Clay Restaurant: Solid Ground

Combining multi-purpose flexibility with a fixed-in-place restaurant aesthetic to increase profits.

Located in the Gardiner Museum’s Terrace Room, Clay Restaurant is open for lunch during the day, flipping to event service on evenings and weekends.

Across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum in downtown Toronto sits the Gardiner Museum of Ceramic Art. Certain key things are known about this institution: the outside was re-done by KPMB Architects in 2006, and the inside is full of Meissen, Du Paquier and Hausmaler porcelain art collections (among many other treasures). But what is relatively and surprisingly unknown is its Clay Restaurant. Seemingly stuck with serving elderly lunch patrons or people attending private catered events, Toronto-based Denizens of Design was tapped with improving that situation.

Taking on the 4,000-sq.-ft. project in 2018, owner and principal Dyonne Fashina first began incorporating the elemental nature of the museum’s identity. “As a ceramics museum, the Gardiner offered such a rich story,” she says. “Its pieces are essentially made of earth, water and fire. That’s such an inspiring place to start.” But Denizens needed to do more than just refresh the look: they needed to inject functionality and profitability into a stagnating space. This was done by analyzing the behaviours and needs of, and then directly engaging with, the museum’s new hospitality partner, The Food Dudes, who asked for a space that can easily convert between daytime restaurant service and evening events, while keeping the existing “regulars” happy.

Adaptable furniture and flexible layouts facilitate smooth transitions from restaurant service to special events, creating a remarkably versatile venue.

A key move was to invest in new set-up/tear-down friendly furniture that not only established the aesthetic but also created an opportunity to take that revenue stream away from third-party rental companies and funnel it back into the museum. “We essentially created a space with furnishings that required fewer outside vendors to support major events, which translated directly into profit for our client” said Fashina. Modularity and compactness were key considerations due to the strict one-hour conversion timeframe: for example, since existing storage is limited, locking storage solutions were integrated into the bar millwork.

In addition to increased profitability for the Gardiner, the new design has scooped up industry awards this year as well, including an Innovation in Hospitality Design Award of Merit at the IDC Value of Design Awards, and an ARIDO Award of Merit in the Restaurant/Bar category.

Design cues are taken from the building’s architectural elements creating harmony within the space. Inspiration is derived from its vast collection of ceramic art and the properties and processes of clay and clay-making.

Photography by Larissa Issler Photography