When Kin Khao’s Pim Techamuanvivit and the team at San Francisco’s Lundberg Design got their first look at the spot that would become Nari, her next restaurant, they realized that the job would be just as much about taking things away as it would be about making additions. Techamuanvivit’s goal was to create a space that invokes the spirit of a greenhouse in Thailand, and the room was anything but. A carpeted space inside Japantown’s Hotel Kabuki with low ceilings and little natural light, it’s a room that was so different than how Nari — winner of Eater SF’s Design of the Year for 2019 — looks now that “many people don’t even recognize” the restaurant, Lundberg’s Caroline Nassif tells Eater SF.
The carpet, of course, came up, leaving behind a “gorgeous” cement floor that “only had to be polished and sealed,” Nassif, the lead on the design project, says. The drop ceiling (think standard acoustic tiles like the kind Judd Nelson falls through in The Breakfast Club) were ripped out to expose gleaming ductwork and pipes. And the baffling around the room’s concrete support columns was stripped away, revealing a curving, fluted element at the top of each, something that “we didn’t even know was there,” Nassif says.
Then there were the windows. Two sides of the restaurant — east, where it faces the rest of Japantown, and north, where it faces Post Street, have mid-wall to near-ceiling windows that its previous occupant had covered. Down those covers went, and the restaurant was filled with light.
It’s that light that makes it a perfect place for plants, which can be found all over the place. Gardenista’s Lana Pappas chose and maintains the greenery that adorns the space, and, yes, it’s all real (and spectacular). There are plants in drain-engineered pots, ferns extending from columns, and planter boxes all along the windows intended, as the greenery continues to grow, to create a “3D screen of plants,” Nassif says, a way to keep diners on the Post Street side from feeling like they’re in a fishbowl.
The plants are natural by definition, but the wooded theme continues with the teak planks used to line the staircase and banquette loft area, as well as provide accents throughout the dining room. The wood is “hundreds of years old,” Nassif says, reclaimed by Bear Wood Co.’s Shep Campbell from homes in Thailand that were being demolished. The multi-centenarian wood is even used to line a dining area in the back of the restaurant, a low-ceilinged spot with a view of the kitchen.
The seats of the dining room booths are also made of the same teak, curved spots that, with their individual lamps, are intended to feel like “mini-living rooms,” Nassif says. The backs of the booths are upholstered in Thai fabrics (from venerable textile company Jim Thompson) that provide a bit of color in the green-and-neutral space. The wooden-topped tables are custom made by Lundberg (the Dogpatch design studio has its own fabrication shop) out of hardwood flooring, a decision made for the sake of durability. Each one has a different swirling pattern intended, Nassif says, to evoke how numerals are written in Thai.
The upstairs bar area has a different feel, less airy nature zone and more mid-century club. Slats line the ceiling, which not only looks ring-a-ding cool but hides a layer of acoustic tile and the less glamorous infrastructural pipes and wires one expects at the bottom floor of a hotel. Banquettes — again with that Thai fabric, but in even more colors — line one wall, and the hanging art is all colorful butterflies laid over stock market headlines and ticker notations, another effort to marry the modern day with natural splendor.
At the far end of the bar there’s a teak-walled private room that’s sectioned off by a set of traditional Thai folding doors. They’re funky, with unmatched panes of glass, but slide smoothly along a track. Past the door is a long set of tables that also bears the patterns from downstairs, which, when pushed together, flows through the room. It’s an intimate room yet bright room equally fit for big business or a big birthday.
When a large space is separated into vignettes the way Nari is, the risk is always that the venue will start to feel like a rabbit warren or an antique mall riddled with separate vendor spaces. But by keeping focus on Techamuanvivit’s mandate that the space strike certain notes without being too on-the-nose about it, Nari manages to feel varied and cohesive at once — not unlike the greenhouse it’s intended to evoke.