Going out to dinner is usually all about the food.
“Should I have the chicken or the fish?”
“We’ll have the chocolate cake — four forks please.”
But new pop-up design installations in Downtown Crossing, running through Nov. 11, are trying to get diners to look up from their plates. At Mast’, guests can watch a live feed of cooks working in the kitchen and talk to them while they prepare the food. At Legal Crossing, diners will be able to see people on the street peering in at them through a peephole.
The “Design for Dining” project, put on by the nonprofit Design Museum Boston, features a special table at each of seven featured restaurants, created pro bono by seven local design firms. In some cases, diners at these tables will be able to order from a special menu. Jm Curley is serving hot dogs topped with creamed corn and fried macaroni — slathered in ketchup and served on metal trays, prison-style — in honor of the convicted felon and four-term Boston mayor the restaurant is named for.
“Design is so ubiquitous that it’s very easy to ignore,” said Design Museum founder Sam Aquillano, 32. “You can actually go eat at these tables and have basically a new experience.” Here’s a look at some of the more playful tables.
Silvertone Bar & Grill
DESIGNER: Silverman Trykowski Associates
The walls of this retro subterranean hot spot are covered with photos of the staff’s families and friends, so designer Felice Silverman decided to turn her firm’s table into a photo booth of sorts. When guests order a bourbon and prosecco “photobomb” cocktail, the wait staff will take their picture with a digital Polaroid camera, and the photos can be placed in frames installed along the railing and column beside the table. Overhead, a 4- by 7-foot reflective canvas mirror encouraged these diners (above) to look up and take a selfie with their phones. “It’s a little bit distorted,” Silverman said. “But it kind of adds to the spirit.”
The owners wanted a chef’s table, but the restaurant’s setup made it impossible for diners to see into the kitchen, so the designers went high-tech. They rigged up a Wi-Fi camera that shows the cooks preparing dishes for the table’s $160 tasting menu, projected on the wall with a modified Victorian projector (above, being adjusted by executive chef Francesco Gragiulli). The steampunk vibe — a mixture of old-world design and modern technology — continues with a robot statue and ray guns on the wall. The whole operation is wired for two-way communication. The chef is into the idea, but if diners get too demanding, owner John DeSimone warned, “He’ll just press off.”
Designer: Bergmeyer Associates
Downtown Crossing’s past plays into Legal’s titillating table, with a nod to the strip clubs and peep shows that once lined the former red-light district. High-backed booths surround a table that slowly changes color from amber to crimson during a Chinese-inspired meal, and the banquettes are upholstered with animal hides. “As close as we could get to skin,” said architect Matt Hyatt. But the key is the peephole. Inspired by the old stores with blacked-out windows, designers created an opening that lets people on the street (like Mareatte Vreugdenhil, at right) peek at diners in the booth — but also turns the tables by letting guests see the voyeur. There is a privacy curtain, Hyatt said, “for people who are uncomfortable being spied on.”
Sip Wine Bar and Kitchen
DESIGNER: Gate 3 Design
Before the small private dining area was transformed, orange vinyl cushions lining the walls gave the nook a “padded room” feel, said Fritz Klaetke, design director at Visual Dialogue, which contributed to the project. The team replaced the cushions with reclaimed oak paneling, which it extended to an adjoining wall in the main dining room, and installed a 14-foot-tall photograph of a Tuscan vineyard on the back wall. At first, owner Chris Damian was worried the new design would give the place a “1970s Italian” feel, but he ended up liking it so much he plans to keep the room intact after the installation ends.
Diners are typically relegated to talking to the people next to or across from them. Here, the curvy table design plays with that concept, allowing people to sit at angles that encourage diagonal conversations. On both sides of the table, situated next to floor-to-ceiling windows, red steel frames hang from the ceiling. For the first few weeks, they’re empty. In later weeks, they’ll be filled with transparent screens, followed by more opaque ones. “Dining out is a very social thing and encompasses both the people you are at the table with and the people around you,” said designer Christina Marsh. The intent, she said, is to get diners to see their surroundings in a new way.