What could a sleek St. Tropez luxury yacht and a cozy old Dutch fisherman’s house possibly have in common?
Well, other than their proximity to water, not much. And that’s precisely the point, says designer Karen Herold of Chicago’s 555, who used both the high-end yacht and the modest seaside home as her inspirations for River North’s new seafood-centric eatery, GT Fish & Oyster. (GT, in case you’re wondering, are the initials of chef Giuseppe Tentori, who, in partnership with Chicago’s Boka Restaurant Group, is at the helm of one of the year’s most eagerly anticipated restaurants.)
Dutch-born Herold, who spent time last summer vacationing on the French Riviera and visiting family on Holland’s coast, wanted to juxtapose high-end glamor with working-class ruggedness in her design.
“But at the end of the day, we ended up closer to the yacht,” says Herold, who ultimately created a space that is best described as nautical swank.
Yes, Herold uses many of the customary trappings of seafood house décor — fisherman’s netting, pulleys, maritime paintings, shark jaws and more. “The rustic fisherman [elements] are crucial to the atmosphere,” she says. But the endlessly creative designer, who also fashioned the acclaimed Girl & the Goat’s stunning interior, incorporates them in unexpected, sophisticated ways.
Herold’s artist parents, for example, created a series of Dutch Master-style stormy sea paintings that line the cream wood-paneled walls of the restaurant’s combined front lounge/bar/dining area. The cream paneling — which also covers the ceiling — is commonly found in rustic Dutch fishing cottages, Herold says. But in the context of the restaurant, it looks clean-lined and contemporary. Classic brass picture lights hang over the paintings, but Herold added a twist by placing the pieces in modern steel frames.
Per Herold’s specifications, artisan Tim Whitmore interwove black dock lines, netting, pulleys and glass balls with Tom Dixon lights to create a wondrous chandelier that hangs over a the honey-stained wood communal table in the restaurant’s glass enclosed front alcove. The entangled chandelier is meant to look “as if a [sea] storm has already gone over it,” Herold says.
Whitmore also crafted a smaller version of the marine-chic light fixture, and it reappears as sconces in the smaller main dining room. Across the wood-floored room, a quintessential chowder house chalkboard hangs over a tufted banquette. But instead of listing menu items, the expansive board features pithy quotes — Jonathan Swift’s “He was a bold man that first ate an oyster,” for example — and a fantastical fish skeleton chalk drawing by Whitmore’s sister, artist Melinda Whitmore. The fish sketches will change during the year, Herold says.
Throughout the restaurant, Herold uses her signature neutral palette. Here black and ivory, with dashes of slate gray and brown, are in command.
“People bring in the color,” says Herold, of the often filled-to-the-gills eatery. “It gets busy enough when people are in [the space]. We set a palette for people to create the mood.”
In the larger front area, the black, ivory and brown marble-tiled floor is a total attention grabber. Herold selected a very traditional basket weave pattern, but luxed it up by “using three colors of marble,” she says. Almost equally striking is a tri-colored wood boomerang table — meant to evoke a vintage surfboard — which stands at attention in the room’s center. Emblazoned with the restaurant’s logo, the high top is paired with black bar stools.
The wood-topped bar, with its black front and brass-trimmed black back shelves, is definitely more yacht than tugboat, particularly since it also does double duty as an oyster bar, serving an array of the decadent treats.
Throughout both rooms, Herold couples black-stained wood dining tables with sleek slate vinyl chairs. But the restaurant’s feel changes dramatically when diners move from the front area into the main dining room, where the space has a more stately feel. In addition to pillow-bedecked banquettes and wood flooring, the room features two massive carved-legged wood captain’s tables. Used for communal dining, the ivory tables are matched with honey-colored cane-backed wood chairs.
Herold’s design was not driven by Tentori’s menu — which also mixes items both classic and contemporary, she says. Instead, she was ultimately guided by the chef’s personal taste and style, which are more high- than low-brow. (Tentori, although he had input in the design, was not heavily involved in the project.)
“His menu is who he is,” she says. “My design is who he is.”
GT Fish & Oyster
531 North Wells Street
Chicago, Illinois 60654