Yusho (Chicago): An architect and her chef-husband bring traditional Japanese design principles to their unconventional, Asian-inspired eatery

Chef Matthias Merges and his wife, architect Rachel Crowl, have infused Yusho, their new elevated yakatori restaurant, with a Japanese spirit while eschewing a conventional "Asian" look. Photo by Katrina Wittkamp

The Japanese embrace a series of “design principles,”  including:  kanso (simple); shizen (natural); and kokou (austere).

Architects Rachel Crowl and Julie Fisher of Chicago’s fcSTUDIO clearly respected these principles when they designed Yusho, a new Logan Square Japanese-inspired eatery owned by Crowl and her chef-husband, Charlie Trotter’s veteran Matthias Merges.

Crowl and her business partner, Julie Fisher considered both function and aesthetics when designing Yusho. Photo courtesy of Rachel Crowl

“There’s beauty in utility,” says Crowl, who took a consistently pragmatic approach as she and Fisher designed the two-room, railroad-car space.  “Everything is based on utility and function.”

Thinking practically, the architects did all they could to liven up the space without making costly overhauls.  The restaurant’s culinary focus is on Japanese-style grilled (yakatori) street food.  And the architects wanted their design to “align with the street food concept,” Crowl says.

“We didn’t want this to be overly fine or polished.”

And it certainly isn’t.

To prevent the long, rectangular space from looking “like a bowling alley,” the architects devoted the north side of the eatery to a bar and mostly open kitchen.  To comply with health codes and avoid using an unappealing “sneeze guard,” Crowl and Fisher specified an exceptionally tall drinking and dining bar.  Artist Greta de Parry crafted the leggy, “sculptural,” concrete-topped bar stools that line the 48-inch high bar.

“They aren’t ‘no-brainers,’” Crowl acknowledges of the unusually high stools.  So handles are being added to the bar to make the step up to the bar/counter a bit easier to traverse.   (Yelpers, take note.)

Much of the space — including the bar/counter — employs rough-hewn, reclaimed 100-year-old structural timbers.  Flooring is basic wood and concrete.  Brick walls and ceiling joists are exposed.

But the architect/designers still put some meat on the restaurant’s bones.

Crowl and Fisher hand knitted the wool ropes for these pendant light fixtures, which hang in the eatery's front windows. Photo by Katrina Wittkamp

“Keeping it really textural” was an important objective, Crowl says.  So in addition to wood, brick and concrete, fabric was also a key element.  Booths — and bar stools at the small chef’s counter — are upholstered in a nubby purple, orange and brown tweed chenille.  And some are backed with industrial felt.  The same felt runs across the ceiling and connects the two rooms, while adding acoustic buffering.

Especially striking are the architects’ lighting choices.  In the eatery’s storefront windows, filament bulbs hang from wool ropes that Crowl and Fisher handknitted themselves.  Filament bulbs also hang above the bar, only here, actual rope is used.

Additionally, a chromatic display of eclectic light fixtures — everything from industrial cage lights to mod dome pendants — runs the restaurant’s length.

Crowl stayed away from using “literal” Japanese design elements “because we’re not a literal Japanese restaurant.”  So although not readily obvious, the lighting collection was inspired by “hanging Japanese lanterns.”

The lighting also is “very reminiscent of the fish markets in Toyko and Osaka,” Merges says.

The restaurant's back room maintains a sense of "whimsy" by featuring oversized industrial dock lights, brightly colored cladding, and anime films that are projected onto the north wall. Photo by Katrina Wittkamp

In the restaurant’s back room, Crowl also employed large sunshine-yellow dock lights that extend out over some tables and fill up a large expanse of brick wall.

“We were trying to use bold moves without making an overly complicated architectural project.”

The wall also serves as a projection screen for anime films, which are shown on a continuous loop and appeal to everybody — from the hipsters to the tots who dine at the welcoming neighborhood spot.

“There’s a whimsy that we’re trying to maintain without dumbing down the restaurant,” says Crowl of the anime component.

Simply designed midcentury modern furnishings, procured from Craigslist, appear throughout the space. Photo by Katrina Wittkamp

In addition to booth seating, a variety of authentic midcentury modern dining chairs is coupled with simple wood tables.  The chairs, along with midcentury modern serving/storage pieces and the restaurant’s window-area lounge and dining furnishings, were found on Craigslist.  Simple in form and detail, the midcentury modern style “aligns really well” with Japanese-influenced design aesthetics, Crowl says.

Bold color pops — turquoise, orange, lime green, watermelon — appear throughout the otherwise neutral-hued restaurant.  They’re on the cladding that cleverly covers mechanical elements, as well as a small back kitchen area.  They outline a window that peeks into the wine storage area.  And they brighten up those hanging light fixtures.

The color, which is a wink to the vibrant hues associated with Japanese anime, is “in line with the whimsy,” Crowl says.

“If you’re going to do color, why not do it?” Crowl says.  “It could have been a beige world in here.”

Japanese hanging lanterns inspired a grouping of colorful modern light fixtures. Photo by Katrina Wittkamp

Or red and black — had Crowl and Fisher gone with a predictable Japanese look.

“We don’t mind being unexpected,” Crowl says.  “People are trying to figure out why we don’t look like a sushi restaurant.

“We are not a sushi restaurant.”

2853 North Kedzie Avenue
Chicago, Illinois  60618

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2 Responses to Yusho (Chicago): An architect and her chef-husband bring traditional Japanese design principles to their unconventional, Asian-inspired eatery

  1. janie crawford says:

    hi, harlene – we enjoy following the site and tell people about it all the time. thrilled that you’re reviewing matthias’ new place. i know you know this, but he’s not just a trotter’s veteran (anyone doing a stage for one night can say that) but was trotter’s right hand man for years and years. no second in command in town is more qualified to start a new restaurant. it would not surprise me if those were words he chose. he is such a gentleman and so modest. you are getting around, girl and we’re thrilled for you and more than a little jealous. xo j

    • Harlene says:

      Thanks and be sure to stay tuned for tomorrow’s segment where I interview chef Matthias, who worked at Trotter’s for 14 years (!), and tell you about his menu of yakatori-inspired dishes!

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