”

Grass Fed
1721 North Damen Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60647

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