Hungry for Design’s authors are Susan Battista and Fritz Klaetke—partners in both work and life. By day they run Visual Dialogue, a branding and design firm where Susan leads strategy and Fritz leads creative. By night, they can be found sharing meals (and opinions) at restaurants all over Boston and beyond.
This ain’t your bubbe’s Lower East Side
Beauty & Essex: the old & the new
As designers, we couldn’t help but wonder: what would happen if designers actually owned the places they created? In search of an answer, we paid a visit to Beauty & Essex, a hot restaurant created by AvroKO. This New York-based firm not only designed but also owns and operates restaurants that include Public, Saxon + Parole, Genuine Roadside, and The Daily.
Nestled between the ragtag storefronts of NYC’s Lower East Side, Beauty & Essex simultaneously references a bygone era and embodies the neighborhood’s ongoing gentrification. Located in the former Katz’s furniture store on Essex Street and marked with a fabulous retro sign, its intriguing exterior definitely gets your attention.
The memorable experience begins by entering a second-hand shop with no obvious indication that a restaurant is located here. That’s right, the front of the location is a retail space stocked with vintage collectibles such as cameras, Barbies, magazines, guitars, and jewelry. The cashier asks if she can help us and we reply that we have a reservation. She then directs us to an unmarked door that transports us to the world that lies beyond.
Something akin to magic happens when good taste, creativity, and a healthy design budget collide. Inspired by a “fashion doyenne’s 1930’s department store fantasy,” Beauty & Essex is a two-story spectacle. The lower level contains a richly furnished lounge/bar area and a posh dining space. Upstairs, the atmosphere is more relaxed but still obsessively decorated, without an inch of overlooked space. And let’s not forget the staircase connecting the two levels, which is an experience in and of itself. Fur-lined walls and a cascading chandelier transform the winding hike upstairs into a glamorous ascent worthy of Jean Harlow.
Though we could go on about the interior design, we must mention extra touches that contribute to the success of the Beauty & Essex experience. For starters, a DJ sets the tone for the night with crowd-pleasing custom mixes, which progressed from ambient background music to dance club beats as the night went on. Inspired by the dress code suggested on the website, the guests donned cocktail attire appropriate to the space. Even the ladies room was intentionally festive with a (free!) champagne bar—a decadent gesture that seemed to say, “relax and celebrate.”
While not the primary focus at Beauty & Essex, the food is well-executed and tasty. The menu has a little something for everyone and a wide-ranging focus—i.e. kale salad, Brussels sprouts, baby back ribs, tagliatelle, seared tuna, steaks, burgers, ceviche, etc., etc. The menu is more trendy than chef-driven.
Though it hardly seems to affect the restaurant’s popularity, we must admit that their website, beautyandessex.com, is neither a “beauty” nor is it successful in conveying the experience. More photos of the space (ones that include people) could be added along with brief, descriptive copy to better capture the vibe. For as thought through and “branded up” as every touchpoint in the restaurant is, it’s surprising that the AvroKO team has neglected the online presence.
Beauty & Essex is a big, bold concept, beautifully executed. AvroKO’s careful attention to detail and willingness to push an idea past the ordinary result in an immersive, theatrical experience worth having.
So for a great example of restaurant design taking center stage, check out Beauty & Essex. We’re certain you (and even your bubbe) will applaud its performance.