From Coast to Coast

As deep-pocketed mall chains have increasingly usurped upscale boutique spaces, Vancouver’s Robson Street has lost much of its Rodeo Drive North cachet. Lower rents — and stylish neighbours such as the Shangri-La Hotel — have enticed the likes of Tiffany & Co., Herms, Brooks Brothers and Betsey Johnson to opt for space one block north. Even so, the two-block stretch of Alberni Street between Burrard and Bute seems destined to be more of a mecca for foodies than for fashionistas.

A little over three years ago (before the Glowbal Group opened Italian Kitchen and Jean-Georges Vongerichten lent his name to the restaurant at the Shangri-La), few would have guessed that Alberni would become such a dining destination. Emad Yacoub, president/owner of the Glowbal Group, is so sure of the street’s potential that he relocated the seafood-focussed Coast restaurant across the street from Italian Kitchen.

Yacoub insists the original Coast was too popular for its Yaletown footprint, but notes another reason for the relocation. “Tourists want three things when they go looking for a restaurant,” says Yacoub, “seafood, Italian food, and steak. Coast is a seafood-focussed restaurant. I knew it would do much better if it was located nearer to where the tourists are, close to the major hotels, the cruise ship terminal, and all of that.”

A long-established dollar store provided the bones for the new restaurant space that is three times that of the original Coast room. Boasting a total of some 7,000 square feet, the new Coast restaurant features an adjoining 1,200-square-foot lounge.

“It’s always hard to put a restaurant into a building that wasn’t designed for that purpose,” says designer H. Jay Brooks, principal of Box Interior Design. In the end, the team had to go up more than three floors — and through the bathroom of the language school upstairs — in order to install the exhaust system.

Today there is little evidence of the store that used to occupy the new Coast location. The two-storey space operates very much as an open plan. Sure, there’s a staircase tucked along a side wall to allow access to the upper level, but those seated near the railing of the mezzanine command spectacular views of the ground floor, including the small but efficiently laid-out open kitchen. Most of the other seats in the house also have good views of the room.

That is not to say this is a massive expanse of space. Rather, the introduction of different levels creates an illusion of more intimate areas, while still accommodating the maximum number of desirable seating options.

“One of the most challenging features was designing the bar,” says Brooks. “We really had minimal clearance around it.” The resulting 24-foot-diameter installation creates a focal point for the room as well as a popular gathering point for customers, who are as eager to see and be seen as they are to dine on the fresh seafood fare. It also doubles as a very tall display area.

“It has the same feel as the fish stall at Pike Place Market [in Seattle],” says Yacoub. Indeed, the bar’s tall centre attractively displays the seafood until it is ready to be prepared. Given that part of the structure’s counterspace doubles as Coast’s in-house sushi bar, the ingredients remain within easy reach of the chefs.

If the bar display is reminiscent of Pike Place Market, then the floor surrounding the bar must be a nod to San Francisco. The mosaic tile floor — the only pattern in the room other than the fishy artwork on one wall — beautifully captures the flavour of the City by the Bay, adding a sense of timelessness to the room in much the same way as the character of San Francisco’s older buildings is retained in the more stylish modern establishments.

“It’s easy to get trite and kitschy when you’re working on a seafood restaurant called Coast,” says Brooks. Subtle references to major West Coast cities, ample displays of seafood and an abstract work of art that looks a lot a school of fish are about as literal as the design gets here. Even the palette is a touch off the obvious, with rich teal hues used, rather than the usual seafoam and watery blues. The result is a design that is likely to age well.

Variations in table size and shape as well as subtle changes in the floor level allow for a variety of seating arrangements on the main level. For example, two rounded booths near the room’s entry are popular gathering spaces for regular clients, while a grouping of small tables on a raised section at the foot of the stairs provides more intimate seating. Individual diners, along with those preferring to be in the centre of the action, will find ample seating at the bar.

The mezzanine level offers even more seating options. A series of oval tables (set for two but large enough for four guests) line the glass railing that overlooks the lower level, enabling diners to see what’s going on throughout the room. A big oval table in the centre of the mezzanine is perfectly suited to accommodating larger groups partaking of a working lunch. Adjacent seating is given a sense of intimacy thanks to the installation of tall glass wine cases that double as privacy screens. More private seating is available in the back room where a pivoting room divider can separate the space into two smaller rooms should the need arise.

At the top of the stairs, the design team created a seating area that is as comfortable as it is inviting. In homage to the Scandinavian/mid-century esthetic that permeated the Yaletown incarnation of the restaurant, the walls, raised floor and lowered ceiling of this space are covered in teak, which creates a warm, intimate oasis (or a visual raft in the subtle sea theme, if you want to push the metaphor). Capiz shell “curtains” serve as dividers between the tables (the shells also make an appearance in the lighting fixture above the oval table at the centre of the mezzanine). Though views of the room beyond are not the best from this vantage point, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would feel the need to look beyond this cozy space.

The adjacent O lounge (think eau, get it?) continues the subtle coastal theme. Rectangular light boxes arranged on the ceiling and floor like a forest of kelp (but functioning as lighting fixtures and illuminated bar tables respectively) provide a rich, warm glow through a patterned acrylic material that shimmers like abalone. Double-sided mirrored ovals hang from the ceiling like jellyfish suspended in the sea and float on waves of air provided by the air-conditioning system. Once again, different levels allow for different seating/gathering spaces — more relaxed seating on the soft seating of the lower level, and room for mingling and dancing on the raised area dominated by the light boxes.

The lounge makes the perfect gathering spot for after-dinner drinks or for partying into the night. The flexibility of the space (thanks to those differing floor levels and partitions between tables — and movable partitions in the mezzanine level’s private room) will also make Coast a popular venue for movie wrap parties, 2010 Olympic-related gatherings and other social occasions. As for me, I’ll be hanging out at the seafood bar. CI